Before he served six years as the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn (SFS ’71) spent countless hours in the newsroom of The Hoya — then located in the basement of Copley Hall — as its sports editor.
Attending college during the highly political time of the sixties spurred Quinn into politics: In 2002, Quinn was elected lieutenant governor of Illinois and ascended to the state’s highest office in 2009 when former governor Rod Blagojevich was impeached on corruption charges. Entering office in the middle of the Great Recession, Quinn faced a fiscal crisis but still managed to push forward social change, abolishing the death penalty and legalizing gay marriage in Illinois. Quinn lost his re-election bid in 2014 to Republican Bruce Rauner and left office on January 12.
In an exclusive with The Hoya, Quinn reflected on his time as governor, discussed his political future and talked Georgetown basketball. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What stands out to you about your time at Georgetown?
I had some legendary teachers, including Carroll Quigley, and President Clinton was a senior when I was a freshman. He came out to campaign for me both in 2010 and 2014. Every time we would get together, we would talk about Quigley and the School of Foreign Service. This professor — Carroll Quigley was his name — talked about Americans’ preference for the future, trying to help the future, sacrifice some of your present to help others’ futures, so that stuck with me from my time at Georgetown.
Were you always sure you were interested in politics? How did you move from the SFS to domestic politics?
It was a very political time. We had the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement began while we were in college and many other movements; the woman’s movement. I was interested in politics and government. I remember going down one day to the Supreme Court, to hear a case in person. It was a different time security-wise. You could just walk in. I was involved in politics, and I did volunteer for a Congressman named Abner Mikva (D-Ill.). He’d just been elected, and I volunteered in his office for a couple years. It was always interesting, politics, but I had no idea what the future would hold.
You took governorship after Mr. Blagojevich was removed from office. What were the immediate challenges you faced from being thrust into that position?
It was a tough time for the country and for our state, because it was in the depths of the Great Recession. Like every other state, Illinois’ economy was grievously hurt, and the fiscal resources for the state fell off a cliff. We lost about six billion dollars in revenue, and we had to pay for schools and safety.
Blagojevich was impeached, and there was a trial to decide whether he would stay, but he wouldn’t go voluntarily, so it was a hard time economically, fiscally, and Illinois had this cloud over it. I think Blagojevich was on Saturday Night Live for six or seven episodes. Illinois was a laughingstock.
So when the trial occurred, I got sworn in a half hour later, go to the governor’s mansion — Abraham Lincoln had spent some time there — and boom. You’re sleeping in the governor’s mansion.
So that’s Georgetown training. I had a teacher here, a Jesuit named Haughey. I had him freshman year, and he was very big on service. “Power is service.” I can still remember that was one of his points of view, and that’s how I proceeded as governor.
So we had to kind of dig out from this bad situation, this triple crisis, and I think we did pretty well.
Illinois was able to end the death penalty, which our state had lots of problems with innocent people being put on death row because of blatant mistakes in the administration of the death penalty. I signed a bill to establish civil unions in our state, which was a step forward, and I signed the law for marriage equality. We had thousands of people at that bill signing, and I brought up Abraham Lincoln’s desk where he composed his first inaugural address from Springfield.
And there were many other reforms, such as the capital bill, an infrastructure bill of over 30 billion dollars, so we were able to move our state forward.
I wanted to get re-elected, obviously. We lost the election, but I don’t apologize for doing hard things. We passed an income tax increase to pay for the cost of government, and I believe taxes should be based on ability to pay.
I would say again from my time at Georgetown, from the School of Foreign Service, you had to take lots of economics, which I really liked. I had professors here who really stressed fairness and making sure tax systems in particular were not weighted against ordinary people, and those lessons stuck with me.
You took leadership in environmental issues, particularly with support for solar energy. What further legislations and support do you think those sorts of initiatives need and how do states and the federal government work together?
Well, I think the challenge of our time is sustainability: dealing with energy efficiency, renewable energy and dealing with also water conservation.
For six years I think I was the greenest governor in America: we made many, many investments. We had a clean water initiative, we have a renewable portfolio standard, and we did everything we could to really promote those three key areas of efficiency, renewable and water conservation.
I really feel that energy efficient construction is something Georgetown and all universities need to be leaders in. We did a lot of investment in LEED-certified buildings. Our capital bill would only invest in public buildings if they were LEED-certified, and Illinois has more LEED square footage per capita than any state in the Union and we want to keep that going.
There’s so much more to do, but I think that’s something that students today compare to our time. The first earth day was 1970, and I think that’s still a very important issue in the coming campaign for president.
So you talked a little bit about abolishment of the death penalty and legalizing gay marriage. So are there issues that you wish you had taken up during your time in office or do you have any regrets about your time in office?
I think I was disappointed by the whole fairness of the tax system, both at the federal level, but especially at our state. We do not have a progressive income tax. We have an income tax with a flat rate, and that has really been the bane of our state.
We don’t have sufficient revenue to invest in early childhood education and so the last budget I proposed a year ago was designed to really accelerate investment in early childhood and K-12, lots of money for community colleges and then for four-year public universities, but also for scholarships for students to be able to afford to go to high education.
Today it’s much more demanding economically to go to Georgetown or to a public university than it was in our time. You know, I had a lot of loans to go to Georgetown, and I didn’t have a scholarship because Georgetown didn’t have much of an endowment, but I was able to make it with the loans and paid them back over 10 or 15 years. So I really feel that’s a big issue that we have to make sure that no one that has the ability to do college work is denied that opportunity by finance so that’s really something we got to keep striving on.
So what does your political future hold?
You never say never. When you’re governor for six years, people know your name, and I did very well in Chicago and Cook County. Everywhere I go, a restaurant or something, people come up to you. I believe in causes and so I really want to organize a consumer movement that focuses on fairness.
Those are the things I’m interested in whether I’m running for office or in office. Before I was elected or anything, I was always organizing petition drives or referendums. And you know, I want to keep doing that until I pass. You know, my tombstone will be something to do with organizing.
You were sports editor of The Hoya for two years. What stands out about that experience? Your thoughts on men’s basketball today?
Two years as sports editor was pretty long. I wrote a column. In my junior year, Georgetown made the National Invitation Tournament, which at that time was a much bigger deal. I’m going to see another one of my roommates from Long Island — he played for the basketball team. He guarded Pete Maravich, who was a legendary player, averaged 44 a game. We held him to 17. Unfortunately, a few of the other LSU players scored about 30. We lost the game by one or two points. We all took a bus from here to Madison Square Garden. That was a big deal back then.
We still follow Georgetown basketball. In our time, getting to the NIT was a big deal. I think the first year Georgetown made the NCAA was 1975, and a young guy from Wheaton, IL, sunk a shot to get us in the Big Dance. John Thompson, Jr., was a high school coach when I was here, and he didn’t come for two years after I left.
We were around in 1984 when they won it all, and we should have won in 1982. The loss to Villanova was in 1985 — I died that night. This year, I couldn’t figure out how the South Regional was in Portland. We got Eastern Washington, and Utah — we were hitting them the first half, but it just didn’t work out.
This post has been updated.
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