At 4:52 p.m. yesterday, the Illinois Senate voted unanimously to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office, following his earlier impeachment by the Illinois House. Seven minutes later they voted to ban him from ever holding any future public office in Illinois. And by 5:30, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn had been formally sworn in as our new governor.

(This neatly demonstrated just what the U.S. Congress should have done with George W. Bush years ago, when the news of his illegal wiretapping program broke… but spilt milk and all that.)

Blago himself appeared during the late morning for an excruciating-to-hear “closing statement” in the trial he had otherwise eschewed, playing to the cameras as usual with what amounted to a campaign-style speech, complaining about the Senate’s procedures but offering no evidence nor submitting himself to cross-examination. His public tone was, needless to say, markedly different from the private one captured by the FBI’s wiretaps. At one point he actually said to the assembled legislators that the charges against him were “just politics”—that “you guys all know what it’s like out there when you’re running an election.” He insisted (again contra the tapes) that his ends were to serve the public, and the means didn’t matter.

Through it all, he demonstrated a profound misunderstanding of what it means to govern in a free country. Blago (not unlike Bush) seems to think it means being a ruler. What’s really important, and what he utterly failed at, is being a leader.

This presents a chance for Illinois to stop being a national political joke, one hopes, and perhaps more importantly to crawl out of its dismal fiscal and political quagmire. In a sense, it’s a microcosm of what the entire country is trying to do. The situation into which Pat Quinn is stepping is drastically unenviable, but I have some hope that he may be up to the task of actual leadership.

I’ve thought for six years now that Quinn would have been a better governor than the guy in the head office, after all. He’s a longtime political activist and reformer (some would say gadfly), an anomaly in terms of being genuinely serious about personal integrity and public service. I haven’t agreed with everything he’s ever done, but he’s usually at least aiming in the right direction.

The only way he ever became Lt. Governor in the first place is due to Illinois’ unusual nominating process, where the candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor run independently in the primaries, and the latter is understood to be essentially a desk-filling position to an extent that makes the Vice-Presidency look important and influential. Blagojevich hadn’t even spoken to him in over a year, and even when the succession became virtually a fait accompli he reportedly blocked his staff from sharing any budget data or other information with Quinn until very recent days.

What this means, though, is that he’s entirely untainted by any connection to Blagojevich or his abysmal relations with the legislature, and moreover isn’t burdened by any lingering campaign promises nor beholden to any political kingmakers. He can take a genuinely fresh approach to the state’s problems, and that’s exactly what we need right now. First and foremost is the state’s ongoing structural deficit [.pdf], taking in less money than it spends year after year… largely due to Illinois having an income tax that’s both flat (i.e., regressive [.pdf]) and low (only three percent). Past governors have considered an income tax increase a political third rail, and it would surely be less than popular, but if ever there were a chief executive and a fiscal situation that might get one passed, this is it.

And that’s only the beginning of the challenges Quinn faces. Official corruption is, obviously, another one; looking to the future, some constraints on state-level political contributions would be invaluable. But he really does seem to be the right man for the job. As Sun-Times News Group reporter Phil Kadner put it three weeks ago,

Quinn, 60, the lieutenant governor, has spent a lifetime as a political outsider in a state where being an insider means everything. He has been a relentless campaigner for ethics reform and a critic of pay-to-play politics.

And Quinn is an idea man. The guy has 1,001 ideas about everything from energy conservation to encouraging government whistle-blowers to amending the Illinois Constitution and raising revenue for the state. …

Quinn has gained a reputation as a tireless worker who runs his staff ragged whenever he’s been in public office. A graduate of Northwestern University Law School, he holds an international economics degree from Georgetown University.

…Quinn will have to work with people who hate his guts, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose daughter may run for governor in 2010.

But I hope he doesn’t try too hard to be “one of the boys.”…

This is Charlie Brown’s chance to be the hero. You gotta root for the guy.

I wish him luck.

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One Response to “Blago goes, and Quinn is in”
  1. phredd says:

    Well! I didn’t really know much about Quinn, but I was pretty sure the Republican that the BBC was giving airtime to slag him and paint him with Blago’s taint was full of it. I had no idea just how full of it he was.

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