Bruce Rauner became a Republican rock star when he unseated a Democratic governor in left-leaning Illinois, pledging to run Barack Obama’s home state in the mold of GOP darlings Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels. But as he takes office this month, many are wondering: Can he deliver on the hype?
There are reasons to believe the answer is no, and that Rauner’s victories may have ended on Election Day. Unlike Walker in Wisconsin and Daniels in Indiana — governors Rauner has called his role models — he inherits a state with deep financial problems and a Legislature that’s overwhelmingly Democratic. That could make achieving his top priorities, such as closing the state’s multibillion-dollar budget hole and switching public employees to a 401k-style retirement system, far more difficult.
But Rauner and others insist that Illinois’ first divided government in more than a decade won’t mean four years of gridlock, but rather produce the kind of chemistry needed to end years of legislative near-paralysis.
If so, Illinois could be a notable outlier in an increasingly polarized nation of red and blue states, and could also help Republicans solve the mystery of how to become relevant again in a place that’s been trending strongly Democratic.
“People have cherry picked (businesses) from us and laughed at us for many years,” said Republican state Sen. Bill Brady. “I think now people are looking at us with a cautious but also optimistic eye.”
Heightening Rauner’s predicament is Illinois’ history of putting off major issues that other states tackled during the recession. Thus, the state now has the nation’s worst-funded public pension system, slower-than-average job growth, billions in unpaid bills and the worst credit rating.
The political dynamic is now changed, either for better or worse.
With a Republican in the governor’s office, GOP lawmakers will at least have an incentive — some would say mandate — to put “yes” votes on major initiatives rather than just uniformly opposing, and Democrats may have to compromise more.
“I think they’ll be very productive,” said former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.
But first, Rauner has fences to mend. The multimillionaire private equity investor spent the year-long campaign ripping Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and the powerful leaders of the Illinois House and Senate, calling them “career politicians” who drove the state into a “death spiral.”
Rauner, House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton made nice during a two-hour meeting shortly after Election Day. Rauner also been calling every member of the Legislature, saying he wants to get to know each one personally.
Many are skeptical. Among them are labor leaders, several of whom Rauner singled out by name during the campaign as contributing to the state’s financial ruin. The unions are gearing up for a fight should Rauner move to weaken their bargaining power, as Daniels and Walker did in Indiana and Wisconsin.
“Bruce Rauner has made it very clear he’s very hostile to organized labor,” said Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1.
Yet Balanoff, who was one of those Rauner accused of “owning” state government and the Democratic Party, said his union has worked with GOP governors in the past.
Rauner himself has seemed to be lowering expectations. After telling voters during the campaign he had a plan to simultaneously lower taxes and increase spending for education, he now says the state’s finances are far worse than he was led to believe. It could be a way to give himself some wiggle room while pinning blame for unkept promises on the Democrats who preceded him.
Kirk Dillard, a former top GOP state senator, said Rauner could also benefit from his friendship with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a relationship nurtured during Emanuel’s pre-mayoral days as an investment banker.
The state’s biggest city controls “a huge block of (Democratic) votes” in the General Assembly, noted Dillard, who added that Quinn and his Democratic predecessor, now-imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, had rockier relationships with City Hall.
“That’s a huge plus” for Rauner, Dillard said.
And while both Democrats and Republicans wonder if Rauner will be in over his head because he’s never held public office before, supporters say he’s navigated state and local government in pushing education reform, working sometimes with Emanuel on the issue. After a recent governors’ session at the White House, Rauner noted that it wasn’t his first visit, telling reporters he’s “known a number of presidents.”
Dillard says he is realistic about what Rauner can accomplish.
“Gov. Rauner needs to keep his commitments to voters,” Dillard said. “And if he can’t deliver on all of them, he needs to make it clear that it’s the Democrats that are preventing him from doing so.”
SARA BURNETT, Associated Press