Congressman Mike Quigley: Other than Republicans controlling the House and the Cubs being the Cubs, things are going just fine.
  • Chandler West/Sun-Times Media
  • Congressman Mike Quigley: Other than Republicans controlling the House and the Cubs being the Cubs, things are going just fine.

Mike Quigley doesn’t think it was anything he said.

The north-side congressman had a nice long talk with Eric Cantor on Tuesday—the first time he’d spoken at length with the House majority leader. In an era when Republicans risk political damnation for impure thoughts of bipartisanship, Quigley walked away feeling optimistic about more than the funding issues they’d been discussing.

“I was thinking, ‘That could lead to a new relationship,'” Quigley told me in an interview. “And then, hours later, the news came in. Man.”

Shock set in around the country as Cantor was toppled by his little-known primary opponent, David Brat. It was arguably the biggest congressional upset since Chicago powerhouse Dan Rostenkowski was ousted in 1994 on his way to a stint in prison. Quigley holds Rosty’s old seat now.

There are all sorts of theories about why Cantor lost and what’s going to happen next.

Cantor may have simply forgotten that the only way to win an election is to get the most votes, and in a low-turnout primary, his supporters didn’t bother going to the polls.

Still, Cantor never saw an Obama initiative he liked and spent the last few years moving rightward along with the rest of his party—yet Brat attacked him for not being conservative enough. Brat was particularly rough on the majority leader for briefly daring to endorse the idea of immigration reform.

So the consensus that’s emerged is that his defeat is a death sentence for just about anything bipartisan, starting with immigration legislation.

Quigley acknowledges as much. “I don’t think it helps, but not for the reasons people are stating,” he said. “I think it gives people on the Republican side an excuse to say, ‘Oh, it’s dead.'”

The House is sitting on an immigration measure already passed in the Senate that would allow some undocumented immigrants to achieve citizenship. Quigley believes there’s enough Republican support to get it out of the House, but GOP leaders don’t want to expose their members to more Tea Party challenges.

“Republican primaries are what’s controlling the politics of this country,” says Quigley. “It’s the minority of the majority. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog—it’s the tip of the tail wagging the dog. It’s just nuts.”

As Cantor exits, the new Republican leaders in the House will “have to make a tough call. So I don’t think it’s dead, but it’s a matter of how much intestinal fortitude they’re willing to show.”

Nobody’s expecting them to show much. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, one of the nation’s most vocal advocates for immigration reform, has called on President Obama to take executive action without waiting for Congress.

Quigley agrees. The day after Cantor’s defeat he and other Democrats sent Obama a letter urging him to take more steps to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants held in custody by the Department of Homeland Security—which exceeds 400,000 a year and costs taxpayers billions of dollars, even though most detainees pose no safety or security threat.

That’s the same approach Obama took with environmental policy—issuing executive orders to tighten rules for carbon emissions after Congress wouldn’t act.

“For those Republicans who say, ‘The president is being overcontrolling,’ I say, ‘Let’s do something—let’s have a vote on climate change, let’s have a vote on guns, let’s have a vote on immigration,” Quigley said.

In the meantime, he says he’s okay with fighting from the losing side. “I can live through blazing balls of martyrdom, because I’m not accustomed to winning all my fights,” he said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a Cubs fan. But eventually this will happen.”

Quigley has been in hopeless battles before. Prior to being elected to Congress five years ago, he was on former mayor Richard Daley’s shit list for daring to suggest that the tax increment financing program shouldn’t be a $500 million-a-year slush fund.

The TIF program hasn’t changed much, but Quigley is on better terms with City Hall these days.

When I ask for his take on Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Quigley doesn’t jump at the chance to sing his praises. Instead, he reiterates what all the mayor’s allies say: Emanuel has been forced to make a lot of tough choices, and not everyone’s going to be happy about them.

Still, Quigley maintains that no one can topple Emanuel in the mayoral election next year. “It’s easy to be the pristine person on the outside until you have to say no,” Quigley said. “Anybody who runs against the mayor is going to have to explain how they’re going to make cuts, so their polling would go down too.”

Then again, no one thought Cantor would lose either. As Quigley himself notes, “Just when you think you understand everything, [elections] like that take place, and pundits make perfect sense after the fact.”