Former Rep. Jack Quinn, Jr., Ed.M. ’78, retired from a successful 23-year career in local and national politics in December 2004 – a career, he says, he “fell into by accident.”
From 1973 to 1983 Quinn taught English and coached basketball, track and football at Orchard Park Middle School, a community about 15 miles south of Buffalo. It was a satisfying career, and one he was not thinking of leaving. “I loved it (teaching) – I absolutely got into politics by accident. I was going to grad school, finished my master’s at UB, and did almost all my coursework for a Ph.D. when politics jumped in.”
Well, telephoned in. “I entered politics literally due to a cold call – someone from the Republican Party called me,” and suggested that he run for the Hamburg [N.Y.] town board. “I always thought teaching was a great training ground for government work because it’s the people business. You’ve got to like people to teach and you’ve got to like people to be in government.” Quinn’s first foray into public life came in 1981 when he took a seat on the Hamburg Town Board as councilman, a part-time position that suited him well because it enabled him to keep teaching.
After serving two years as councilman, the town supervisor’s job became available, for which Quinn ran and was elected. This full-time leadership position meant he had to leave his beloved teaching job. Ironically, he says, “I actually took a pay cut. My teaching and council salary together was more than the full-time supervisor’s job.” But Quinn thrived in office and approached his job very seriously, serving for nearly a decade. In 1992, Rep. Henry Nowak, from Quinn’s 27th District, announced he would not seek re-election, which created the perfect opportunity for Quinn to run. “Because I loved the supervisor’s job so much, [running for Congress] was a natural progression. It’s very rare for someone to go from town supervisor like I was in Hamburg, a small town of 16,000 people, and jump up to the U.S. Congress. Most people serve first as governors, state senators, mayors…but it seemed like a natural jump for me.”
During his six terms as a Republican congressman, Quinn worked tirelessly for several areas that he was passionate about: transportation, farming, labor and veterans issues. “Mr. Nowak served on transportation, and I passionately wanted to be on that committee,” Quinn said. There were “lots of projects for Buffalo in the pipeline, which can take two to three years to be funded, so it was important that I get on transportation to follow the work he [Nowak] had started.” Quinn became chair of the Railroad Subcommittee, which oversees all freight and passenger train traffic across the country. “This was a great assignment for me because my father was an engineer on the South Buffalo Railways and my grandfather, who came here from Ireland, also worked on the railroad,” he said.
The other areas he focused on were borne out of his constituency. “As I see it, your constituents really drive your agenda. Labor unions, vets, farm issues – those are my constituents. Most congressional districts are either urban or country, but mine is a combination. My office is in downtown (Buffalo), with all the same problems as any other major city’s, but in 20 minutes I’m out in Springville and Dunkirk talking with farmers worried about how their loans are going to come through for the dairy farm.”
As a congressman, Quinn personified the term “public servant.” Though he has a litany of successes to recall, he is most proud of what he calls “casework,” and completed approximately 12,000 cases during his tenure. By his own admission, “it’s not glamorous, you won’t see me on TV talking about casework, but I often answer the phone myself – by the time someone has to call their U.S. congressman, they’ve faced roadblocks or defeat, and we’re their last chance. The rules are, No. 1 – be polite and nice to them, and No. 2 – help them. That’s the top priority for me, and if you asked me what was most satisfying I’d say helping people, because at the end of the day, as an elected congressman, I view myself as a link between the people on the street and their federal government.”
Quinn came home to his wife and family in Hamburg every weekend during his 12 years in congress, which kept him grounded. “When you’re in Washington, there’s a chance you can get a big head, because people are constantly saying to you, ‘Mr. Congressman, can I get the door for you; Mr. Congressman, can I take your bag; Mr. Congressman, how about a glass of water’…and on Thursday nights when I come home, my wife says, ‘Mr. Congressman, it’s garbage night. Take the cans out there or you’ll be up at 5:30 in the morning doing it.’ There’s a leveling off factor here. And it’s also been helpful coming home very weekend because it allows me to keep a pulse on what’s on people’s minds.”
Ironically, Quinn took only one political science class, while at Siena College, where he attended for his undergraduate studies. At UB, Quinn said, his master’s level work prepared him for his future because teaching is “a people business, as government is. At UB, I appreciated the high emphasis not only on textbook issues, but also the real-life, on-the-job issues. It taught me to be ready and to be flexible.”
In fall 2004, UB President John B. Simpson was with Quinn at Buffalo Night in Washington, an annual event that honors somebody with Buffalo roots, at which Quinn was honored.
Quinn’s next venture will be as president of Cassidy & Associates, a Washington lobbying firm whose clients include D’Youville College in Buffalo and Major League Baseball. But that’s not the end of the line for Quinn politicians. His son, Jack Quinn III, J.D. ’03, is just beginning his career, having been elected to the New York State Assembly in 2004.
Written by Barbara A. Byers, APR