Former governor Pat Quinn recruiting voters to sign his petition in June. Credit: Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times Media

  Coincidentally, I sat down for breakfast with former governor Pat Quinn to talk about mayoral term limits last week on the very day that a certain mayor named Rahm laid off 1,000 employees, including 500 teachers, from Chicago Public Schools.

Even though he’d promised he wouldn’t make any classroom cuts. And even though the tens of millions in property tax dollars he needs to avoid such cuts sits in his TIF bank accounts.

You know, that Mayor Rahm.

But back to Quinn. As you may have read, he’s been spending his summer attempting to gather the 53,000 or so signatures he needs from Chicago voters to get a binding referendum placed on the March 2018 ballot. If passed, it would impose a two-term limit on the mayor of Chicago, thus blocking Emanuel from running for a third term in 2019.

Quinn calls it his “Take Charge Chicago” referendum, though I think we might call it the “Protect us from Rahm” initiative.” Since we, the voters, seem unable or unwilling to protect ourselves from him on our own.

A word about Quinn: He looked hale and hearty as he wolfed down a platter of French toast. If he harbored any bitterness over his 2014 defeat by Governor Bruce Rauner, he didn’t show it. He didn’t even seem deterred by the fact that he’d failed to obtain enough signatures to get the referendum on this November’s ballot, his original goal—a failure that will surely make his enemies gloat.

No, he seemed as ebullient as ever as he greeted the steady stream of people who stopped by our table in this near-north-side eatery.

Man, if all the people who say they voted for Quinn had actually voted for him, he’d still be governor.

As always, Quinn had a Rain Man-like precision about his subject. He cited the exact article and section of the Illinois constitution that allows for such initiatives. He specified the precise number of signatures he needs to get his petition on the ballot (52,519) as well as the exact number he alone has gathered—”6,165 and counting”—since he launched the drive in June. He detailed the concerts, movies in the parks, and festivals he’d attended over the last few weeks—rain or shine—while collecting signatures.

“I’ve been to every part of Chicago,” he said. “I enjoy this—it’s democracy.”

By my count, there are at least four theories as to why he’s interrupted his retirement at age 67 to launch this challenging endeavor: (1) he’s using the publicity to prepare himself for a 2018 run against Rauner; (2) he’s paying back Rahm for various grudges; (3) he loves this stuff; (4) all of the above.

For his part, Quinn subscribes to theory number three. Since he was a 28-year-old law school student in 1976, Quinn’s overseen three statewide binding ballot initiatives—though only one succeeded.

In 1980, he gathered enough signatures for a binding referendum on whether Illinois should cut back the number of legislators in the statehouse. It survived a court challenge and was approved by voters.

In 1994, he attempted to place on the ballot a binding referendum on term limits for state legislators—including house speaker Michael Madigan and future senate president John Cullerton.

It never came before voters because the state supreme court bounced it from the ballot after the Chicago Bar Association challenged its constitutionality—a 4-3 ruling that irks Quinn to this day.

Quinn calls it his “Take Charge Chicago” referendum, though I think we might call it the “Protect us from Rahm” initiative.

“I’ve always believed in direct democracy,” he says.

And then, almost as if he were teasing people like me, people who are skeptical about term limits, he adds: “People on the liberal progressive side don’t always realize its potential.”

He says this latest initiative is not a payback for Rahm’s past slights—a claim I find hard to believe.

Yes, the two have shared a few allies over the years. Ironically, Forrest Claypool—the budget cutter Rahm appointed as CEO of the public schools—was a Quinn aide back in the 1980s.

But by and large, Quinn and Emanuel are vastly different political creatures.

Rahm’s the quintessential insider who uses his clout to impose his will on, well, just about anyone he can. And Quinn’s the onetimemaverick who, throughout the 80s and 90s, pissed off the powerful with his ballot initiatives and populist talk.

In 2012, Quinn pulled a fast one on Rahm when he used a last-minute appointment to keep the mayor from seizing control of the Illinois Sports Facility Authority, the state agency that oversees publicly financed stadiums, like Sox Park. Quinn’s maneuver kept the mayor from doling out public money to the Cubs to rehab Wrigley Field.

It just goes show to you, even an old populist can occasionally outfox a fox.

And Rahm irritated Quinn by offering only minimal assistance in his gubernatorial campaign against Rauner, the mayor’s old friend and business partner.

Not that Quinn will ever admit it. Even under my relentless breakfast-time cross-examination, he steadfastly refused to concede that he holds a grudge against Emanuel.

Instead, Quinn stuck to his explanation about how the state constitution specifically permits voters to impose mayoral terms limits. Then he recited the names of the 20 or so cities around the state—Naperville, Franklin Park, Wilmette, etc.—that have done so.

Then he noted that Chicago’s the only city among the ten largest in the country that doesn’t have mayoral term limits.

Then he lost me with a glorious riff about American history that included a reference or two to George Washington, Ben Franklin, James Madison, and King George III—among others.

Finally, I could take no more. “All right, already,” I said. “Give me that petition.”

With the thought of the school cuts and TIFs on my mind, I signed it. Quinn aide Elizabeth Norden and a waiter looked on as witnesses, just in case Rahm’s election lawyers should challenge my signature at some future election board hearing.

C’mon, folks. You know Rahm’s not going to let this referendum come before you without a fight if he wants to run for a third term.

I realize that in the past I’ve generally written off term limits as Tea Party folly. And that more than once I’ve been known to say we already have term limits. They’re called elections.

I guess this means that after about 25 years of watching voters reelect mayors like Daley and Rahm, I’m starting to lose confidence in Chicago’s ability to vote out its bums.

The biggest surprise is that it took me so long.  v