(MCT) — Democrat Sheila Simon found out what so many before her have experienced: there’s just not much for Illinois’ lieutenant governor to do. So on Wednesday, she announced she won’t seek re-election and will run for a new office that will allow her to have a “greater impact.”
The move leaves Gov. Pat Quinn without a running mate for the 2014 election and could lead to a game of political musical chairs as would-be candidates for statewide office wait to see which positions open up depending on who else decides to run for governor.
Simon, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, would not say which office she is eyeing, but she has had ambitions to serve as the state’s attorney general should incumbent Lisa Madigan decide to challenge Quinn. But Lisa Madigan has yet to announce a decision and faces a potential conflict due to her father, powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, who also chairs the state Democratic Party. Campaigns for comptroller or treasurer also are possibilities.
“I spoke to the governor in December and told him that after completing my term as lieutenant governor, I look forward to serving Illinois in a role where I can be an even more effective advocate,” Simon said during a brief news conference in Chicago. “In the coming months, I will have an announcement about where I can be the best advocate for the state of Illinois.”
During a separate appearance, Quinn said the news “didn’t come as a surprise.” He brushed aside suggestions that Simon was abandoning him at a time when his poll numbers are low, saying he has long known Simon had “other aspirations.”
“We are very good friends and I wish her well,” Quinn said. “This is her decision.”
After serving in an office with few statutory duties and a low profile, Simon now is free to seek some distance from Quinn and pursue a more independent agenda.
The decision comes at a critical time for Quinn. Several political strategists unaffiliated with the governor’s campaign said Quinn likely would benefit from an African-American woman as a running mate to help shore up his base in Chicago — regardless of a Democratic primary challenge.
But Madigan’s continued pondering of a bid for governor effectively has chilled the field for potential Quinn running mates who might not want to give up an elected seat in the legislature while the powerful Madigan family deliberations continue.
Still, new campaign donation limits and a new law requiring governor candidates to pick a running mate prior to the primary mean it’s to Quinn’s benefit to find a political partner early so that each could raise money for the March 2014 effort.
The decision to step off the 2014 ticket was Simon’s, said a Democratic strategist familiar with the lieutenant governor’s political operation, but who was not authorized to speak publicly. Simon met privately with Quinn in December to “work out how to present it so nobody would come out looking bad,” said the strategist, who added they were surprised the announcement did not come out sooner.
Simon, an attorney, first became tethered to Quinn when she was plucked from her job as a law instructor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to replace pawn shop owner Scott Lee Cohen on the ballot as Quinn's 2010 running mate.
Cohen pulled off a surprise primary victory, but dropped out under Democratic pressure following unseemly revelations about his personal life. The debacle led lawmakers to require governor and lieutenant governor candidates to run as a team in the primary instead of independently.
Quinn settled on Simon after his first two choices for the post turned him down. He had initially approached Tammy Duckworth, who was focused on a career in Washington, and then-state Sen. Susan Garrett, who withdrew after she refused to fully embrace his call for a major income tax increase.
Simon provided a name synonymous with ethics in Illinois due to the popularity of her father. The day after Quinn replaced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he pulled one of Sen. Simon's famous bow ties from his pocket while swearing to reform the state's corrupt political system.
But those who serve as lieutenant governor have been known to grow tired of the post, which has few official duties except to fill in should something happen to the governor.
Paul Simon held the office of lieutenant governor under Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie, when general election voters cast separate ballots to elect the state’s top two offices. That led to a move to force the two top party candidates to run as a team.
Former Democratic Gov. Dan Walker, Quinn's political mentor, held the post in such low esteem that he refused to give running mate Neil Hartigan an office in the state Capitol. Hartigan was forced to borrow space from the secretary of state. Hartigan's successor, Republican Dave O'Neal, grew so bored with the position that he resigned midway through his second term.
Republican Gov. Jim Edgar's No. 2, Bob Kustra, tried to quit in his first term to become a radio talk show host. But he returned after Edgar underwent emergency heart bypass surgery. He eventually left the post several months before his term ended to become a university president.
Simon intends to finish her term.