Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Pension Reform Likely to Remain an Issue in Governor’s Race

Tueday's pension reform vote in Springfield will resonate as campaign heats up

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How Pensions Will Shape the Election

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As governor, Patrick Quinn has presided over some pretty important changes in Illinois.

Medical marijuana is being legalized.

Beginning in 2014, Illinois will be a concealed carry state.

Starting next year, same sex couples can get married.

And now, pension reform.

Surprisingly, however, none of these changes seems to have rubbed off on Quinn in terms of his popularity, for good or bad. He’s still lingering in the under-40-percent approval ratings area, leaving a slate of four Republican challengers an open field in which to run against him next year.

And, as they do, you can bet Tuesday’s pension reform vote will remain a cudgel for the candidates to beat on Quinn. And themselves.

While all five of the major candidates—Democrat Quinn and the Republicans, state senators Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, state treasurer Dan Rutherford and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner—came down on one side or the other before the vote, it’s Quinn and Rauner who have staked the biggest claim to pension reform’s outcome.

Quinn has essentially tied his governorship to getting something done, saying in 2012 he was “put on earth” to fix the problem.

Forget the fact that in doing so, he has enraged unions across the state, a natural Democratic base of support. And forget, too, the very real possibility the law could fail to survive a tough court challenge on constitutional grounds.

For Quinn, who’s clearly vulnerable in 2014, almost everything rests on the idea that voters believe he was the man who saved the state from pension Armageddon. Unfortunately, that’s not a guaranteed proposition, given how little voters have warmed to him on other issues.

From Rauner, the stakes are different. He’s running an outsider’s campaign, arguing his lack of political history and business experience make him the man to take on entrenched interested in Springfield over such issues as taxes, spending and, yes, pensions.

In fact, he’s made pension reform the centerpiece of his own campaign. Yet, he’s not arguing for getting something done as much as he’s arguing for throwing the whole thing out the window and starting over.

As the pension deal unfolded and ultimately passed into law, he was a vocal critic of the bill, saying it didn't go far enough to fix the state’s pension problems.

As for Rutherford, Dillard and Brady, their challenge is simple: get voters to understand how what happened with pensions Tuesday in Springfield fits into their vision for running the state if elected. And, until then, use it to separate themselves from the Republican pack on an issue many voters will still care about long after the headlines have faded.

In the days ands weeks to come, pension reform and Tuesday’s vote in Springfield will fade into the background a bit, as candidates and events turn voters’ attentions to competing issues like the economy, education, matters of character and more.

For a candidate like Rauner, he’ll want it that way, since in recent days he’s basically looked as an outsider who didn't get listened to as Springfield politicians did what they wanted. And there’s little chance his preferred solution—a 401(k) style private system—is dead in the water.

And Quinn basically needs the narrative around the issue to be one of “Hey—the governor got something done on pensions—he must be a good guy.”

But no issue that inflames such passions or matters to so many people ever completely goes away.

And for those candidates who have staked their campaigns so clearly on such a big issue, few things look so tempting for their opponents to beat them up on, no matter what may have been said in the past.

In the 2014 governor’s race, pension reform isn't done as an issue. No matter how much some people might want to simply move on.

Related Topics Quinn, Rauner, Pensions, Vote, Springfield
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