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EDITORIAL: Pat Quinn and the Chicago Way game of term limits on mayors

Pat Quinn

At a meeting in June, former Gov. Pat Quinn discusses his efforts to pass a binding referendum that would limit the mayor’s reign to two terms. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Tired of Rahm Emanuel?

Think it’s time for somebody else to be mayor?

Pat Quinn, the former governor of Illinois, sure thinks so, and he’s working a classic Chicago Way angle to give Emanuel the boot, though he claims the loftiest good-government intentions.


Quinn is pushing to put a binding referendum on the November ballot on the question of whether Chicago mayors should be limited to two terms in office. If approved by voters, the two-term limit would kick in next year, meaning Emanuel would be ineligible to run for a third term.

We generally oppose term limits on elective office, making the familiar argument that voters can limit an incumbent’s term in office already just by voting out her or him in the next election. But we understand why others might favor term limits, given the way so many third-rate office-holders manage to hang in for life.

What matters, then, is to argue the case cleanly on its merits — how would term limits for a particular office promote a more robust democracy — and not push for the change just to run an incumbent out of office.

If Quinn were most interested in the good-government potential of term limits on mayors, and not just looking for a backdoor way to take down Emanuel, he would have proposed an effective date several years into the future for his reform.

As it is, Quinn’s proposal is entirely aimed at one man. He wants Emanuel out, and he doesn’t want to leave it to you, the voters, to decide that for yourselves, in a more straight-up manner, in next year’s mayoral election.

Quinn faces long odds in getting his term-limit proposal on the November ballot. He has yet to collect the legally required number of petition signatures, and the City Council — in another classic Chicago Way tactic — already has filled up the ballot with three other referendum questions.

By state law, in the judgment of the mayor’s office, there can be no more than three referendum questions on a ballot — so Quinn is out of luck. Quinn, though, contends the three-question limit pertains only to non-binding advisory questions, not to legally binding questions such as his.

We’re skeptical of Quinn’s term-limit proposal, but we deplore the way the City Council and mayor routinely deny voters the ability to weigh in on difficult and controversial matters by filling the ballot with fluff questions.

The three questions put on this November’s ballot by the City Council ask about uses for potential legal marijuana revenue, the possibility of creating a new homeowners property tax exemption and whether to ban plastic straws.

So it goes in Chicago, where even self-styled reformers play the Chicago Way game, usually to be outmaneuvered by others who play the game better.

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