Gov. Bruce Rauner said Friday it’s “baloney” to suggest he fired some of his most senior staff members because he blames them for his administration’s failure to stop the General Assembly from passing a budget that includes an income tax increase without any of his pet reforms.
“I don’t know where all this baloney comes from,” the governor said when a reporter raised the question. “We should focus on what’s right for the people of Illinois. We are always trying to recruit and retain the best people in America to serve the people of Illinois.
“That’s all that matters.”
Heads have been rolling in the governor’s administration since the House and Senate overrode his vetoes of the budget package last week. Several senior staffers were fired and replaced, mostly with staffers recruited from a conservative think tank. On Friday, Rauner let go of key members of his policy team, followed by the resignation of a spokeswoman, Eleni Demertzis.
Around the same time, Mike Zolnierowicz, who was expected to lead Rauner’s 2018 re-election bid left his position. Zolnierowicz was an architect of Rauner’s 2014 campaign and also served as Rauner’s chief of staff before resigning in 2016 to work as chief strategic adviser for Illinois GOP political operations.
XPS Professional Services announced Friday that Zolnierowicz is leaving his role with the state GOP to lead XPS’ political operation.
When asked about the shakeups while he was surveying flooded areas in Lake County, the governor portrayed them all as routine.
“That’s interesting folks are focused on administration personnel issues,” Rauner said. “But we’re always building and enhancing the best team we can possibly have. I’m incredibly proud. We got an outstanding team. I think we’ve got the best team to lead the turnaround and restoration and transformation of the state of Illinois.”
Eleven Republican legislators joined the Democratic majorities in rejecting the governor’s vetoes of the budget package, which included hiking the personal income tax from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent and the corporate corporate tax rate from 5.25 percent to 7 percent.
Rauner has repeatedly called it “Mike Madigan’s permanent 32 percent tax hike.” But since losing the showdown with his Democratic House speaker, the Republican governor’s biggest focus has been on shaking up his own staff. He fired chief of staff Richard Goldberg on Monday, replacing him with Kristina Rasmussen, the former head of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank.
In the following days, two others were let go, some escorted from the building.
Rauner insisted it was not a reaction to the budget showdown.
“You guys know Illinois has been broken by a broken system, by a corrupt system, by an incompetent system of politics and politicians. Our political system is broken. We need term limits and fair maps. Our economy is broken. We’re losing our jobs to Wisconsin. We’re losing our jobs to Indiana. … We have the highest property taxes in America. They’re too dang high, and we’re going to work to bring ‘em down.”
“Everything we do every day is designed to have a better future for the people of Illinois, our children and our grandchildren. … Everything we do is focused on that. And I want people in our administration, we’ll always work to have people in our administration that will fight for the people of Illinois for a better future.”
Earlier this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel bemoaned the “radical, reactionary” tone to Rauner’s staff shake-up.
“There’s a tradition in Illinois in the Republican Party of a Jim Edgar, George Ryan, Bob Michel, Ray LaHood moderate Republican voices that want to work to make progress. You can see that with Dan Cronin today in DuPage County,” the mayor said.
“This is a wholesale rejection of that. It’s going in a much more radical, reactionary version.”
But, Emanuel said what’s worse than staff changes that signal a turn to the far right is Rauner’s own philosophy and approach to government.
“When he gets 90 percent of what he wants on education reform based on the commission he’s put together and then says , I’m gonna veto it, it doesn’t matter what the staff changes are. That is an outlook and a perspective that cannot lead to progress,” the mayor said.
“That is more than just philosophical outlook problem. It’s also a problem in how he’s governing.”
Contributing: Associated Press, Fran Spielman, Michael Sneed