Gov. Pat Quinn's delayed primary victory was short-lived Thursday as he was forced to distance himself from his new running mate and suggest he bow out for fear of dragging down the ticket.
Nearly two days after the polls closed, Dan Hynes conceded the nomination to Quinn, unable to bridge a gap that had grown to more than 8,000 votes as straggling precincts filed in.
Instead of basking in the victory, Quinn was barraged by questions about running mate Scott Lee Cohen, a Chicago pawnbroker arrested in 2005 on domestic battery charges that were later dropped. Details from a contentious divorce also continued to drip out late Thursday.
With Cohen showing no signs of leaving the race, having spent more than $2 million of his own money securing the nomination, party leaders were left pondering their next move.
"I have no intention of stepping down or stepping aside," Cohen said in a statement issued to the media after a Quinn news conference dominated by the issue. "There are questions, and I will provide all answers honestly and openly."
Appearing with his former wife, Debra York-Cohen, on WTTW Channel 11, Cohen admitted to previous steroid use but denied domestic violence allegations by a former girlfriend.
"I don't believe I'm an embarrassment to the ticket. From Day One, I've been honest and forthright," he said.
Quinn said he'd spoken with House Speaker and Illinois Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan about Cohen and indicated forces were at work behind the scenes.
"That matter will be resolved properly," Quinn said, without elaborating. "I really don't believe this issue will be with us much longer."
Both Quinn and Madigan called on Cohen to publicly resolve the growing controversy or step aside.
And, pressed repeatedly whether he would step down if his candidacy would prevent the Democrats from winning in November, Cohen finally said Thursday night: "I would have to seriously think about it. I would never, ever do anything to hurt the people of Illinois."
The division among the Democratic running mates - forced to pair up by primary voters - is proving a significant distraction as the party looks to move past a bitter primary battle and take on a yet-to-be-determined Republican challenger.
Party officials and Cohen rivals were wondering how the newcomer to Illinois politics managed to skate through the entire primary with so little scrutiny.
Steve Brown, Madigan's spokesman, said Madigan was not aware of Cohen's past before the election and that his involvement in the lieutenant governor's race was limited to his personal support of longtime House colleague Art Turner.
Asked if Madigan should have been more involved and taken steps as party chairman to get Cohen off the ballot, Brown noted the irony of the media posing such a question after a year of news stories claiming Madigan's influence needs to be diminished.
He said Madigan has not talked to Cohen.
The party is officially powerless to take action against Cohen. Only if he voluntarily gives up the nomination does the Democratic Party gain a say in his replacement. A similar situation played out in the 2004 Republican race for U.S. Senate. Jack Ryan won but soon faced embarrassing coverage of past divorce proceedings in which his Hollywood actress ex-wife claimed he tried to coerce her into having public sex at erotic clubs.
Ryan left the race and the Republican Party ultimately imported Alan Keyes from Maryland to face Democrat Barack Obama, who crushed Keyes in record-setting fashion.
If Cohen were to leave, picking a running mate for Quinn would fall to the state's Democratic Central Committee.
Lauren Beth Gash, a suburban member of that committee, said Thursday she was not aware of Cohen's past until after the election but wishes she had been.
Gash suspected Cohen escaped scrutiny because he wasn't given a serious chance of winning in a race for an office that typically is overlooked.
The lieutenant governor post has essentially no official duties outside of filling in for the governor should he die, quit or get kicked out of office. That's exactly how Quinn became governor, after the impeachment and ouster of Rod Blagojevich last year.
As the Cohen controversy unfolded, his rivals wondered where the sudden media attention was during the campaign.
Turner said he was aware of the 2005 assault charge, but was also aware it had been dropped. As a result, he didn't pursue it even as campaign aides suggested going negative on Cohen.
"My media guy wanted to go for the jugular just on the fact the guy's a pawnbroker," Turner said Thursday.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat who also sought the lieutenant governor's nomination, said he warned newspaper editorial boards and both Democratic campaigns for governor that danger lurked if Cohen won. He pointed to a months-old Chicago Sun-Times column that made mention of Cohen's past troubles.
He said he never considered running negative ads because he didn't have enough money to pick on one candidate in a six-candidate field, especially when Cohen had said he was prepared to spend upward of $3 million, nearly 10 times Link's campaign bankroll.
"A guy like him should be denounced from the beginning. But who am I to say that? I tried warning people about this guy from Day One, but it's up to the people to do something about it," Link said, insisting it's not "sour grapes."
Quinn told reporters he didn't personally know of Cohen's past before the elections and Hynes declined to answer such questions after his concession speech.
All of this overshadowed Hynes' concession to Quinn.
"We rose up and fell just a little short," Hynes said in an emotional speech early Thursday. "If democracy means anything, it means that the campaign with the most votes wins. We did the right thing. We waited for all the votes to be counted."
It means that Quinn now is the official Democratic candidate and will face whoever becomes the final winner of the even tighter Republican race, where state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard are the top two candidates with just hundreds of votes separating them. A recount may decide the outcome, but that will take weeks if not months.
• Daily Herald Staff Writer Ted Cox contributed to this report.