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Whether personal or philosophical, Quinn and Rahm lock horns on term limits

Former Gov. Pat Quinn (right) defends the validity of signatures on his petitions seeking a binding referendum to set term limits on Chicago mayors.| Mark Brown / Sun-Times

For two weeks now, the high-stakes battle over whether to place term limits on Chicago mayors has been fought primarily in a windowless conference room on the basement level of the Cook County Administration Building.

It’s a dreary place. No talking on cell phones. No eating or drinking allowed.

For hour after hour, Chicago Board of Election Commissioner employees have presided over the adversarial process of determining the validity of 87,355 signatures submitted on behalf of voters seeking a binding referendum that would limit the mayor of Chicago to two four-year terms.

The work is tedious.

Each election board worker sits in front of a laptop, flanked by a referendum supporter at one elbow and an opponent on the other and makes a ruling on every name called into question.

Is the person whose name appears on the petition registered to vote at the address listed? Is that their signature?


And for most of that time, Pat Quinn, the former governor of Illinois, has sat right there with them, sleeves rolled up, arguing to preserve each signature submitted on behalf of his Take Charge Chicago group.

The opponents, organized by allies of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the person who would be most immediately affected by the imposition of term limits, might say this is another indication of what they see as Quinn’s obsession.

“It’s just Pat trying to be vindictive toward Rahm,” said Pete Giangreco, a spokesman for Emanuel’s political operation. “It’s a personal thing between Pat and Rahm.

“He’s not targeting the office. He’s targeting the individual,” Giangreco said, noting the petition language was drawn up specifically to apply to Emanuel. “This is not a guy who is doing this because it’s a cause he believes in.”

As evidence, he cites a 2003 Sun-Times article in which Quinn was quoted as saying he saw no need for term limits in Chicago, citing the popularity of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley as the reason.

“He has done a great job as mayor. People like him, they vote for him, and they don’t see a need for it,” Quinn told the paper at the time.

Quinn, who has spent his adult lifetime advocating for voter initiatives and occasionally on behalf of term limits, scoffed at the notion that his current quest is driven by a grudge against Emanuel.

“They’d better look at the last 42 years,” Quinn said. “I believe in initiatives. I believe in a two-term limit for executive officials.”

To the extent he’s changed his views on mayoral term limits, Quinn attributes that to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case that removed many restrictions on campaign fundraising. He said he believes term limits are necessary for all executive officials to offset the fundraising advantage of incumbents.

For the 69-year-old Quinn, this petition battle is very much where he came in. As a young man fresh out of law school nearly four decades ago, he rocked the Illinois political establishment with his Cutback Amendment initiative that reduced the size of the state Legislature.

If Quinn wasn’t angry with Emanuel previously, he certainly is now after two weeks in that windowless room. He says the mayor should drop his challenge to placing the referendum on the November ballot and instead try to argue the merits of term limits.

I’m not a fan of term limits. If Quinn’s proposal makes the ballot, I’d probably vote against it. It seems to me that Chicago voters are going to have every opportunity to term-limit Emanuel in 2019 by electing someone else, if that’s what they want.

But I also know that voters like term limits, and they at least deserve an opportunity to vote on the issue when someone has gone to the extreme effort of collecting the necessary tens of thousands of signatures to put the matter before them.

In addition, the City Council shouldn’t be allowed to push such a referendum off the ballot by offering up the usual batch of three useless advisory referenda.

That’s just my opinion. Illinois law might hold otherwise, as Emanuel’s lawyers are arguing, in which case we need to change that law, along with some officeholders.