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Profile: Rep. Mike Quigley (D-5th)

By Kate Gardiner in News on Sep 2, 2009 4:20PM

Photo by Kate Gardiner/Chicagoist

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-5th) said he will sleep on the couch in his office at the U.S. House of Representatives when he leaves for his second session of Congress in Washington next week. “It’s not just me,” he said, “There are probably around 40 other members of the House who do it. But it’s worth it.” Quigley, the most junior representative in Congress at 132 days (through Sept. 2), said he flies back home every weekend to see his family in Lakeview - and that he’s sleeping on his couch in his office there because of his daughters, both in private universities. “I had to pay my way through college, and it was a struggle,” he told Chicagoist on Tuesday. “I didn’t want them to go through that… If I could just get the cleaning crew to not wake me up at 2 a.m., it’d be good.”

Quigley, 50, blasted through a crowded primary - 22 candidates, including 12 Democrats ran for now chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel’s North Side seat - in February, and then trounced his Republican opponent by winning almost 70 percent of the vote in an April special election. He was sworn in April 21 in Washington.

“One day, about a week in, I turned around and looked back at the Capitol Building and said to myself, ‘I work here,’” he said. “It was all glowing and lit up. That was the first time it hit me.” But, he said, it has been a challenge. “It’s like being transferred into high school in the middle of senior year,” Quigley said. “You don’t know what people are doing, you only know of them, who they are, and nothing about how they work. And it’s hard to find the cool kid’s table.”

“At the root of it, you have foreign policy and an army,” he said. “No matter how big the budget anywhere outside the federal government, you don’t have that.” Quigley dispatched himself - armed with bundles of briefings - to the Middle East, for four days. “There’s nothing you can read that can explain to you the complex situations in Iraq, Gaza, or meeting with a foreign minister in a room in the Green Zone, and then hearing days later that he was blown up there - in that room,” Quigley said. “Meeting with the troops and talking about what’s actually happening, and then hearing from the state department, where they’re saying ‘We have to do this right this time, or we’re going to have to come back.’ And in my head, saying, ‘There’s no way we’re coming back here.’”

But that still seems far from his roots here in Chicago, he said. “When I was learning how to do this business, I was working for an alderman and … attending the University of Chicago,” Quigley said. “It was like being in a car with no transmission: I was at the school that was the most theoretical in its approach to public policy in the country, and then I was dealing with housing, with crime. My wheels were on the street.”

In Chicago, Quigley was known, with a select group of politicians citywide, as a reformer, and one of the voices for change on the Cook County Board. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting used to this office, and getting identified with who I was before I was elected here,” Quigley said. “Human rights, LGBT issues, dealing with earmarks for for-profit businesses, pay-for-play legislation… The trick is to accomplish things while learning.” As a representative, Quigley said dealing with a multi-trillion dollar budget has been an adjustment as well. “In Chicago, I was dealing with $3 billion and finding places to save millions,” he said. “In Washington, I’m dealing with $3 trillion and finding F22 airplanes that cost more than the county budget - that we don’t need.”

Since he’s been in office, Quigley said, he’s met with politicians all over Metro Chicago- including Mayor Daley and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, to figure out how money would best be spent, and where. “I’ve not been afraid to criticize the mayor on every issue, including [tax increment financing] but … I get the Mayor when he says TIFs are the only game in town,” he said. “Rustbelt cities are fighting all sorts of things. The thing about TIFs is you have to be cognizant of where you’re robbing the money from… and they should be a part of the city budget. There should be more transparency.”

“In the good years, too, you’re supposed to prepare for the lean years,” he said, quoting Genesis. “But instead, the state, the local government, and the city spent like drunken sailors. It’s a lot easier to attend a ribbon-cutting, yes, but now these guys are faced with an election year and a lot of hard choices.” But Quigley said he doesn’t think the local mission lies with him anymore. “I think I succeeded on the first level, and I think these guys will pick up the mantle and take it the rest of the way,” he said. “It doesn’t mean I can’t comment on what’s going on here, but I’m dealing with bigger issues now. There was a promotion available and I took it.”

“I was with the Illinois delegation in Denver, watching Obama’s speech from maybe 30 feet away,” Quigley said. “People were standing up and cheering during the great sound bites; I was standing up when he was saying an 18th century interpretation of government cannot handle all the problems of today. That mission matters - we need to transform and streamline government.”

“What Rahm [Emanuel] said bore fruit - ‘Don’t forget who got you here,’” Quigley said. “What I do in DC actually has to impact people here, in Chicago.”