Within minutes of sitting for an interview, gubernatorial front-runner Bruce Rauner makes a bold correction about his personal fortune when asked if he is among the so-called 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans.
“Oh, I’m probably .01 percent,” said Rauner, who owns nine homes, and made $53 million last year.
Rauner, who carries a quiet confidence and even tone, munches on pretzels and asks for fruit juice because he doesn’t want to take up a seat at a restaurant and only drink water.
He’s wearing his now famous Timex $18 watch and swears by it, saying it’s his morning alarm.
Rauner quickly grew perturbed when asked if the comparisons are true that he’s the “Mitt Romney of Illinois.”
“I am a very different person from Mitt Romney,” Rauner said. “I drink beer. I smoke a cigar. I use a gun. I ride a Harley. My grandparents lived in a double-wide trailer. I’m a salesman. He’s an analyst.”
It’s clear he’s thought about this.
“I get a crowd going to a standing ovation. I never saw him do that,” Rauner said.
As the GOP presidential nominee, Romney did get a crowd going at the Republican National Convention in 2012.
“Did he?” Rauner countered skeptically.
To Rauner, the challenge of a statewide campaign is something he’s embraced.
He’s a salesman at heart, he says, and he’s now making his pitch to the people of Illinois portraying himself as someone who wants deep change in how the state handles business, unions, taxes — and above all, education. What drives Rauner is his passion for school reform and the means to fix the financial mess created by politicians he says are beholden to public-sector unions.
“I love campaigning, I love people, I love to sell,” Rauner said.
He has unapologetically rattled Illinois’ political establishment, vowing to upend what he calls the union’s grip on the state’s finances.
With all his wealth, why doesn’t he just retire? Why go through a political campaign?
“I’m a feisty guy. I like to fight. I like to work. I like to win. And our state is going down the drain,” Rauner said. “This is my home. This is emotional. I get very emotional about this. It is your home, it’s our home. It’s a big deal for me.”
Above all else, Rauner said he couldn’t find a better person who could clean up Illinois.
“If I could find a good person to run, who’s a real transformational leader, I wouldn’t run, I’d go work for him. I don’t need my name in the paper. I don’t need a job. I don’t want a political career,” he said. “My family’s going to get dragged through the mud. I’m going to get dragged through the mud. My businesses are going to get dragged through the mud. It’s going to cost me millions of dollars. So you could question my sanity, that’s legitimate. But you know what? If I don’t do it, I don’t see anybody who is.”
Rauner then launches into much of what we hear on the stump: that Pat Quinn is the “worst governor in America,” and that his three primary competitors have been part of the problem in Springfield for years.
Still, Rauner has proven to be polarizing. He so deeply rattled the former chief of staff of a fellow Republican, U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, that the aide, Steven Shearer, stepped down from his government job late last year and launched a committee aimed at derailing Rauner’s campaign. It was fueled in part by payback from a series of attack ads targeted at Schock, a popular Peoria congressman, when Schock first considered entering the Republican gubernatorial race. Rauner denies having involvement in attacking Schock, but Shearer remains convinced and was behind a 12-page, full-color attack ad mailed to a half-million Republican primary voters in Illinois.
Rauner’s mantra this election has been to oppose “government union bosses,” though he says that doesn’t mean he is against government workers.
But union members are fearful of him. A coalition of public-sector unions has dumped millions of dollars into challenging his candidacy.
Rauner wants to move public pensions into a 401(k)-style plan, freeze the current pension, and create a second pension plan. He claims tens of billions of dollars would be saved and some of that savings would go back to fund the old liability.
“I’ve explained that to teachers. I’ve explained that to AFSCME members and everybody I explain it to says, OK Bruce, fair. It’s tough,” he said. “I’m not taking away anything historical. I’m not taking away any historic agreement or taking away any of the benefits that have been accrued by honest workers but for future work there’s a second pension. That’s constitutional.”
On social issues, Rauner won’t say where he personally stands on same-sex marriage, though he recently said he would leave in place the new law legalizing it. He supports abortion rights. His wife is a Democrat.
“We know what we agree on and we know what we disagree on,” he said. “It’s all OK.”
Attack ads have slammed Rauner for GTCR’s involvement in companies managing nursing homes, blaming the company for stripping staffing and resources at homes, leading to deaths. The allegations have led to a series of lawsuits in Florida that are still tied up in the legal system.
“It’s terrible, it’s a tragedy. I feel awful, my heart goes out to them,” Rauner said of any families affected. “I think it’s disgusting that politicians are trying to take advantage of human tragedy to score political points. … Those deaths occurred when the firm we invested in was not managing the nursing homes, so there are fundamentally false and misleading charges.”
Rauner added that his company didn’t profit.
“We lost all of our money in that investment,” he said. “This notion that we made all this money from human suffering is fundamentally false. It’s wrong. We would never do business that way. Never have and never will.”
Rauner grew up in Illinois. His late father, Vincent Rauner, was an attorney who retired from Motorola in 1992 as senior vice president of patents, trademarks and licensing.
The bio on his campaign website tells of Rauner flipping burgers and parking cars as a kid, but he admits he grew up comfortably.
“We were middle class, probably upper middle class. I don’t know, I never really thought about those words,” Rauner said.
After graduating from Dartmouth, then Harvard Business School, Rauner helped found GTCR, a Chicago based, private equity firm.
“I made a ton of money, made a lot of money,” he said.
Rauner hit a major bump in the race when he was on video saying the state’s minimum wage should be lowered by $1 an hour. Realizing this looked brutally insensitive coming from a multimillionaire, Rauner’s campaign went on damage control, making the candidate available for targeted, one-on-one interviews where he said he actually would support an increase to the minimum wage — with caveats.
It was a flip-flop, but pouncing on it worked. His campaign moved past the gaffe for the most part, even though the issue circles back now and again.
Rauner’s campaign had to put out fires over his calling former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan to help his daughter get into a city elite high school, Payton Prep. Rauner, who had a residence in Winnetka and lived in the New Trier school district, has given varying answers on how that happened, from outright admitting making the call to saying he didn’t remember doing so. The Sun-Times reported in January that Rauner made a $250,000 contribution to a Payton foundation two years after his daughter was admitted. Rauner defended the move, noting he and his wife have given millions of dollars to Chicago public schools and charter schools before and after his daughter’s attendance.
It was Rauner’s vision to overhaul schools that attracted Illinois GOP operative Ron Gidwitz to shift from Dillard’s campaign to Rauner’s.
“It’s very simple, Bruce is totally committed to do the right thing with the state of Illinois,” Gidwitz said. “He’s resolute about it. If you just watch Kirk Dillard’s actions, he’s signed onto IEA and IFT’s programs, in spite of failed schools, signed onto a program that benefits adults instead of children. That’s just Kirk’s problem, he doesn’t have strong beliefs in anything but being reelected.”
Teachers Unions have said they backed Dillard because of a long-standing commitment to public education.
Myles Mendoza, the executive director of Ed Choice Illinois, said when he’d get a voicemail from Rauner, he’d save it.
“It’s like the voice of God coming through your phone. It’s sort of this roaring, commanding voice,” Mendoza said, adding: “You can hear the passion coming through.” Mendoza, who said he doesn’t get funding from Rauner, has known him since 2011 to be an advocate for education reform and having a leadership style that mixes confidence and warmth.
“It was a combination of being informed, being charismatic enough to get your attention and having the sort of sheer will to direct things in the way that they have to go,” Mendoza said. “I think he absolutely will stoke the fire and once the fire’s going, he will move things in the direction they need to go.”
Mendoza said Rauner has told him you can’t get people’s attention by being a wall flower. But he denied Rauner would have a scorched earth approach to leading.
“Bruce is going to get your attention, but it’s not going to be scorched earth all the way. I’ve seen communications where — he just has a way of making sure you don’t ignore things. He is a very loving person. He has this juxtaposition between strength and compassion,” Mendoza said. “Who else in this universe is a successful businessman but really spends most of their time learning and investing in education? Why is he doing this? Because he cares about disadvantaged kids. There’s like a handful of people who care about this stuff on his level. He cares about it, he’s like consumed by it. I think that’s why he’s running for governor, because he wants to change things.”