Last summer, former Illinois state Treasurer Pat Quinn took a 167-mile stroll across the state of Illinois to promote an amendment to the state Constitution that would establish the right of every individual in the state to quality health care.
Quinn, a lawyer by training and rabblerouser by inclination, was accompanied by Dr. Quentin Young, a Chicago physician who has for many years been one of the nation's leading advocates for single-payer health care. Along the route, they were joined by Granny D, the 92-year-old who walked across the U.S. to promote campaign finance reform.
The walk got some publicity for a great cause and helped Quinn and Young shed a few pounds. But it did not attract many Illinois politicians - not even leading liberal Democrats - to the "health care for all" movement Quinn and Young sought to jump-start.
Now, however, it appears that one of the state's leading political figures could be a big backer of the amendment campaign - along with a host of other progressive reforms that mainstream Democrats have tended to shy away from in recent years.
In December, as the filing deadline for state elections approached, Quinn surprised everyone by jumping into the contest for lieutenant governor. Quinn was not exactly a welcome entrant in the Democratic primary. Though he had served a term as treasurer in the early 1990s, he had been out of office for the better part of a decade. Besides, he had a reputation as a maverick, and party leaders openly expressed concern that Quinn would not be an obedient member of the Democratic ticket or of a new Democratic administration.
Quinn's two main opponents in the primary went out of their way to portray themselves as party loyalists who would march "in sync" with the gubernatorial nominee.
"Can Quinn toe party line?" asked a Chicago Sun-Times headline. Quinn did little to calm the fears, declaring that he saw the state's No. 2 job as "a very good office to champion the interests of people who don't have lobbyists and connections." Recalling campaigns he has led to block utility rate hikes, reform the state Legislature, impose tougher ethics regulations and protect consumers, Quinn declared, "I can holler pretty well, and I think that's part of the job description I would give to lieutenant governor."
Predictably, key party and labor endorsements went to the other candidates. So did the campaign contributions, which meant that Quinn's campaign against two better-funded Democrats was long on message but short on cash. When Democrats chose their candidate in Tuesday's primary, however, Quinn was the easy victor.
He won running on a progressive agenda that owed more to William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt than Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Promising to use the office as a bully pulpit for economic and ethics reforms, Quinn signaled his sentiments by blistering Republican Gov. George Ryan for seeking to balance the state's budget with cuts in human service programs.
As an alternative, Quinn called for freezing the pay of elected officials and eliminating all tax breaks that benefit large corporations. "George Ryan's budget cuts are unfair, unnecessary and uncaring. Illinois taxpayers should not let Ryan get away with closing down health and education programs for vulnerable citizens who aren't big campaign donors," hollered Quinn.
At a time when conservatives in Washington and governors across the country are talking about balancing budgets on the backs of those who cannot afford to write big campaign checks, Quinn's against-the-odds win illustrates the power of a Democratic message that trades the politics of compromise for a belligerent populism that allows people to believe anew in the promise of health care for all, fair tax policies and government that serves public interests as opposed to special interests.