First lady Diana Rauner has urged the governor to keep his arch nemesis Mike Madigan’s name out of speeches.
She’s insisted that he focus on the “best interests of the administration in the long term,” in order to “rise above the battle” with the Illinois General Assembly.
And she’s told staffers they must “enhance” the governor’s “strategic use of social media.”
That’s all according to emails that give a glimpse of the key role that the governor’s wife and self-described “best friend” and “most senior adviser” has on the administration.
A Chicago Sun-Times Freedom of Information request for Diana Rauner’s emails from her state email address for three-month span this year was denied on Aug. 9, on the grounds that the emails contained “communications strategy, draft statements, and press releases, in which policies were formulated and opinions were expressed,” among other reasons cited by the administration.
But in a handful of emails obtained by the Sun-Times show the first lady’s involvement in nearly all forms of official communication, including speeches, social media and messaging.
In an email dated May 23, Diana Rauner offers staffers “tweaks” to a video script for the governor: “I wouldn’t say Speaker Madigan — I would keep saying the majority party or something like that. My other edits below,” she wrote.
A former Rauner staffer confirmed Diana Rauner was involved in all of the governor’s major speeches, including his budget address and his state of the state address: “Everything had to be run by Diana. She frequently would come back with edits and rewrites.”
The email referred to a video the governor filmed about pushing a property tax freeze as part of his efforts to reach a budget deal.
Taking Madigan out of speeches was a common request and one that his staff didn’t agree with, sources said.
“She always believed that he was too partisan, that he was making it about him versus Madigan. That it was [actually] him versus the Democrat majority. She thought he needed to never mention Madigan, never mention Democrats and be euphemistic in some way and just talk about what he’s trying to do,” a source with knowledge of the governor’s office said. “And there was always tension there. … If you’re not telling them who to blame then you’re just kind of like this weird Pollyanna shouting into the wind and saying, ‘I’m fighting for all these things, come with me. We’re trying to do things. I don’t know why they haven’t gotten done but we’re going to keep fighting for them.’”
Sources said the first lady’s involvement in messaging began in late 2016. It blossomed this year, leading up to the firing and resignations of key staffers. Rauner fired nine senior staffers by mid-July, with at least 11 others resigning in protest. Many were replaced with members of the conservative think tank the Illinois Policy Institute; the group’s CEO John Tillman is a close friend and adviser to both Rauners.
“Her involvement in decision making within the administration has exploded within the past 16 to 18 months, and it’s not just education and health care issues,” said a second source close to the governor’s office. “She became part and parcel of all messaging and issues. Every decision he makes she’s been a part of, including hiring IPI.”
At the Illinois State Fair on Tuesday, Rauner denied that Diana Rauner was involved with the hires: “I think that the inquiries, the questions themselves are pathetic. I think they’re terrible. I think it just shows how desperate my political opponents are to try to attack me through attacking my wife,” Rauner said. “I think it’s disgusting and I’ll say that very strongly. And let me be crystal clear, I decide who will be members of my senior staff. Nobody else.”
The governor also lauded his wife as a national expert in early childhood education: “I’m very proud of her and I get her advice in many regards but I decide, especially on staff issues.”
In another email dated on June 4, Diana Rauner asked about a tweet on her social media account about the Paris climate accord. When a member of the communications staff wrote that they had “concerns about igniting” involvement in federal issues, Diana Rauner wrote back that she would have preferred a “real time” conversation.
“No reply to a suggestion is not acceptable and leads to frustration and miscommunication,” Diana Rauner wrote. “Secondly, I strongly disagree with the idea that focusing only on the battle at hand is in the best interests of the administration in the long term. If Bruce does not rise above the battle with the GA [General Assembly] he will stand for little else.”
In an email from March 8 about whether or not to post a tweet to her page about International Women’s Day, Diana Rauner wrote, “Honestly I hate this day. Let’s slow down and only post substantive things.”
The first lady initially pushed for the governor to speak at a women’s rally in Springfield — one in which several gubernatorial candidates planned to speak as well — but his staffers disagreed with her, sources said. Instead, they suggested that the first lady commemorate the day with a video, but she declined: “She didn’t think it was a good use of her brand,” a source said.
Diana Rauner’s “brand” is being a Democrat focused on human services and early education — keeping her state image separate from her role at the early education not-for-profit Ounce of Prevention Fund, where she serves as president.
“On one hand she felt she could help his image and help humanize him and show that he was compassionate,” the former staffer said. “But on the other hand, she was also concerned about hurting her own image and her specific word was always ‘brand.’”
Staffers wrote up a script for Diana Rauner to film, but she backed out, sources said. Instead, staff scrambled and filmed a video with women cabinet members, both in Chicago and Springfield. Staffers awaited Diana Rauner’s approval on that script, sources said.
“Her involvement goes far beyond things like International Women’s Day. It goes into messaging,” the secondary source said. “The image that she’s tried to cultivate of only being involved in early childhood issues is a farce. She’s involved in policy making, messaging and operational decisions.”
The timeline of that involvement escalated in late 2016, as the budget impasse stretched on, and with pressure coming from social service organizations and her colleagues at An Ounce of Prevention.
“The visceral hatred for Bruce obviously was growing and growing by the day and she had to deal with the social pressure of, ‘How could you stand by and let this happen? Why aren’t you doing this?” a source said, adding the Rauners’ also had pressure coming socially from their ‘North Shore cocktail circuits.”
Diana Rauner grappled with concerns over the rest of the governor’s term and how it would end: “There was this continuing escalating presence where it grew to a point in the last few months where the governor sort of gave an order to his communications staff that the first lady was to be included on every single communication, on every single draft statement, on everything possibly that was going to go out.”
Sources described the environment as highly intense with “an insane level of micromanagement” at a time when the staff was dealing with the budget impasse, a fight with the largest state employee union, and wars with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.
“It got to a point where they made it impossible for a very talented communications staff to do their jobs because of the hyper micromanagement of every word, every sentence and whether or not it was really delivering a message, whatever that means,” a source said.
A first lady clash with the governor’s staff came up again during the debate over HB40, a House bill that would remove a “trigger provision” that would make abortions illegal should Roe v. Wade be overturned — and also allow women with Medicaid and state-employee health insurance to use their coverage for abortions.
Diana Rauner, a strong advocate for abortion rights, pushed for the governor to do press conferences, issue statements and clarifications about him being pro-choice, amid concerns from the ACLU and Personal PAC. Again, the governor’s staff warned against that.
“If you’re in the middle of trying to keep a Republican caucus together that is entirely pro-life, you don’t want to lead with shoving in their face that you disagree with them and you’re going to sign a bill that they find to be abhorrent,” a source said. “It’s a tight rope you have to walk where you need to preserve the fact that he is pro-choice and you don’t want to lose suburban support among women. But at the same time you’re not about to anger an entire bloc of a Republican caucus when you need them to stick together on the budget.”
The governor’s staff told Diana Rauner they had issued a statement about his plans to veto the measure because he didn’t agree with the public funding portion, arguing that he’d have the entire campaign to explain what he meant and what he believes in. But sources said Diana Rauner wanted the governor to say he supports the trigger language being repealed, talk about being a strong supporter of reproductive rights and request a clean bill.
“That was a source of real tension, and the governor was sort of caught in the middle, with the first lady saying ‘You’ve got to get out there. The staff is screwing up, and people are going to hate you. You’re going to lose all your suburban voters,’” Mrs. Rauner said, according to the source. “And the staff was saying ‘No, we’re not going to have a daily fight over abortions because it’s not going to end well, ever.”
The Rauner administration did not confirm or deny the emails, but instead issued two separate statements. In one, spokeswoman Laurel Patrick noted Diana Rauner is the governor’s “best friend and partner in life,” as well as “a nationally respected advocate for early childhood education.”
In another, Patrick wrote that “Diana Rauner’s primary role in this administration is to support her husband and help him be successful.”