BY DAVE MCKINNEY
Springfield bureau chief
SPRINGFIELD-The GOP converged sedately on the Illinois State fairgrounds Thursday for its annual partisan pep rally, talking up the party’s chances of gaining legislative seats and retaining congressional seats this fall while needling Gov. Pat Quinn for his train wreck of a day on Wednesday.
Republican Day at the fair began in a much more low-adrenaline manner than Governor’s Day Wednesday, which was a vitriolic shout-fest overtaken by angry union protesters who drove Quinn from his party’s pep rally for his push to gut their pensions, close state facilities and lay off thousands of workers.
Quinn also flubbed a speech where he got tongue-tied, mixing up President Barack Obama’s name with the al-Qaeda terrorist, Osama bin Laden, whom Obama ordered killed.
“The governor had a bad day,” said state Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), one of several potential 2014 gubernatorial candidates who showed up at Republican events Thursday. “He offed his president, and he got booed off the stage by his base.”
Of course, most of the sympathy that Republicans had to offer the governor came in the form of crocodile tears.
“It was rough on him. I could feel for the guy because I’ve been in front of audiences. You don’t wanna take a load like that,” said state Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, the GOP’s 2006 gubernatorial candidate. “But to a certain extent, he asked for it.
“I think the people that were there felt betrayed because the governor had made promises that now he can’t keep, and he’s kind of dumped on those folks, and they feel bad about that,” she said, referring to the union members who disrupted the Democratic rally. “Most of them supported him for governor. He wouldn’t be governor without their support, frankly, so they really felt betrayed.”
The GOP gathering also came one day before a special legislative session convenes at Quinn’s request to take another stab at fixing the state’s $83 billion pension crisis, which some Republicans now say really stands at $130 billion as a result of recalculations by bond-rating agencies analyzing states’ pension debt.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) is at the center of that debate because there likely will be a vote Friday in the House on a Senate bill that would roll back pension benefits for state workers and lawmakers who belong to two of state government’s five retirement systems.
Cross wouldn’t say that Republicans intend to uniformly stay off that legislation Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) favors, but the top House Republican made clear it’s legislation that only takes a half a bite at the apple and not something he supports.
“We believe we need to do something substantive,” Cross told reporters. “We need to do something real. This is nibbling around the edges and then claiming we have pension reform and we fixed it. Again, [it] is an old playbook.”
On Wednesday, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) tried to put the onus on Cross to bring GOP votes to the table on the pension legislation, setting the stage to possibly portray him as the obstacle for pension reform.
But Cross would have nothing of that Thursday, dishing back a mouthful at the long-serving House speaker, who also praised Quinn Wednesday for being a good governor and for navigating through many of the problems his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, left for him when he was driven for office.
“I found it ironic, again, kind of the way the speaker spins things and plays things. He talks about the problem Quinn ‘inherited.’ If I’m not mistaken, those numbers of years when Blagoejvech was here, the speaker was the speaker. And I don’t think any bill passed the House, any budget passed the House, any borrowing bill passed the House, any shorting of the pension systems passed the House without his leadership and support,” Cross said of Madigan.