Is it already time for Gov. Bruce Rauner to borrow Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s sweater?
Emanuel used it in a campaign ad at a time when he desperately needed to reconnect with voters who saw him as divisive and arrogant.
Given the public thrashing that Rauner’s “Turnaround Agenda” has gotten at the hands of powerful Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, the governor could use a shift in strategy.
In only a few months in office, Rauner already has suffered public rebuke over a $26 million cut in social services and has failed to gain traction on his platform issues that Democrats have decried as divisive.
As Rauner pushed his agenda — which aims to curb union power, cap awards on lawsuits and reform worker-compensation laws — in secret negotiations, Madigan has brought those issues into the open.
And one by one, each suffered a slow, painful death.
Politically speaking, the “velvet hammer” — Madigan’s longtime moniker — is giving a pounding to the sledgehammer.
With just two weeks left in the session and all sides looking for a budget compromise, how can Rauner contend with Madigan but still walk away with at least some of what he wants?
Two former Republican governors who worked with Madigan have some ideas, reflecting on their successes with the speaker.
“He was one of my best leaders. When Michael Madigan told you he would do something, he would get it done,” says former Gov. James Thompson.
Thompson says there’s still plenty of leverage Rauner can tap.
“He has the veto pen, he has appointments,” Thompson says. “Everybody needs something, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats or leaders. Madigan knows how to make deals, so does [Senate President John] Cullerton, and so should the governor. The governor made deals in the private sector — no different.”
Thompson, who, with 14 years in office, is the state’s longest-serving chief executive, says he made clear from the outset he was coming into office to work with lawmakers, who had grown weary of fighting with his predecessor.
“In my first state of the union speech in January of ’77, my first words were: The long war between the governor and the General Assembly is over,’ ” Thompson says. “I got a standing ovation. You’ve got to talk to members constantly, see what’s on their minds. Talk to them individually. Do the ‘four tops’ routine.”
Well, Rauner has spent much of the session talking about dysfunction, corruption and an insider culture in the Legislature. And let’s not forget the campaign ads that featured photos of Madigan and Cullerton with the narration: “100 years of failure.” Democrats have complained that Rauner has treated them like “middle management” in closed-door talks and refused to consider their points of view unless they agree to all of his demands.
But Rauner insisted Thursday he has been transparent and disclosed that he’s taken some items off the table in backroom talks.
He dismissed a right-to-work vote in the Illinois House as political theater. Later that day, Madigan scheduled two more votes on Rauner’s agenda items for next week. On Friday, the speaker set another vote on an added tax on millionaires in Illinois — something Rauner, a multimillionaire who once told the Sun-Times he was part of the “.01 percent,” has opposed.
Rauner shouldn’t let the public drubbing of his initiatives get to him, and Democrats shouldn’t let Rauner’s anti-union rhetoric get to them, former Gov. Jim Edgar says.
“You’ve got to be careful you don’t let those sideshows be the show,” says Edgar, also a Republican.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar. | Sun-Times file photo
He says legislative leaders and the governor can find ways to send each other messages on what they absolutely must have in a deal and work from there.
“Somebody’s got to be the first to blink,” Edgar says. “They’re always worried about that. Negotiation is a strange process in Springfield. It’s hard to track and hard to predict. There might not be a whole lot of support for right-to-work. But I think the governor’s gotta prioritize what he really has to get out of this session, what’s the most important. Figure out on that list, keep pushing on that.”
So far, money is Rauner’s weapon of choice. He has $20 million in his own campaign fund and millions more sit in other committees that aim to dole out the cash to lawmakers who support the governor’s agenda.
Last week, Rauner dispensed $400,000 among every Republican member of the Illinois House and Senate, spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said Saturday. That was in advance of votes — something Democrats criticized him for on the House floor.
Despite their insistence that Madigan’s votes are political theater, Republican members are already growing weary of having to publicly take arrows for the governor’s agenda — some of which many don’t even embrace.
For Republicans, their best hope might not come until 2016 — when it seems they can count on Rauner to bankroll statehouse races and get his party out of super-minority status.
“If I were the governor, I shouldn’t be too upset or excited about the maneuvers right now,” Edgar says. “Make sure — maybe not publicly, through back channels — you express that, and you try to reach an agreement.”