SPRINGFIELD — Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn on Thursday either played a political master shot or announced a bid to rob Republicans blind.
Which one largely depends one’s political viewpoint, analysts said.
Quinn ordered legislators back to Springfield for a Jan. 8 special session to authorize a 2016 general election to fill the office of state comptroller.
“Nobody but Judy Baar Topinka was elected to do this job. That’s why it’s so important that voters have the soonest possible opportunity to elect their comptroller,” the governor said in a news release. “Holding a special election is the right thing to do.”
Topinka, 70, the Riverside Republican incumbent and November winner of another four-year term, died suddenly last week after suffering a stroke.
Since then, Quinn, who has less than a month in office, and Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner have sparred over which man should name the replacement, how and for how long.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, D-Chicago, issued her opinion. Essentially, she said Quinn could appoint an interim comptroller, but Rauner would be free after his Jan. 12 inauguration to appoint a person to serve out Topinka’s term.
However, just because Rauner could do that, it doesn’t mean he should, she said.
Instead, the attorney general suggested a 2016 special election, citing “a fundamental principle in a democracy that the people should elect the officers who represent them.”
Will the Democratic-controlled Legislature, the body that would have to enable a 2016 election for comptroller, heed Quinn’s request?
Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he didn’t want to predict an outcome of a special session, but added House Democrats view the disagreement as an “executive matter,” and are “hopeful the governor and governor-elect come to a sensible solution.”
Senate Democrats seemed more inclined to line up with Quinn.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, agrees a special session is appropriate and the voters should elect their comptroller in 2016, said Rikeesha Phelon, spokeswoman for Cullerton.
Said Rauner’s team, “There is a real likelihood that a statute mandating a special election would violate the constitution and result in costly litigation and uncertainty for Illinois taxpayers.
“The only route to enact a special election for a statewide officeholder that is absolutely consistent with the (Illinois) constitution is passing a constitutional amendment. Additionally, any major change like this should apply to all future vacancies and be carefully and thoughtfully discussed — not rushed through in a last-minute special session that would look overtly political.”
House and Senate Republicans, led by Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs and Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont, respectively, issued a joint statement:
“The Illinois Constitution requires the Governor-elect to appoint a new comptroller to a four-year term. A partisan and constitutionally dubious eleventh-hour law would face a certain legal challenge and force the people of Illinois to endure a protracted and legal battle that no one wants.”
“Are we really surprised there’s politics in Springfield?” asked David Yepsen, a longtime political analyst and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.
If Cullerton and Michael Madigan do go along with Quinn and immediately oppose the man who will be governor for at least the next four years, that may not bode well for a bipartisan relationship, Yepsen pointed out.
Political scientist Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield, said Quinn tossed out a proposal that is sellable as pro-election, pro-voter and in line with popular opinion.
On the other hand, he said, opponents can paint Quinn as struggling to remain relevant and extending the reach of his governorship beyond its time.
Depending how one wants to spin it, the governor is either making a power play or advancing democracy, Redfield said.
Mark Fitton is a reporter for the Illinois News Network.