Or a governor scrambling to rebuild his image with a painful budget impasse just behind him and a re-election battle looming ahead?
Those were the key questions Thursday as Gov. Bruce Rauner stood alongside Mayor Rahm Emanuel to unveil an ambitious plan to turn a weed-covered South Loop eyesore into a $1.2 billion research and innovation magnet.
The big winner could, of course, be Chicago. But only time will tell.
The center will require an unspecified amount of private funds — and potentially state funds — and may not see much movement before next year’s general election.
That means Rauner, considered a vulnerable Republican in an increasingly blue state, could benefit from the advance publicity even if the massive development ultimately never sees the light of day.
Chicagoans are no stranger to politicians pushing big brick-and-mortar proposals to cast themselves as builder governors and mayors.
Mayor Richard M. Daley had his Millennium Park. Of course, he also had Lake Calumet Airport, which never took off.
Gov. James Thompson had his beloved “Build Illinois” public works program. Gov. George Ryan had “Illinois FIRST.” Those two largely involved building roads, schools and other infrastructure. And they mostly relied on public funds and were statewide.
What Rauner is proposing is a bit different. The proposed Discovery Partners Institute would largely benefit Chicago and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and it’s being touted as a public-private partnership.
Politically, it would be a welcome accomplishment during a challenging first term.
So how realistic is this innovation center, especially after the governor offered sparse details about it during an official announcement of the project at the South Loop site Thursday morning?
Standing next to Rauner, Emanuel told reporters the governor is leading the project, but offered his support. On Wednesday, the mayor’s office noted the “governor’s commitment is raising private funds to pay for it,” while offering confidence he’d be able to raise funds based on his “background in the private sector.”
When the governor was asked about fundraising plans, he said there are “lots and lots of options.”
“We haven’t started any really focused fundraising yet. Right now we’re laying out the vision,” Rauner said.
The lack of clarity on details had some questioning the project and the timing of the announcement.
“This sounds like Bruce Rauner as usual. No details. I have no idea how much it’s going to cost the state, how much it’s going to cost the city of Chicago,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills.
The north suburban state representative noted the project could put the city in “the best light possible” in its bid to secure Amazon’s second headquarters, submitted earlier this week.
“The skeptic, negative part is that it’s just politics going into an election year,” McSweeney said. “The more details he provides, the more I’ll think it’s a positive thing that he’s really promoting. Just to announce a plan with no details is politics.”
Rauner’s campaign scoffed at that notion.
“The governor has been working on this for years,” Rauner campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
Kukowski said that Emanuel’s appearance at the announcement speaks for itself.
“Rahm was there, and I don’t think anyone would say he’s the biggest cheerleader behind the governor’s political efforts,” Kukowski said.
Responding to the lack of details on the finance end, Rauner spokeswoman Patty Schuh said the purpose of the announcement was in part to provide a “vision” that will bring in private funds: “Now they have something they can touch and feel.”
“That’s like the cart before the horse, if you ask me. The financing for what? You have to have something and what the governor has laid out is a very specific vision and a partnership that’s been developed. The University of Illinois didn’t enter into this lightly, and neither did he,” Schuh said.
“This is something he’s been talking about for a number of years. Illinois ought to be a tech hub. They ought to be able to attract the best and the brightest and keep the ones we have.”
McSweeney too brought up rumblings that any state funding needed for the innovation center could be tied to a deal regarding the selling of the James R. Thompson Center — which is currently stalled — and getting funds the city needs for infrastructure surrounding the Obama Presidential Library.
“Nobody knows about these secret meetings,” McSweeney said of recent leaders meetings. “Does the Obama Library have anything to do with discussions around a grand deal? We just don’t know. My reaction is it sounds interesting, but we need a lot of details and to have a full understanding of how it’s going to be paid for.”
Schuh denied that support for state funds for the UIC center might become contingent upon a deal regarding the Obama center or the Thompson Center, saying there are various funding needs across the state: “I’m not alleging any connection.”
“There’s a variety of discussions that have been taking place about the funding needs for the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois and key projects amongst the governor, the legislative leaders and the rank and file members and those with specific needs,” Schuh said. “All of those are up for discussion.”
Madigan spokesman Steve Brown on Wednesday said the Thompson Center can’t be factored into a deal for state funds because it’s already accounted for within the budget that passed in July. But it’s unclear whether the Thompson Center could be sold within the fiscal year that the budget deals with, with the bill authorizing the state to sell the center on hold, and no zoning agreement with the city of Chicago.
Others offered a less cynical view of the grandiose plan.
Tom Cross, former Illinois House Republican leader and chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, noted anything in the tech industry that attracts “the best and the brightest” to Chicago is a positive thing for the city and state, despite what some say is political optics.
“I think the mayor being there even though there are big differences between the two is to me an acknowledgement that it’s a worthwhile and a good project for everybody,” Cross said.
Asked whether Rauner may benefit from the project politically, Cross said “good policy usually means good politics.”
“There’s certainly an upside there. But at the end of the day, we’ve struggled so much as a state in the last couple of years, when you can do bipartisan topics and work together in a meaningful way like this, I think it’s again, good politically, but most important of all, it’s good policy,” Cross said.