Congressman Mike Quigley takes the fight to Washington
Congressman Mike Quigley, AM’85

“Mike ties pragmatism with idealism, and that’s unique,” says his friend and former UChicago classmate Barry Maram, who went on to serve as director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

One of the first things Congressman Mike Quigley, AM’85, did when he arrived in Washington, DC, in the spring of 2009 was break ranks with his fellow Democrats. 

This is not a typical move for a freshman legislator. But Quigley, who won a special election to represent Illinois’s Fifth District after Rahm Emanuel vacated his seat to join the Obama administration, prides himself on calling it as he sees it. So when he joined the House Appropriations Committee and discovered the cozy ties between certain members and companies that were receiving federal funds, he cried foul.

“This is who I am,” he told Politico after supporting a Republican-led ethics probe into the matter. “You can’t change your DNA when you get here.”

A head-on approach

In his political career, Quigley says he has drawn heavily on the education he received from the University of Chicago Committee on Public Policy, the predecessor to the Harris School of Public Policy.

“On a day-to-day basis—in Chicago, in my district, in committee, on the floor, analyzing policy—the skill set I got here is what I use the most,” Quigley told graduating students at Chicago Harris in the spring of 2013.

An avid hockey player with a soft-spoken, almost academic demeanor that belies his toughness, Quigley has never shied from political confrontation. Back in the late ’80s, when the Tribune Company unilaterally decided to bring night games to Wrigley Field, he organized his first campaign: a spirited grassroots effort to ensure that Cubs fans and the community had a say in the matter. During the decade he served as a Cook County commissioner, he challenged the entrenched interests behind tax-increment financing and famously convinced the reluctant board president that the county could balance its budget without raising taxes.

“Mike always rethought policy problems creatively,” says UChicago sociology professor Terry Nichols Clark, who taught Quigley at the Committee on Public Policy and worked with him on several policy papers. “He just worked harder and pushed things ahead. He has done the same ever since.”

“I’ve always tried to reinvent, streamline, and consolidate government,” Quigley says. “That’s the largest theme I had at the county, was to make government more efficient. But the point wasn’t that I didn’t like government. The point was that government functions are so critical they need to be as efficient as possible.” 

Citing his commitment to transparency, accountability, and fiscal rectitude, Quigley continued to demonstrate his independent streak throughout his first year in Congress. He lined up with Republicans on the House Oversight Committee to investigate sweetheart mortgage deals that subprime lender Countrywide Financial had offered to Congressional leaders, including several top Democrats. He voted against a $154 billion jobs bill introduced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the grounds that the numbers didn’t add up. And he was instrumental in removing veteran Democratic Representative Charlie Rangel as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee amid ethics charges.

However, when it comes to the core social and economic issues on the Democratic platform, Quigley is a reliable vote and often out front.

“Mike Quigley is a key ally on everything related to immigration, the LGBT community, civil rights, and economic fairness,” says his House Democratic colleague and fellow Chicagoan Luis Gutierrez. “I trust his judgment and seek his counsel on issues related to Chicago and Illinois and almost always find we can work together.”

Looking ahead

There isn’t much legislative work being done these days, as Congress remains locked in a struggle over sequesters and continuing budget resolutions. Quigley accepts that “we’ve got to get over the hurdle of debt and deficit,” but he’s convinced that painful cuts across the board are the wrong way to go.

“Some things have less ability to be cut,” he insists. “The Department of Defense can be cut and still provide a safe system for our country.” And there are ample opportunities to raise money by reducing subsidies for things like oil, ethanol, and (his favorite example) yachts. “There’s a rational way to do this that doesn’t hurt people, that doesn’t shift the burden to people who can least afford it.”

Meantime, Quigley says he works to support the president’s initiatives as best he can and uses his bully pulpit to raise awareness about one of his top concerns: the threat of climate change. He knows the subject well, having sponsored several green-friendly bills and taught environmental policy for many years at Loyola University in Chicago, where he earned his law degree. Last May Quigley hosted a “Climate Tour” across Chicago to show the local impact of global warming and discuss viable policy solutions. Next summer he plans to run similar events in national parks across the country.

The prospects for movement on this issue are slim right now, he admits.

“People care about the environment, but it’s hard to keep it high up in the polling when there’s an economic downturn.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most recent congressional session was one of the worst on record from an environmentalist’s perspective. He believes the trick to turning the tide will be to fuse sound policy with smart politics.

“Mike ties pragmatism with idealism, and that’s unique,” says his friend and former UChicago classmate Barry Maram, who went on to serve as director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. “He understands not only the theory and policy but how to implement it. That’s a tremendous combination.”

This article was originally published on the Harris website on September 14, 2013. Photo courtesy Mike Quigley.