Gov. Bruce Rauner | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Rauner has a new campaign issue — reinstating the death penalty

SHARE Rauner has a new campaign issue — reinstating the death penalty
SHARE Rauner has a new campaign issue — reinstating the death penalty

Last week’s press conference announcing his latest amendatory veto was, without a doubt, the best press pop Gov. Bruce Rauner has had since he fired his top staff last July and brought in that Illinois Policy Institute crowd (which he also fired).

The governor developed an unexpected and dramatic message and then stayed relentlessly on-message during his press conference at an Illinois State Police facility that featured plenty of law enforcement types by his side. Not a word leaked out in advance, either.


The result: Newspaper headlines and TV news lead-ins essentially copied and pasted Rauner’s press release headline: “Gov. Rauner proposes death penalty for mass murderers and killers of law enforcement officers.”

The event demonstrated a level of skill not seen in the governor’s office in a good long while.

Also, the governor clearly has a new campaign issue. And the strength of that issue could be seen in the lack of almost any immediate press releases from legislative Democrats criticizing Rauner’s announcement.

Abolition of the death penalty has been mostly a settled matter here, starting when Gov. George Ryan halted executions and then cleared out death row more than 15 years ago. But the public hasn’t lost its appetite for the blood of the guilty, so members generally kept their heads down.

What comes next is far more important than everybody eagerly chasing Gov. Rauner’s bright, shiny bouncing ball down a dead-end street. But first, a little bit of recent history.

The governor complained in late February that the General Assembly’s majority Democrats were not negotiating with either him or Republican legislators about criminal justice matters.

In March, the governor sent a letter to the four legislative leaders asking them to set aside the “weapons-focused legislative responses to violence,” and instead work with him to come up with better ideas. “Collaboration is our best hope of finding common sense solutions to gun violence,” Gov. Rauner wrote.

Rauner’s letter also asked the leaders to appoint members to a new task force. Senate President Cullerton penned a blistering response. Cullerton demanded the governor sign the bills sitting on his desk and help pass other bills in the legislative hopper before he’d even consider appointing anyone to yet another blue-ribbon panel. As the governor might say, Cullerton has always had a “weapons-focused legislative response to violence.”

Speaker Madigan complied, however, and Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) agreed to serve on the governor’s new task force, which he says has met twice a week since its inception.

“It seemed like we were making progress,” Rep. Ford told me, adding the task force members were receiving “great research from experts.”

Ford complained that Rauner’s AV was “contrary to the agreement made between members and the governor’s team,” but also said he believed the group could still “meet and continue to work on meaningful legislation.” Ford insisted that the governor’s amendatory veto shouldn’t have an impact on the group’s work.

But will it? The amendatory veto can easily be seen as a defensive shield against any gun control measures that arrive on his desk. Rauner vetoed the gun dealer licensing bill in March because he said (about 20 times) he wanted a “comprehensive” solution. He has now proposed his own comprehensive solution.

The governor is also constantly asked about specific gun issues, like school shootings. Last week, Rauner started pointing to his amendatory veto. He wants to allow schools to use highly restricted local infrastructure sales tax money to pay for guards and counselors.

The real question becomes what the governor will do if he receives a stand-alone bump-stock ban, or a bill requiring a 72-hour waiting period to buy any gun, or a “gun violence restraining order” bill, or legislation to put more mental health workers in schools, or measures to counter interstate gun trafficking. All of those proposals and more were also in the governor’s sweepingly broad and likely unconstitutional amendatory veto.

Will Rauner accept half a loaf – or even a couple of slices? Or will he go with his usual all or nothing approach by demanding a “comprehensive” solution and then wind up yet again with nothing except his rhetoric?

A cynic would say that the governor probably prefers no real legislative results. He can run on the death penalty reinstatement when and where it suits him and use those other proposals to help him pivot to the center.

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley once said, “Good government is good politics.” But way too many politicians get that quote bass-ackwards. Make no mistake, last week was good politics for the governor, but good politics isn’t necessarily good government.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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