06/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Julie Hamos Aims to Boost Pat Quinn's Reform Agenda and Gets Undercut by Pat Quinn

Last Thursday State Representative Julie Hamos (D-Evanston) hosted a bloggers-only conference call on Gov. Pat Quinn's "political reform" agenda, zeroing in on the need to cap campaign contributions at $2,400 per election cycle.

Hamos, one of Springfield's leading progressive lawmakers, expressed concern that House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) have agreed to cap contributions at levels higher than the $2,400 proposed by Quinn's Illinois Reform Commission, chaired by former prosecutor Patrick Collins.

"I think they have cut a deal," said Hamos, who has launched a statewide petition drive in favor of the $2,400 caps.

The Evanston lawmaker, who is considering a run for Attorney General and has hired political consultant Mike Fourcher, also considers the Republican House and Senate leaders -- Tom Cross and Christine Radogno -- obstacles to campaign finance limits.

"I think all four leaders like the status quo," said Hamos. "We want to see real ethics reform."

That was Thursday.

What Hamos saw on Saturday was this Chicago Tribune print edition headline: "Donate $15,000 and meet the governor." Gulp.

During the last days of the legislative session, a Quinn campaign aide, Holly Copeland, had been dialing for dollars to special interest groups -- the very groups whose influence the Collins Commission is trying to crush like an unwelcome insect -- and had been putting the squeeze on the willing and unwilling for $15,000 a pop to meet-and-greet the governor. Brazen.

Quinn said it was a "mistake." I believe him. Sincerely. But it's still like discovering Mother Teresa in a brothel.

For 30 years Quinn has earnestly cultivated -- and rightly earned -- a reputation as a political reformer, and then he allowed some clueless campaign mope to flush that reputation and send it swirling down the porcelain memory hole in a single day. Mystifying.

The Quinn episode exposed the inevitable collision between even a reformer's principles and the practical politics of an election system that relies on private versus public dough to finance the campaign beast. It's messy. It looks unseemly even when it is not. And it stains saint and sinner alike with nasty headlines.

And an arbitrary $2,400 campaign contribution cap will not change that. Not a bit. Ask Tom DeLay.

And -- to her credit -- Hamos recognizes that fact. Referring to the Collins-endorsed $2,400 caps, she said, "It's not perfect. And I'm not sure where defeating a [Madigan-Cullerton] caps bill gets us."

But at this point she must recognize that Madigan and Cullerton suddenly are not her biggest obstacle. That nasty headline is.