Rauner eager to talk policy at D.C. meeting — Trump still a taboo

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Gov. Bruce Rauner | Maria Cardona/ Sun-Times file photo

Gov. Bruce Rauner is planning a rare visit to Washington, D.C., this weekend for a gathering of Republican governors, but Rauner refuses to say whether he is ready to do something even more rare — meet with, or even acknowledge, President Donald Trump.

The event has long been a major party fundraiser, and this year could be a potential minefield for GOP governors of blue states.

Rauner departs Illinois for the Republican Governors Association’s annual conference having pledged to run for a second term in 2018, despite dismal polling numbers after two years of partisan gridlock over the state budget and his business-friendly, anti-union agenda. Adding to potential headwinds for his campaign is the controversial member of his party in the White House.

Rauner has taken a stance of studied ambivalence as regards the Republican in the White House since Trump first began to rise in the primaries. Rauner ditched the Republican National Convention, declined to endorse Trump by name — only saying he would support his party’s nominee — and also was a no-show at Trump’s inauguration.

Rauner has revealed one private telephone conversation he had with Trump since the New York billionaire won the presidency, describing it as a “good, positive conversation.”

But Rauner seldom utters the name “Donald Trump,” and Friday he did not respond to a question about whether he would attend the GOP governors’ Sunday dinner with the president and first lady.

“I’m going to meet with other governors around the country to talk about policy,” Rauner told reporters after a Black History Month ceremony Friday at the Thompson Center.

“There’s a lot of changes going on from the federal level. We’re going to talk about Medicaid, we’re going to talk about education, we’re going to talk about regulatory relief, going to talk about more economic growth, growing more manufacturing in the United States of America, more manufacturing in the state of Illinois.

“I’m going to talk policy, ideas and working together as governors to advocated for the good changes, so I can grow the jobs and economy in Illinois.”

Left unsaid was whether Rauner took issue with the changes, coming largely from Trump, and any mention of Trump’s name. Trump, for his part, has seemed to accept that governors in his party in blue states weren’t going to be vocal supporters. And while the president frequently makes Chicago, Illinois’ largest city, a target in his twitter feed, he has never tweeted a peep about the fiscal crisis facing the state as Rauner remains at loggerheads with Democrats in the Legislature.

Rauner seldom travels to Washington and is skipping out on the non-partisan National Governors Association conference, also this weekend in D.C., typically a more policy-focused gathering. Governors from 40 states will attend, according to the NGA website.

The RGA typically includes fundraisers, and is a showcase for the party’s rising stars, and the group typically funnels millions into gubernatorial races. Rauner, a millionaire financier before running for office, poured tens of millions from his personal fortune into his campaign and the mid-term legislative races, and it’s not clear he’ll need any boost from his fellow GOP chief executives.

It’s also not clear how Trump could affect his bid for a second term. In 2018, Rauner will be one 27 or the 33 Republican governors making a bid for re-election, and one of five incumbent GOP governors leading states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Rauner did denounce Trump’s remarks in a video recorded by an Access Hollywood crew that were released in October, in which GOP nominee claimed to have pursued the affections of a married woman and to groping women. He has criticized the president’s executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations as “over broad,” but was dinged by Democrats for being out of state as demonstrators swarmed O’Hare Airport in January to protest the ban.

In the weeks since, he has not staked out a clear position on immigration initiatives proposed by the administration, except to say that he would not deputize state police to enforce federal immigration laws. Rauner did offer support for Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, Michigan philanthropist and school choice ideologue Betsy DeVos, during her contentious but ultimately successful confirmation process.

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