CHICAGO – When Gov. Pat Quinn grew angry that lawmakers hadn’t found a way to fix Illinois’ pension crisis, he eliminated their salaries. But these days the only elected official going without pay is the governor himself.
Even after a judge ruled it unconstitutional for Quinn to hold legislators’ monthly pay, the Chicago Democrat has vowed that he won’t collect his own paycheck until the pension problem is solved. So far, that means three paychecks totaling more than $44,000 have piled up in Quinn’s name at the state comptroller’s office.
Quinn says he will appeal the judge’s ruling on the salary withholding.
Quinn’s critics call it a populist stunt in the midst of his 2014 re-election campaign, at a time when the governor’s approval rating is among the lowest of any governor in the country and the state’s fiscal problems have yet to be solved. But supporters say he is leading by example at a difficult economic time.
If lawmakers don’t act soon on pensions, the 64-year-old Chicagoan – whose $177,000 annual check makes up almost all of his reported income – could find himself in a tight spot. But so far, Quinn shrugs off the hardship, saying simply that he is managing.
Those close to him say he should fare fine, for now, because he is as frugal as he has always boasted. He flashes his Super 8 preferred customer hotel card, lives in a modest neighborhood and at least outwardly shows limited interest in finery.
“He doesn’t have any luxuries. He doesn’t drink very much. He doesn’t stay in fancy hotels,” said Quentin Young, Quinn’s former doctor and a friend who’s served on state boards.
Still, Quinn’s move has elicited eye rolls, especially from his potential 2014 GOP challengers. They argue that Quinn should be doing more to force a pension solution rather than just demanding that the Democratic-led Legislature present him with something he can sign.
“Pat Quinn has always been a populist. That is right out of his playbook,” said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, one of four candidates in the Republican gubernatorial primary. “But what is symbolic is that Pat’s not getting a paycheck because he has never put forth a pension plan or led his own party.”
A pension panel has been meeting to find a solution to the nearly $100 billion unfunded liability after the House and Senate deadlocked earlier this year.
Quinn’s friends and aides say he doesn’t have many expenses. He doesn’t own a flashy wardrobe and rotates the same half dozen ties at public events, aides say. His dining out during the day often includes McDonald’s. He goes on dates with his longtime girlfriend, gave about $7,500 to charity last year and has season tickets to the White Sox, but points out that they’re upper deck seats. The divorced father of two adults lives alone.
The governor learned to make do with what he has from his parents, a school secretary and Catholic cemetery manager who lived through the Great Depression, said Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson. His hobbies – reading at home, watching sports, walking – don’t cost much.
“He’s never played polo and doesn’t intend to start,” Anderson said. “How can anyone in Springfield justify a paycheck when job 1 is not done?”
Peter Newell, who worked for Quinn while he was lieutenant governor, said Quinn would “have the Super 8 [phone] number memorized.” Newell said his time with Quinn has made doing business cheaply “engrained in my DNA.”
When Quinn first took office in 2009 after his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, was expelled and later sentenced to prison for corruption charges, Quinn didn’t order new stationery. He just crossed out Blagojevich’s name on letterhead and business cards, said David Kolata, the head of Citizens Utility Board, which Quinn helped found.
Some of Quinn’s financial records – including how much he has in the bank – aren’t publicly available. But public documents paint a picture of a modest man. His tax returns – which he does himself in pen – show that almost all his income came from his governor’s salary.
“Pat has always been frugal. He lives like a monk,” said Freeport Mayor Jim Gitz, who worked with Quinn in the 1970s as an aide to former Gov. Dan Walker. “He’s a saver.”
He bought his 1,600-square-foot blond brick home on Chicago’s west side in 1983 for $78,000 and prefers it to the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. He’s since refinanced half a dozen times, and he paid about $4,000 in property taxes last year.
But even some of those who praise Quinn’s frugality question his sacrifice.
“That’s an admirable stance, and it demonstrates his personal commitment,” said Democratic state Sen. Bill Cunningham, a former Quinn aide who was among lawmakers who lived without a paycheck for two months after Quinn’s decision. “I don’t know that it moves us any closer [to pension reform].”