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Cardinal Cupich says he taught Rauner, Madigan to ‘trust each other’

Cardinal Blase Cupich. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

A man of peace appears to have helped make some peace between the state’s top political adversaries, teaching Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Mike Madigan they needed “to talk to each other and trust each other.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich, who quietly became a major player in a rare school funding compromise, says he urged all the politicians involved – Democrat and Republican alike — “to call their better selves and their better angels.”

“I’ve said all along, just because someone is your opponent, doesn’t mean they’re your enemies,” Cupich told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s a difference between your opponent and your enemy.”

The influential head of Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese told the Sun-Times on Thursday that he believes the Republican governor and Democratic House speaker in particular did learn a lesson in trust, citing the agreement, which puts new money for education into the state’s poorest and neediest districts but also includes a private school scholarship and tax credit program that some have criticized.

“I think that really did happen. Otherwise this wouldn’t have resulted the way it did,” Cupich said. “They just have to talk to each other and trust each other and I think that this was occasion for that to happen. I’m glad about that.”

Cupich opted not to attend the historic bill-signing ceremony on Thursday.

The cardinal is three-for-three this year. During budget talks in May, Cupich advocated for three issues — personally speaking with two legislative leaders. They included the tax credit for scholarships to private schools, a raise on the tax credit families currently paying tuition claim, and another tax credit for teachers who buy supplies. Two passed in the budget finally settled in July. And the tax credit program was included in the school funding compromise, which was signed into law on Thursday.

Cupich said he approached the negotiations with “great respect for elected officials,” while also teaching them both sides can be winners. The cardinal said he worked with the governor, legislative leaders and legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Politically, Rauner and Madigan have been at one another’s throats for the past few years. The Republican governor has poured millions of dollars into ads vilifying Madigan. And the powerful Southwest Side Democrat rarely misses a chance to lay blame for the two-year budget impasse at Rauner’s feet.

But Cupich said he tried to guide all of the politicians involved onto a different path.

“It doesn’t mean that just because one side wins, the other loses. There can be winners on both sides,” Cupich said.

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And he reminded them that the children of Illinois were watching.

“We have to look at how we’re modeling for our kids … how do we deal with challenges. If it’s always in a toxic and antagonistic way, we’re not teaching our kids a good lesson. So I tried to call their better selves and their better angels from them about the importance of their example for the greater population, especially kids, and how we deal with problems,” Cupich said. “I think people responded to that, and I think that that was helpful.”

Cupich, too, said he believed politicians are looking for a way to “get out of that cul-de-sac of not being able to reach across the aisle.”

There is resistance to the private school program by unions, namely the Chicago Teachers Union, which says it will rob poor districts to benefit the rich with tax credits. The new plan would provide tax credits for anyone who donates to organizations that would create scholarship funds for low- and mid-income students attending private schools. Donors will get a credit for 75 cents on every dollar they give — with the negotiated program to sunset in five years.

The cardinal disagrees with the union criticism: “I don’t understand that for two reasons. First of all, they have all the money that they asked for, that they got for their pensions. And I think that’s important,” the cardinal said, noting he has a brother and sister who taught at public schools.

“I know the importance of pensions and being able to have school funded well. There’s nothing taken away at all,” Cupich said.

He said the more than 150,000 children currently in area Catholic schools are saving the state nearly $2 billion a year. And the program, he says, will allow people of all faiths to have school choice and a chance at graduating from parochial schools with great graduation and college rates.

“If those kids, in fact, were all in public schools, that would be even more of a pressure on the budget and the schools,” Cupich said. “So I guess I don’t understand the thinking.”