CHAMPAIGN — I’ve just spent the day watching Bruce Rauner tell anybody who will listen that he’s a self-made businessman, not a politician.
This may be one of the few subjects on which Rauner sells himself short.
He’s a politician all right, one of the best raw political prospects the Republican Party has seen emerge in Illinois since Jim Edgar, which combined with his vast wealth, has made Rauner the leading GOP contender in the governor’s race.
True, Rauner is no career politician, as he also emphasizes, but he’s quickly making up for lost time.
Rauner has already mastered the politician’s art of telling an audience what they want to hear, although he may be learning that has its limitations.
On Friday, I followed Rauner on his “Shake-Up Express” bus tour through central Illinois as he railed about Chicago receiving “special treatment” from state government and about “major vote fraud” in Cook County, always popular topics with Downstaters.
In between, he fielded questions from reporters about his shifting explanation for his position on the state minimum wage. It’s a topic that has knocked Rauner’s campaign off balance for the first time, but hasn’t left the candidate nearly as shaken as his opponents might expect.
Rauner, who calls himself a “conservative Republican” although some conservative Republicans have doubts, certainly must have thought he was singing from their shared “free-market capitalism” hymnal a month ago when he advocated reducing the state minimum wage to bring it in line with the federal minimum wage — and thus make Illinois’ businesses more competitive.
How was he to know that even other Republicans dare not go that far, even if they all agree in their heart of hearts, seeing as how that position is totally out of step with the thinking of the mainstream public — Democrat or Republican.
Rauner now says he made a “mistake,” but won’t admit his mistake was taking an untenable position, instead arguing that the error was failing to put his comments into a context that somehow includes him actually wanting to “increase” the federal minimum wage.
As I say, he’s learning fast.
“I know how to fight. I know how to work. I know how to win,” he told small but intrigued audiences who came out to see him on his swing through Decatur, Arthur, Tuscola and Champaign.
Rauner’s Republican opponents, who were dismissive of his candidacy when he first surfaced two years ago, should have learned by now that this is no empty boast. They’re facing the rare wealthy businessman whose talents translate to the political stump. It’s going to take more than the minimum wage stumble to overcome him.
Rauner’s candidacy has clearly tapped into a hunger in Illinois for somebody who can deliver what he is promising: more jobs, lower taxes, better schools and term limits. Heck, I find myself agreeing with much of what he has to say, though I am extremely doubtful of the messenger.
“I like what I’ve heard,” more than one voter told me Friday, although not necessarily climbing aboard the Shake-Up Express just yet.
They also like his tough talk about how he is going to “prosecute” the “corrupt politicians” who take “bribes” in the form of campaign contributions from “government union bosses.”
In a short interview, Rauner couldn’t quite explain how he is going to effectuate this prosecutorial power from the governor’s office but assured me there’s a way.
We never had a chance to discuss how he squares his brash rhetoric with his own campaign contributions, such as the $300,000 he dropped on Pennsylvania’s governor while his company was managing a nice chunk of that state’s pension funds — and received a bigger chunk afterward.
He also couldn’t explain exactly what he meant when he told factory workers in Arthur that “Chicago is getting differential [preferential?], special treatment, and that’s wrong. We should be one state where every voter, where every taxpayer, where every school child is treated the same.”
Pressed for specifics, he said, “The state is run by Chicago politicians,” as if that explained it.
Rauner says he expects to receive 25 percent of the city vote in a general election because of alliances formed through his considerable philanthropy in the Chicago area.
I wonder if he’ll use that line about special treatment in his Chicago speeches.