I missed J.B. Pritzker’s impromptu speech to a gathering of Republicans last week by a few minutes. But the fact that Pritzker even stopped by the event, hosted by Senate Republican Leader Bill Brady and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, was notable in and of itself.
As one top Republican said after Pritzker’s speech, just imagine Gov. Bruce Rauner showing up to speak about bipartisanship and then heaping praise on House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton at a Democratic reception. If you can’t imagine such a thing, well, that was the Republican’s whole point. It never would have happened (Rauner did show up for a Black Caucus event his first year in office, but he used the occasion to bash the Democratic Party, which didn’t exactly go over too well).
The Republicans have every right to be demoralized in Illinois. They hold no statewide office, their party lost two suburban congressional seats and they are now firmly in the super-minority in both the House and Senate. And yet, in conversations with both Republican legislative leaders last week, it seemed pretty clear to me they were both pleased and optimistic about finally having a governor they believe they can work with.
We all know the history. Gov. Rauner is an extremely difficult person to deal with even for those who agree with most of his political agenda. He assumes he’s right and he assumes you feel the same way, or else. He demands complete loyalty, but offers little in return. His word cannot ever be trusted. He seems incapable of making small talk beyond a few minutes and no one has ever accused him of having a warm personality.
The same lack of interpersonal skills held back Rauner’s immediate predecessor, Pat Quinn. Gov. Quinn wouldn’t have been cracking jokes last week about how his microphone wasn’t working at a Republican inaugural reception. He just wasn’t that sort of guy. And he most definitely didn’t have the natural ability to put a legislator at ease and do a deal.
Pritzker has yet to be tested, so we’ll see if he can be trusted to keep his word and offer as much respect to others as he expects for himself once he delves into the difficult process of governing a state with huge problems.
But it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s spent time with him that Pritzker most definitely has a warm personality, and that trait is charming the heck out of Springfield right now. And while he was a hit at last week’s Republican reception, that was nothing compared to how crowds reacted to him at the Democratic parties.
Building personal relationships is an integral part of governing, and the dude has that down pat so far. Rauner would do things like call you on your birthday, but his words were always stilted and seemingly scripted. He had legislators over to the mansion during his first spring session, but, again, the conversations just weren’t natural, and many departed with the impression that he was, um, less than genuine.
Quinn spent most session nights deliberately holed up in the governor’s mansion with his staff. Both men just didn’t appear to be comfortable in their own skin.
I have no idea if finally having a governor with a real personality will make a huge difference when it comes to solving this state’s extremely serious problems. Eventually, of course, Pritzker is going to have to do things that people are not going to love and we’ll just have to wait and see how that all turns out.
But in almost 29 years of doing this, I’ve never seen Statehouse types more excited about the end of a governor’s term than they are now. After presiding over the Senate’s inauguration, governors by tradition quietly leave through the door behind the podium which leads into the ante room. Last week, Gov. Rauner was given a formal escort out the front door and members loudly applauded. Several explained later that they weren’t cheering for him. They were, instead, cheering his final exit.
Pritzker has an opportunity here that has been afforded few of his predecessors. But this also means that expectations are sky high. And the higher the expectations, the greater the disappointment if and/or when they aren’t met.
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