What Can Undermine Democrats' Advantage in Illinois? Bruce Rauner's Money
By Tim Jones
Bruce Rauner spent more than $25 million of his own fortune to get elected governor of Illinois. While the state is running out of cash and thousands of state employees might not get paid because of a budget dispute, the Republican chief executive isn't done spending yet.
As Illinois's gridlocked government stumbles toward a shutdown, the independently wealthy Rauner remains in campaign mode. He sends cash to his party's lawmakers and bankrolls statewide TV ads vilifying Democratic legislative leaders who oppose his agenda.
"All they want is higher taxes. Again," says one ad, seeking to promote Rauner as a reform-minded, can't-be-bought businessman fighting for the taxpayers of a state saddled with debt, bad credit and corruption.
In Illinois, one of the nation's Democratic strongholds and home state of President Barack Obama, Rauner's money makes him an unrivaled counterweight. The 59-year-old former equity capital executive had income of $61 million in 2013, according to tax returns. And he's willing to spend it _ along with dollars from a few like-minded supporters _ to promote his agenda of tax cuts and less business regulation.
Rauner, the state's first Republican governor in 12 years, has revived the spirits and the treasury of his party.
"He is unique. We've never had a governor like this," said Pat Brady, former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. Rauner's money is shaping the policy debate and eroding the advantage Democrats have long enjoyed from union workers helping their campaigns.
"In an era when patronage is supposed to be dead, you have to have money to put out the get-out-the-vote programs," Brady said. "Now we'll be able to match the Democrats."
Rauner is as flush as the state is not. Its pile of unpaid bills exceeds $5 billion. Pension liabilities top $111 billion. Chicago and its public schools, burdened by unpaid retirement obligations, have seen their credit plummet. This year's budget is $6.2 billion in the hole, and the failure to reach a spending deal means tens of thousands of state employees might not be paid next week.
In contrast, the governor's campaign committee has $20 million. Rauner provided $10 million of that amount, Citadel LLC Chief Executive Officer Ken Griffin gave $8 million and Richard Uihlein, chief executive of Wisconsin-based Uline Inc., $2 million, according to state records. The committee distributed $400,000 to Republican lawmakers as the legislature considered Democratic budget bills that Rauner opposed.
A separate independent committee called Turnaround Illinois is funded by Rauner and Sam Zell, chairman of Chicago-based Equity Group Investments. "He's able to exercise influence far beyond what an individual wealthy donor or governor could do because he's a combination of the two," said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.
A spokeswoman for Rauner said there was "nothing out of the ordinary" about his contributions to Republican lawmakers or other spending to push his agenda.
"Advertisements are merely a tool in the governor's toolbox to get his message to the people of Illinois," his press secretary, Catherine Kelly, said in an emailed statement.
Former California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used his wealth and that of others to promote ballot proposals intended to change the operation of that state's government. While the initiatives were rejected by voters, the effort fueled the practice of mixing campaigning with governing.
Rauner's post-election spending takes it even further, said David Melton, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a Chicago-based watchdog group.
"This represents a significant upping of the arms race," Melton said.
"And it opens the door to a form of plutocracy," with wealthy donors and politicians dictating the public agenda.
Rauner, a first-time officeholder, built part of his successful election campaign attacking Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has led that chamber for 30 of the last 32 years. Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in the Illinois General Assembly.
Soon after the election campaign officially ended in November, Rauner began a new one _ blaming Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton for many of the state's fiscal woes. Cullerton has been in the legislature since 1979.
"This is about good government taking on bad government," Rauner said in a May 31 press conference. Madigan, he said, "pulls the strings" of lawmakers, like a puppeteer.
A month later, Madigan, 73, accused the governor of "functioning in the extreme" by promoting a political agenda over balancing the budget.
The outcome of Illinois' solvency-threatening budget impasse could hinge on the money shaping the debate. Redfield said it has the potential of further perverting politics in Illinois.
"Replacing a legislator who's a wholly owned subsidiary of the speaker with one who's a wholly owned subsidiary of the governor does not advance the democratic process," Redfield said.
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