Rauner’s cash stash strains tone in Springfield

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It isn’t unusual for a newly elected governor to arrive in office with some kind of political safety net or show of strength.

Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner prevailed in a highly contentious campaign against Gov. Pat Quinn, while Republicans gained just one Senate seat in the Illinois General Assembly to hold up his vetoes.

RELATED: Rauner releases inaugural donor list

So Rauner dug into what’s become a fail-proof fallback for the wealthy venture capitalist: his own pocket and that of his rich friends.

Thanks to $10 million of Rauner’s own money, $8 million from Citadel CEO and billionaire Ken Griffin, and $2 million from businessman Richard Uihlein, Rauner walks into the Statehouse with some serious “forget you” money.

Rauner’s team says he needs it, but some Springfield insiders are predicting that it already has hurt him politically.

“By doing this, it actually makes people more partisan, whereas before, people were willing to work with him to give him the benefit of the doubt. It sort of puts you back in the arms of Father Madigan,” said state Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo. Franks said Rauner’s vows to work with Democrats were taken as sincere until the $20 million.

“It was like: ‘I really want to hear from you, I really want to hear your ideas. By the way, I’ve got $20 million, so maybe we don’t have to disagree so much.’

“It’s a staggering sum. It’s fundamentally changed politics. There’s no longer a safe seat anywhere,” Franks said.

The first thing he did was crunch the numbers and looked at a bill he has pushed to help kids go to college, he said. The pilot program cost $20 million.

“We can change a whole generation of children going to college or we can stick it to our enemies,” Franks said of the money.

But there is an argument for it: Rauner faces the daunting challenge of trying to push through his agenda without holding a majority in either chamber of the Illinois General Assembly. Instead, Republicans hold a superminority.

Rauner is up against powerful Chicago Democrats Mike Madigan and John Cullerton.

Trading a promise of cash for official acts will get you into prison, but there’s plenty of ways Rauner can still wield influence with that money.

A lawmaker won’t get on board for a Rauner-backed bill? Commission a poll in that lawmaker’s district, make the poll public and gently remind the lawmaker that the district believes differently.

Also part of the Rauner playbook are robocalls. He loved using these during his campaign. He rattled Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel after authorizing robocalls to thousands of Chicago households urging them to rise up against a pending compromise pension bill. At the time, Emanuel had pushed for a bill to help save two of Chicago’s four underfunded city employee pension funds. The legislation initially opened the door to a property tax hike.

Traditionally, Madigan has had his members’ backs. Look no further than to the 2014 election where Republicans swept nationwide — and Rauner won the executive mansion — but the GOP could not pry one Democratic seat from Madigan.

Franks and a number of Democratic lawmakers say it isn’t the money that would persuade them to work with Rauner, it was his willingness to reaching across the aisle.

Rauner has called House and Senate members of both parties in both chambers. He is reported to have some Democrats over for dinner. Franks met with Rauner in Chicago in November.

“You can yell at me or whatever behind closed doors, I don’t care,” Franks said Rauner told him. “I don’t want yes people around and I don’t think he wants yes people around. I’m not looking for his money. I’m looking for: ‘Hey, I want to work with you and shake your hand.’ That’s a lot more valuable.”

And it’s a value that can’t be found inside anyone’s pocket.

Email: nkorecki@suntimes.com

Twitter: @natashakorecki

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct that Republicans gained one state Senate seat in the General Assembly.

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