A Not-So-Accidental Governor

kornacki 17 A Not So Accidental GovernorPat Quinn’s moment is about to arrive – finally. Illinois’ lieutenant governor, who has toiled for decades in the less visible rungs of state politics, will ascend to the state’s top job whenever Rod Blagojevich steps down or is dragged from it. (Does anyone seriously believe that Blagojevich, arrested by federal agents before Christmas on suspicion of massive corruption, will actually survive the final two years of his term?)

Making his second national television appearance in three weeks, the 60-year-old Quinn forecasted on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Blagojevich, his sometime rival over the years, will be impeached and convicted by the Illinois legislature before Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday.

There’s really no reason to doubt Quinn’s assessment, given Blagojevich’s legal position and the complete lack of public sympathy for his plight. The only question seems to be whether the governor will tough it out all the way through an impeachment inquiry or fall on his sword before he’s officially expelled from office.

Either way, the suddenly conspicuous Quinn, whose resume includes stints as state treasurer and commissioner of a county tax board and several losing bids for statewide office, will soon become the governor of the fifth-largest state in the nation – a promotion that will give him an enormous leg-up heading into 2010, when he’ll have the opportunity to win election to a full four-year term.

In the annals of American politics, Quinn’s story is hardly unique. Through sudden resignations, deaths and other unforeseen circumstances, previously anonymous men and women like Quinn have been catapulted to political stardom, embraced by a public that previously didn’t even know they existed. How exactly Quinn’s story will play out, no one can say for certain. But history offers some clues.

Generally, accidental governors are well-received by the public, although there are exceptions (like Jane Swift in Massachusetts, who took over for Paul Cellucci in 2001 and found herself the least popular politician in the state within months). Mostly, they are given an initial honeymoon by the public, especially if they take over under less-than-ideal circumstances – like, say, after scandal forces the previous governor out. Textbook examples of this can be found in New Jersey, where state Senate President Dick Codey amassed an 80 percent approval rating less than a year after following Jim McGreevey, and in Connecticut, where Jodi Rell attained similar numbers (and won election in 2006 with 65 percent of the vote) after John Rowland was carted off to prison.

And once accidental governors are in office, the high profile of their position affords them opportunities to build goodwill with the public that simply don’t exist in other elected positions. This is how Richard Schweiker, nine months after succeeding Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania, suddenly became the most popular man in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2002, thanks to his highly visible role during a mining rescue operation that gripped his state and the nation.

What accidental governors choose to do with their newfound prominence and popularity varies and generally depends on how far their ambitions stretch.

For instance, an acting governor may only have been in position to succeed to the governorship because he or she really didn’t have much ambition and had been willing in the first place to settle for an anonymous second-tier office like lieutenant governor. Without fate stepping in, a politician like this could easily have finished out his or her career without reaching for a major office. These acting governors might aim to hang on to their governorships for a full term or two, but they don’t see their positions as potential stepping-stones to the national stage. Rell in Connecticut, who sought and won a full term but has shown no interest in climbing higher, and Codey in New Jersey, who wanted to seek a full term but grudgingly yielded to Jon Corzine, are cut from this cloth.

Others, though, see in their unexpected promotions a potential entrée into national politics, one that otherwise might never have materialized. Just consider the cases of Mike Huckabee, Howard Dean and Bruce Babbitt, all accidental governors who found themselves running for president within a decade of taking office.

Huckabee, unlike Rell and Codey, was clearly ambitious when he took over in Arkansas from Jim Guy Tucker, who was convicted of arranging a fraudulent loan in connection with Whitewater, in the summer of 1996. Huckabee, who was elected lieutenant governor in a 1993 special election, had challenged Senator Dale Bumpers in 1992 (losing by 20 points) and had already secured the G.O.P. nod to run against Senator David Pryor in 1996 when Tucker announced his resignation. With the governorship in his grasp, Huckabee no longer needed the Senate: He had the ticket to national visibility that he craved. After two full terms, he set off to seek the 2008 G.O.P. nod, and now he’s among the front-runners for 2012.

Dean and Babbitt, by contrast, only seemed to develop national ambitions after serving as governor for a few years.

Dean, Vermont’s part-time lieutenant governor when Governor Richard Snelling dropped dead from a heart attack in 1991, slowly built a national name for himself (among think tank-types, if not the masses) during the ‘90s, thanks mainly to his work on health care and his stint as chairman of the National Governor’s Association. His presidential campaign in 2004 was fueled not by anything he did as governor, but by his strident opposition to the Iraq war. But without the title of “governor,” he wouldn’t have been a credible candidate.

Babbitt was Arizona’s 39-year-old attorney general when a series of flukes turned him into the governor in 1978. First came Governor Raul Castro’s resignation in late 1977 to become Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to Argentina. Then, Castro’s successor, 13-term secretary of state Wesley Bolin, died less than five months after taking over. That left Babbitt in charge of the state. He won full terms in 1978 and 1982, building an image as a moderate and environmentalist, and sought the 1988 Democratic nomination. The press loved him for his intellect, self-deprecation, and complete lack of charisma, but he failed miserably in Iowa and New Hampshire. He went on to serve as Bill Clinton’s Interior secretary and was very nearly tapped by Clinton in 1993 to serve on the Supreme Court.

It’s tough to tell where Quinn falls on the spectrum of ambition. He clearly has more than Rell and Codey; he ran for the Senate in 1996 and has aggressively sought publicity for various good government initiatives, even adopting to Chuck Schumer’s famous Sunday press conference habit. But he’s also 60 years old. There probably isn’t much time for him to climb much higher; Huckabee, Dean and Babbitt were all under 43 when they got their big breaks.

Still, before Blagojevich was arrested, Quinn was a long-shot to rise much higher in politics. Now, he’s probably the favorite to win a full term as governor in 2010.