SPRINGFIELD — When Gov. Pat Quinn tried to impose his last-minute restrictions on Illinois’ new concealed-carry gun law, he spent days rallying support in Chicago neighborhoods with stops at a West Side church, a community center and even historic Wrigley Field.
But that conspicuous, nearly sole focus on Chicago — highlighting the city’s gun violence problem — added to long-standing grievances across the rest of Illinois about living under Chicago governors whose interests and attention don’t always reach statewide. While the divide isn’t new, the gun debate has triggered buzz among downstate Democrats about finding their own candidate to compete against Quinn and other Chicago Democrats already lining up for governor in 2014.
Preliminary talks have taken place about who might be interested or a good candidate, even as non-Chicago Democrats acknowledge they would face a disadvantage in fundraising, media exposure and possibly name recognition.
“I just want someone who does not forget about southern Illinois,” said Alice Harris, the Democratic Party chairman in Jefferson County, east of St. Louis. She said the concealed carry debate, in which Chicago’s gun-control advocates faced off with gun rights supporters elsewhere, likely widened the divide. “Seems like all the governors forget about southern Illinois.”
Harris said she hadn’t seen Quinn in her territory in months, a complaint often lodged against his predecessor, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, also from Chicago.
Gun control is just one of the issues dividing the state’s metropolis and more conservative urban and rural areas. Others include support for gay marriage, school funding — with downstate residents claiming Chicago gets an unfair advantage — and prison closures.
Chicago Democrats now control the governor’s office, both chambers of the Legislature, and the attorney general and secretary of state offices. The metropolitan area — including fast-growing surrounding counties — is not only the state’s economic engine but a critical source of votes. Quinn narrowly won office over Republican state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington in 2010 while carrying majorities only in Cook County and three of Illinois’ 102 counties.
Still, Chicago candidates frequently appeal to downstate audiences. One potential Quinn challenger, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, from Chicago, deals with downstate issues in her job. Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, the brother and son of two longtime Chicago mayors, has made two trips through central and southern Illinois, and last week posted a Twitter picture of his stop at a Belleville pie shop where he sampled peach.
Quinn rejects the idea that he’s ignored the rest of the state. His spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, said he’s been tied up in Springfield but plans a downstate trip soon and is always working on job creation and other projects that benefit all of Illinois.
“He’s fighting every bit as hard for southern Illinois as he is the rest of the state,” she said, contending his gun-control stance isn’t just about Chicago. “Keeping the people of Illinois safe is not a regional issue.”
But the concerns ramped up when backers of the state’s new gun legislation accused him of pandering to Chicago voters in promoting his gun-control agenda in the city. He didn’t touch on the strong gun-rights sentiment across the rest of the state.
Lawmakers overrode Quinn’s proposed changes to the new gun law to meet a July 9 deadline from a federal appeals court for Illinois to drop a last-in-the-nation ban on concealed carry. It came on the same day that legislators missed the latest of Quinn’s many deadlines for fixing Illinois’ pension crisis.
“He’s looking really weak right now,” said state Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Harrisburg Democrat, sponsor of the gun legislation and among those promoting the idea of a Democratic challenger from outside Chicago. “There’s going to be a lot of people trying to jump in to the governor’s race.”
One thought is that a downstate candidate could have a chance if two or three Chicago Democrats split the primary vote in the Chicago area.
However, any downstate candidate faces immense challenges. With less than a year before the March primary, time is running out to fundraise and organize. The first day to circulate petitions to gather required signatures of support is Sept. 3.
“I don’t envision that a downstate candidate is going to crack the monolithic wall of Cook County, and that’s where the votes are,” said Paul Wieck, chairman of the Coles County Democratic Party. “Not a ton of downstate industry and millionaires are supporting downstate Democrats.”
No one knows that better than Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University and a former congressman and state senator who put up a strong challenge but lost the governor’s race to Republican George Ryan of Kankakee in 1998. Poshard, who says he wouldn’t be interested in another run, maintains that the biggest challenge is raising money.
“I tried it once and I spent all my time trying to raise money and go to one financial thing after another,” he said.
Poshard added that a serious candidate would have to be pro-abortion rights and anti-gun to get necessary Chicago area votes, and such a person, with sufficient statewide name recognition, isn’t easy to find.
In preliminary discussions, among the potential names mentioned as a 2014 candidate is state Sen. Michael Frerichs, a Champaign Democrat, who’s preparing a bid for state treasurer. Phelps, who raised his profile during the guns debate, said he isn’t interested in higher office right now but didn’t fully rule out the possibility.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, a Carbondale resident who showed she can win statewide support, says she’s seeking higher office, but most likely comptroller or attorney general. Her decision may rest on whether Madigan ultimately decides to run for governor.
State Sen. John Sullivan of Rushville, the assistant Senate majority leader, says he’s been asked about the possibility of a candidacy but wants to stay where he is.
“There’s been a little bit of discussion on that subject,” he said. “The gun issue has heightened that discussion.”