SPRINGFIELD — First, Bruce Rauner seemed to say he favored cutting the state’s $8.25-an-hour minimum wage. Then, he retreated from those “flippant” remarks made in December and said this week he favors increasing pay for Illinois’ poorest workers to as much as $10 an hour.
On Thursday came yet another twist in the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s confusing and evolving stance on a vital issue affecting 1.1 million Illinois workers: a September video in which Rauner said he “adamantly, adamantly” opposes raising the minimum wage.
Got all that?
Rauner’s initial flip-flop arguably became a flip-flop-flip Thursday after a Democratic-funded Super PAC circulated the new video of the candidate at a late-summer political event Downstate in which Rauner unequivocally ruled out an increase in the state’s minimum wage, contradicting what he had said as recently as Wednesday in a round of media interviews.
The self-inflicted wounds by the wealthy private equity investor unleashed even wider fallout Thursday and threatened his early frontrunner status in the four-way GOP race for governor in the March 18 primary.
Reacting to the latest disclosure, Gov. Pat Quinn compared Rauner, who made $53 million in 2012 and owns stakes in three professional sports franchises, to the money-grubbing Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.”
A top Illinois business leader acknowledged he couldn’t decipher Rauner’s stance on the minimum-wage issue after hearing so many versions come from the candidate’s own mouth and campaign.
And another political action committee — this one run by an ex top aide to U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill. — accused the Winnetka Republican of engaging in a “big lie” on the minimum wage that could “drag down other Republicans to epic defeat in Illinois” later this year.
The newest video of Rauner was shot by Bluesroomstream.com, a subscription-only video service based in the Capitol pressroom, and distributed without the organization’s approval or knowledge by the Democratic-funded Super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, which posted the September recording of Rauner on YouTube.
“I am adamantly, adamantly against raising the minimum wage. My view is we already have the second highest unemployment in America. We already have an outrageously high unemployment rate among low-income, poor minority kids in Chicago, in Rockford, in Peoria and East St. Louis. And raising the minimum wage is just going to blow them out and take away their jobs. We cannot do this,” Rauner said in the video shot Sept. 7 at a forum hosted by the Ford County Republicans and attended by all four Republican gubernatorial hopefuls.
“Let’s be clear: The right answer to raised wages is a booming economy with employers competing to hire people and having our young people well educated and well trained,” Rauner continued, drawing applause from the crowd at a Gibson City golf course clubhouse.
That video comes on top of another film clip of Rauner shot at a Dec. 11 candidates forum in the Quad Cities by public-television station, WQPT. In that video, obtained Wednesday by the Chicago Sun-Times, Rauner said he would “advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum. I think we need to be competitive here in Illinois.”
The national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, $1 less than Illinois’ minimum.
Rauner did a political about-face Wednesday and said he had misspoken and been “flippant” at the event in the Quad Cities, and that he actually favors increasing the minimum wage to as much as $10 an hour — if such an increase were done nationally, or enacted at the state level and tied to business-friendly workers compensation and tort reforms and changes in Illinois’ corporate tax structure.
Raising the minimum wage, Rauner insisted in an interview with the Sun-Times Wednesday, “won’t crush small business owners, and it can help struggling families.”
The Democratic group that Thursday posted the video from Gibson City said its contents demonstrate Rauner isn’t dealing honestly with voters on his attitudes toward how much Illinois’ working poor should be paid.
“This isn’t an instance of a gaffe, but an instance of a millionaire candidate caught telling the truth that he opposes raising the minimum wage,” American Bridge 21st Century spokesman Eddie Vale told the Sun-Times.
American Bridge 21st Century is a liberal Super PAC funded by labor unions and major Democratic donors. The group’s largest financial backer is billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros, a well-known supporter of liberal causes who donated $1 million, campaign records with the Federal Election Commission show.
Since 2011, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has contributed $675,000 to American Bridge, while the National Education Association has chipped in another $300,000, federal records show.
Rauner reported donating an additional $1 million to his campaign on Jan. 2, bringing his personal contributions to $2.24 million.
The Rauner campaign insisted his language at the September political event against raising the minimum wage is consistent with what he said Wednesday, when he offered his qualified support for hiking the minimum wage under certain conditions.
“Bruce has learned his lesson about the need to give well-thought-out responses to the issue of raising the minimum wage,” Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf told the Sun-Times.
“He supports raising the minimum wage if it is done federally to ensure that all states are on the same level, or if it’s done locally together with a comprehensive program to make Illinois more economically competitive,” Schrimpf said. “Without those features, he’s opposed to it.”
As much as Rauner’s camp insisted the candidate’s position on the minimum wage is now clear, one top business leader — the influential head of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association — said he can’t make sense of what Rauner believes on the minimum wage based on all of the competing, disparate statements.
“I’d suggest to Bruce that his campaign get to a stance on the minimum wage and stay with it,” said Greg Baise, the group’s president and CEO, a long-time backer of GOP candidates and once a Republican statewide candidate himself.
“If he feels he’s opposed to [an increase], that’s fine. It’s a perfectly legitimate stance. But don’t try to be jumping all over because you’re concerned about media reaction,” said Baise, who, like his group, has not endorsed anyone in the GOP governor’s race. “I think the Rauner campaign is learning an early lesson in this campaign of making sure when they handle issues, they’re being direct and forthright to people.”
The governor, meanwhile, poked fun at Rauner — and his GOP opponents who don’t favor increasing the minimum wage. Quinn wants to see the state’s minimum wage set at $10 an hour.
In an email to supporters, the governor made note of Rauner’s struggles explaining himself and likened him and his GOP rivals to the villainous character in “The Simpsons,” Mr. Burns, who is owner of the fictitious Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and Homer Simpson’s miserly boss.
“All four Republicans oppose my plan to raise the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour in Illinois. One of them — a billionaire at that — even announced his proposal to slash the minimum wage by $1 an hour — taking $2,000 a year out of the pockets of those earning the least, which is cruel, heartless and wrong,” Quinn said in his email.
“These guys have all the compassion of C. Montgomery Burns,” the governor said.
The reaction was more acidic from the newly formed Republican Fund for Progress & Jobs, a PAC run by Schock’s ex chief of staff, Steven Shearer.
“You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube,” Shearer said in a statement released after the Sun-Times posted the newest Rauner video on its political blog, Early & Often. “In a single month, Rauner took completely opposite positions on the minimum wage. It is clear to me Rauner got poll results showing how toxic his position was with the voters. Rauner then concocted a story saying he ‘misspoke’ and was ‘flippant.’
“Now it turns out that was a big lie because he said the same thing just as forcefully last fall,” Shearer said. “This is why Republicans who know about Rauner have no doubt he would go down in flames next November were he to win the nomination, but also that Rauner would drag down other Republicans to epic defeat in Illinois.”
Even Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is a friend of Rauner, a former business associate, and school-reform ally, joined in the pile-on Thursday.
While the mayor wouldn’t say how much political damage Rauner had caused himself with his changing narrative on the minimum wage, Emanuel declared Rauner’s now-reversed proposal to roll back Illinois’ rate as wrong-headed, to say the least.
“His idea is all backwards … That paycheck ensures that they’re part of a middle-class lifestyle and dream. The idea that anybody would even cross the line thinking about reducing it when the idea should be about how to expand it” is wrong-headed, the mayor said.
Contributing: Fran Spielman