Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Tuesday raised the central questions surrounding his re-election campaign: What exactly would be different in a second term? Why won’t his agenda “just be crushed by” Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan “again and again?”
The governor then sought to provide answers, saying he’s counting on the courts to give him several “transformative” wins over organized labor, allowing him to bypass Madigan’s opposition.
Rauner, who has taken criticism for recently suggesting he was “not in charge” of state government, also blamed lawmakers and Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his inability to gain traction on his first-term economic agenda.
Legislators in both parties lack “guiding principles,” instead favoring their jobs and pensions, the governor said. As for Emanuel, the mayor was “politically devastated” after the release of the Laquan McDonald police shooting video and surrendered his independence to Madigan, Rauner contended.
Mayoral spokesman Matt McGrath responded that “the only thing Bruce Rauner is worse at than governing is accepting responsibility.”
The governor’s explanations came as he met for an hour with the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, summarizing his 2017 and pointing ahead to his fourth year in office. He faces a primary challenge driven by anger from social conservatives and a potential general election contest against a Democrat with even more financial resources than he has.
Rauner spent more than half the time talking about his stalled agenda, his success in vetoing Democratic proposals and how he could work around Madigan. The governor said there are major items that can be accomplished “without the speaker in the second term that are transformative to give us a better future.”
Top among those is an expected June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on an Illinois case that Rauner supports and the Trump administration Justice Department backs. The case challenges the requirement that public union members pay “fair share” dues even if they disagree with union membership.
“If we win, it will transform government. It will transform state government, local government and school districts in every state in America,” Rauner said.
“I will be able to have thousands of state employees not be in the union who don’t want to be, and I will be able to pay them based upon productivity and merit and bonuses, and pay them more based on what they do for the service quality and taxpayer benefit than seniority,” he added.
Justices previously deadlocked on a similar case prior to Justice Neil Gorsuch joining the court following Trump’s appointment. Labor groups are concerned the Illinois case could wipe out a 40-year-old legal standard for paying union dues.
Rauner also is looking for the courts to reverse rulings that prohibited Illinois municipalities and counties from enacting their own right-to-work ordinances, which prohibit required union membership in the private and public sector. A 2015 ordinance passed in Lincolnshire was struck down this year by a federal judge but is being appealed.
“If we can win this, I can bring dozens of manufacturing firms” to Illinois, he said.
Many unionized state workers have been without a new contract as Rauner attempts to impose the terms of his final offer. The union sued, and Rauner said Tuesday that labor is trying to delay the legal proceedings “and hope I lose.” Rauner said he if were to win re-election next year, the courts would be hard-pressed to continue the case another four years.
Rauner maintained he is not “anti-union,” but he has sharply attacked the Chicago Teachers Union and has referred to the state’s largest employee’s union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 as “Af-Scammy.” The governor on Tuesday reiterated what he calls a “conflict of interest”: Public unions give campaign contributions to Democrats, who turn around and grant raises and benefits.
Madigan, who also is the state’s Democratic chairman, heavily counts on organized labor for campaign cash and manpower in House races to maintain his control as speaker, and adverse court rulings could substantially weaken his power.
When Rauner appeared before the Tribune Editorial Board just months into his first term in April 2015, he promoted the idea that “Crisis creates opportunity. Crisis creates leverage to change.” It became a precursor to a historic 736-day budget impasse, a test of wills between his pro-business, union-weakening agenda and labor-backed Democrats who control the legislature.
That same bravado the former private equity investor used to win his first public office was not in evidence Tuesday. Instead, Rauner spoke in subdued tones and acknowledged that to make the changes he wants, he “can’t do this alone,” even as he faulted members of his own Republican Party.
Some Republicans joined Democrats in July to end the impasse by passing a major income tax hike and spending plan over Rauner’s vetoes. As a result, the governor said the state had “lost” an opportunity for economic change.
“We had the possibility of a transformation for the state with the crisis that we had — if we had a principled caucus. It’s the primary reason I ran. We had the opportunity for a massive transformation. We lost that,” the Republican governor said.
“I can’t do this alone. It’s just not possible. It has to be a team effort. And I’m a volunteer. I’m just doing this because I want to get a better future. When you’re trying to team up with people who are doing it because it’s a job and they want a salary and a pension and want to take the easy road, it’s hard,” said the governor, who doesn’t take a state salary.
“In order to have change, you have to have a vision. You have to have principles, guiding principles, free enterprise or protecting taxpayers or whatever your principles are. If you don’t have guiding principles, you don’t have a road map of where to go. And the General Assembly hasn’t had that. It’s been power for power’s sake and a job and a pension,” he said.
Rauner is expected to fund Republican legislative candidates, much as he did a year ago in pouring millions of dollars into campaigns that cut into Madigan’s House Democratic majority, which now stands at 67-51.
To rebuild a “team” effort in the legislature among Republicans, he said, “you need reformers or you’re not going to get it done.”
Beyond blaming Madigan and the General Assembly for failing to achieve his agenda, Rauner also struck out at Emanuel, a onetime vacation friend turned highly vocal critic.
“We were making tremendous progress my first year. Mayor Emanuel was helping me. The caucus was together. And we were negotiating the material items that could really lead to progress,” Rauner said.
Then, the governor said, came the November 2015 release of the police dash-cam video of the October 2014 fatal shooting of 17-year-old McDonald by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
“After the McDonald, Laquan McDonald, shooting tragedy, tragedy in every level, (there was a) completely different dynamic. Completely different dynamic, and the mayor was no longer independent from the speaker and was no longer helpful to the effort,” Rauner said.
Emanuel, the governor said, was “politically devastated” by the video, and as a result, “basically became subservient to the speaker.”
Rauner’s broadside came while Emanuel was out of town on his annual holiday vacation. But McGrath, the mayoral spokesman, slammed Rauner’s three-year tenure.
“He hasn’t proposed a balanced budget the entire time he’s been in office, but he did manage to cripple Illinois’ social service network and oversee a massive increase in the state’s backlog of unpaid bills. With a record like that, it’s not surprising the governor is pointing fingers at everyone else and pleading that he’s not in charge,” he said.
Rauner also took aim at Michael Sacks, the wealthy CEO of asset management firm GCM Grosvenor who also plays a top behind-the-scenes advisory role for the mayor.
“Michael Sacks then became, went from being independent, and Rahm being independent, to working with the speaker very directly and taking direction from the speaker,” Rauner said. “Michael Sacks, you should hear him talk about the speaker now. It’s like, you know, it’s his long lost uncle.”
Told of Rauner’s criticism Tuesday, Sacks offered a rare, albeit brief, public comment.
“That’s sad,” Sacks said. “Bruce needs to stop blaming others for his failure, take a long look in the mirror and figure out how to do a better job.”
Rauner was not asked about his March 20 Republican primary opponent, state Rep. Jeanne Ives of Wheaton, who has said she was motivated to launch a challenge after the governor signed into law a bill that expanded taxpayer-subsidized abortions to women on Medicaid and state employee health insurance.
Ives, who is counting on support from social conservatives, earlier in the day held a news conference to call for changes in public pensions. She wants a state constitutional amendment to remove a clause that prevents public employee pensions from being diminished or impaired for future workers, to put new employees in 401(k)-style benefit plans, and to authorize municipalities to seek federal bankruptcy protection.
Article Photo: Gov. Bruce Rauner meets with the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board on Dec. 19, 2017. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)