(MCT) — As floodwaters swelled last week, Gov. Pat Quinn hopped onto a state plane and headed for some of Illinois’ hardest-hit areas.
Five days later, the Democratic governor hasn’t stopped, continuing to visit flood-stricken towns, his office making sure TV stations can easily find the footage.
It’s not unusual to see politicians filling sandbags, consoling homeowners and declaring disaster zones. But couple the flood trips with Quinn’s recent uptick of appearances to herald the start of the summer construction season, and the governor might be mistaken for using the powers of his office to unofficially launch his 2014 re-election campaign.
Indeed, the politics of a natural disaster set up an almost no-lose situation for Quinn. With widespread public dissatisfaction over his job performance, the potential of a primary challenge next year and questions about his ability to govern in Springfield, the governor has used the flood as a chance to get outside the Capitol echo chamber in an attempt to show concern and confidence.
“In general, governors love this sort of crisis thing. Politically, it’s almost always a positive for them,” said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “When you have these crises, it shows people the activity going on in government that they don’t normally see. And when the governor’s there, it shows the state is paying attention. To the people who are in crisis, that means a lot.”
Quinn’s office maintains the governor is just doing his job. Aides note that within hours after the deluge, Quinn had declared a state of emergency and deployed first responders. He later designated 44 counties disaster areas, and also has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help assess damage. That will make it easier to get federal cleanup dollars.
In Elmhurst last Thursday, Quinn ditched his tie and traded his usual suit jacket for a water-resistant North Face one. He issued a series of stern warnings: Stay off the roads, stay out of the water and respect the dangers of Mother Nature.
“We’re going to get though this,” Quinn said. “We all have to work together.”
Later that day he made similar calls during stops in River Forest, Des Plaines, Westchester and Bellwood. On Friday he surveyed damage in Bartonville, near Peoria. On Saturday, Quinn took to the skies in a helicopter to get an aerial view of the submerged Fox River Valley. On Monday he was in Meredosia in west central Illinois.
Former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar knows the politics of a flood firsthand. During the Great Flood of 1993, dozens of people died and tens of thousands were left homeless in what is considered one of the worst natural disasters in Illinois history.
Edgar said he initially was hesitant to get in the way at disaster areas but recalled something he learned a few years earlier at a conference for new governors.
“One of the first things they told us was if you have a natural disaster, drop everything and deal with the issue,” Edgar said. “If you don’t, it doesn’t matter the other things you work on. It’s not going to offset the damage you can do in the eyes of the public.”
Edgar said one day he was filling sandbags along the Mississippi River in Alton when several St. Louis TV crews arrived. While they filmed Edgar hard at work, his counterpart, then-Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, was on vacation in Italy. Carnahan eventually cut his vacation short, but the criticism persisted.
But Edgar said it’s not enough to show up and declare everything will be OK. The key, he said, is in following up. Unlike a tornado or an earthquake, flood cleanup is often stalled for weeks or even months as waters slowly recede. The state must make sure it files the proper paperwork to receive federal help.
“If you just do the showmanship, it will come back to get you,” Edgar said. “But I have no reason to think Quinn won’t (follow up). And who knows, it might help him a little bit. He’s had a pretty rough go.”
House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego, whose district has had its share of flooding, said Quinn might be “a bit aggressive” in promoting his frequent appearances. But Cross said he appreciated Quinn’s visit to the Fox Valley area.
“Perhaps it’s a bit excessive for the governor, but that’s for other people to decide,” Cross said Monday.
Still, Cross noted that when Quinn came to portions of the Fox Valley, it was with Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of Naperville. “I don’t think there was an invite to any Republicans, like (neighboring GOP U.S. Rep.) Randy Hultgren, and that’s obviously a little troubling.”
Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said Monday that the governor has appeared with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and that politics has nothing to do with how the office is handling the crisis. She added that Quinn plans to visit more flood-damaged areas as the waters rush south over the next several days.
“When a crisis hits, you don’t move forward like it’s a normal day,” Anderson said. “You don’t sit in the Capitol and gaze out the windows.”
Tribune reporter Rick Pearson contributed.
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