As Lieutenant Governor, Simon to focus on Illinois’ education challenges

29 Dec

From Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Earlier this month, Sheila Simon was in the Capitol for the first time since she and Gov. Pat Quinn were elected Nov. 2. This time was different, though. The campaign was over, Simon was being shown her office spaces for the first time, and the reality of what lies ahead for the former Southern Illinois University law professor was starting to set in.

“There are different times when it settles in, in different ways. I guess being in the Capitol for the first time since the election makes it very real,” Simon said.

The story behind Simon’s sudden rise to statewide office has been well-documented. She didn’t even run for the position in the Democratic primary. Instead, that victory went to Scott Lee Cohen, who soon afterward pulled his name off the ballot after a sketchy legal past was revealed.

Quinn eventually settled on Simon as his new running mate, despite her main political experience being a stint on the Carbondale City Council and an unsuccessful run for mayor. However, she also spent time as an assistant Jackson County state’s attorney and at SIU, which Quinn pointed to during the campaign trail as major plusses.

Simon isn’t as concerned about how she got to her position as lieutenant governor-elect. Instead, she’s focused on how to do her job as well as possible once she’s sworn in Jan. 10.

The role of lieutenant governor is largely undefined. There are some statutory responsibilities — Simon will work with the Green Governments Coordinating Council and the Rural Affairs Council, for example — but the only defined job responsibility is to take over should something happen to the governor.

The rest of the job duties are largely figured out on the fly.

“Governors and lieutenant governors have had rocky relationships and productive ones. It really depends on the personalities of the two officials, and the nature of how they interact,” said Mike Lawrence, former executive director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIUC, and former press secretary to Gov. Jim Edgar. “It is difficult for a lieutenant governor to become too active, unless the governor allows him or her to be.

“The fact that Gov. Quinn did choose Sheila to be his running mate bodes well for their relationship in office,” Lawrence continued. “But I think they’re going to have to work together to define what her role will be.”

One major role has already been defined for Simon, as Quinn has asked her to be his point on education issues.

State test scores have been slipping and the opinion of public schools statewide continues to get worse and worse, so Simon could have her work cut out for her. But as a longtime teacher herself, whose husband, Perry Knop, teaches at John A. Logan College, and whose daughters have attended public schools, Simon relishes the challenge.

“I think it’s a time where people are expecting more from schools, and I think appropriately so, and we have better ways to look at schools,” Simon said. “There’s a real sense out there that now’s a time to try some efforts for reform in our educational system … and I think there’s a unique opportunity to get all sorts of folks who are involved in the system working together, really making education better in the state of Illinois.”

Those are welcome words to at least one local education leader.

“If she becomes that point, that spokeswoman, for higher education, that will fill a void that there has been in this state for years, as far as the governor’s office is concerned,” SIU President Glenn Poshard, a former, downstate U.S. Congressman, said. “We would not expect her to produce everything for SIU at the expense of others, but we certainly have an ear here.”

Simon also mentioned several other issues that she hopes to approach while in office, such as stemming domestic violence and making government more open and approachable to citizens.

All of those issues are ones that Simon brought up repeatedly during her campaign, which included stops in each of Illinois’ 102 counties. But now the campaign is over, the transition is drawing near, and it’s time for Simon to start her highest-profile job yet.

Along with the Capitol Complex, Simon will have offices in Chicago and Carbondale. Finding a spot in Carbondale, in the Illinois Department of Transportation building on Old Illinois 13, was of great importance to Simon, who will still live with her family in their longtime home on the city’s west side.

“That was one thing we thought about from the beginning: Can we do this and still make this our home, because we’re very much rooted in Southern Illinois,” Simon said. “That was one of the things we thought about from the get-go.”

Of course, Simon will have to spend much time in other parts of the state, particularly in Springfield when the Legislature is in session. The exact amount of time she’ll be able to spend in Carbondale won’t be known until the job begins and her schedule becomes more clearly defined, Simon said.

When she is in Springfield, or anywhere else in the state for that matter, Simon still wants to have Southern Illinois in her voice. She has heard complaints from many Southern Illinoisans who feel their region is largely ignored in state matters, and she takes those complaints to heart.

“I think we have a sense in Southern Illinois that we’re left out,” Simon said. “I don’t know that we’re quite as left out as we like to think, but I’m very glad as a Southern Illinoisan that there is someone from Southern Illinois with a seat at the table. I intend to be the person who talks about how our needs are different.”

“”It’s really exciting, because it’s not just talking about stuff anymore,” Simon said.”Now we really can get in there, and get to work to make a difference.”

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ROB CROW, The Southern Illinoisan

© 2010 The Associated Press

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