By Rick Pearson
As he tries to win public support and gain leverage during an extended budget stalemate, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is seizing upon long-standing tensions pitting Chicago against the rest of the state in an attempt to peel Democratic legislators away from House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
For Rauner, the divide-and-conquer strategy is one he's used even before becoming governor. But his attempts to inject regionalism by criticizing Chicago machine politics belie Rauner's past involvement with Madigan and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The governor visited a handful of Downstate and suburban communities last week to promote what he calls his "turnaround agenda" and vilified Madigan and Cullerton as driving the "Chicago machine" and questioned whether local Democratic lawmakers were wedded more to Chicago and their leaders' political interests than to their own voters.
"I'm here to ... ask the legislators here in southern Illinois and around this state, 'Are you going to stay loyal to Madigan and the Chicago political machine or are you going to vote for your district, vote for the homeowners, taxpayers, schoolchildren, and their parents, working families?'" Rauner asked at a Harley-Davidson shop in Marion.
"Are you going to work for the families or are you going to stay loyal to Madigan and Cullerton and the Chicago machine that they control?" Rauner continued. "This is about the Chicago machine running the state versus the people."
Rauner got an assist from the Illinois Republican Party he controls at other Downstate stops in the Quad Cities, Quincy, Decatur and Belleville near St. Louis, as well as a Friday suburban swing in Vernon Hills and Elk Grove Village. The state GOP sent out multiple missives criticizing the rank-and-file lawmakers who represent those areas for siding with Democratic leaders over their voters.
Those the state GOP singled out included Democratic Sens. Gary Forby of Benton, Bill Haine of Alton, James Clayborne of Belleville, Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, John Sullivan of Rushville, Melinda Bush of Grayslake, Julie Morrison of Deerfield and Dan Kotowski of Park Ridge.
They also targeted Democratic Reps. Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg, Jay Hoffman of Swansea, Jerry Costello of Smithton, Daniel Beiser of Alton, John Bradley of Marion, Sue Scherer of Decatur, Mike Smiddy of Hillsdale, Sam Yingling of Round Lake Beach, Carol Sente of Vernon Hills, Michelle Mussman of Schaumburg and Marty Moylan of Des Plaines.
The moves by the governor and the state party are consistent with what Republicans close to Rauner have said is his long-term strategy of electing more GOP lawmakers to a General Assembly in which Democrats control supermajorities, with the ultimate goal of eliminating the power of Madigan, the nation's longest-serving House speaker.
Rauner's initial efforts to tour Downstate also reflect the regionalized nature of rural Democrats, who tend to be much more socially conservative than their city counterparts. Notably, Rauner's targeting of Downstate lawmakers validates concerns some Democrats voiced during a May 31 closed-door meeting of senators following what was supposed to be the last day of session.
Fearing an onslaught of millions of dollars in negative TV ads funded by Rauner and his allies, several Downstate Democrats complained to Cullerton that they were being left politically vulnerable and without a way to answer the attacks, according to two senators at the meeting who were not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Rauner's ads are expected to begin airing Tuesday at a cost of more than $500,000 for the week in the expensive Chicago TV market, said a source familiar with the planned advertising buy.
So far, with the stalemate in Springfield being waged largely with rhetoric, it is the governor's bully pulpit against the reputation of locally known lawmakers.
As Rauner questioned the loyalty of Democratic legislators, Rep. Bradley returned the favor by noting Republicans didn't vote to advance legislation designed to put in place the governor's proposed freeze on property taxes.
"The simple question to House Republicans is, 'Are you loyal to your political party, or are you going to vote for taxpayers and homeowners?'" Bradley said.
Sen. Forby made his thoughts known the day after the governor's visit to Marion by putting a T-shirt on his chair on the Senate floor that read "Not for sale" on the front and "Can't be bought" on the back.
And Rep. Phelps was still steamed at Rauner's initial budget-cutting plans, which would shut down the Hardin County Work Camp, a major local employer.
"I just don't like the governor going around and saying he's going to close these facilities and shut down everything when that is so important and vital in my district. I thought him and I were getting along," Phelps said.
"I'm not going to fall for that 'Chicago political machine.' I'm pretty much independent," Phelps said. "I'm going to do what's right for my district. My district knows me. I'm walking it every day, working it every day, and I'm going to continue to do so and try to protect my district the best way I can. I'm not going to be bullied. I'm not going to be bullied."
Republicans attempting to tarnish Downstate and suburban Democratic lawmakers with the "Chicago machine" label is nothing new in Illinois politics. But the next election is a year away, and Rauner himself has been an integral part of Chicago city politics as a top adviser and close friend to Emanuel.
Rauner served on World Business Chicago, the city's economic development arm. He also met with Chicago Public Schools officials as Emanuel put together his district administration. And Rauner was on the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund, a group advocating more teacher accountability, and New Schools for Chicago, an organization seeking private investment in charter schools.
The governor also was a driving force in bringing the group Stand for Children to Illinois and Chicago. In 2011, the Rauner-backed effort actually led to Stand for Children routing money to Madigan in an effort to separate the speaker from his traditional Democratic allies in organized labor in making changes to the rights of the Chicago Teachers Union.
A year after that effort, which did not achieve its goal of preventing the CTU from going on strike, Rauner again discussed a strategy aimed at dividing rank-and-file teachers from the union's leadership to advance such issues as teacher evaluations and merit pay.
"The critical issue is to separate the union from the teachers. They're not the same thing," Rauner said in September 2012. "The union basically is a bunch of politicians elected to do certain things -- get more pay, get more benefits, less work hours, more job security. That's what they're paid to do. They're not about the students. They're not about results. They're not about the taxpayers."
Rauner has increased his anti-union rhetoric since becoming governor. He is attempting to leverage Democrats' desire for new revenue to avoid deeper cuts in return for approval of his proposals to allow local governments to stop bargaining for wages with unions and to ban prevailing wage agreements with organized labor on public improvement projects.
But for many Downstate Democrats -- as well as Republicans -- their political support is rooted in organized labor, particularly when state government institutions are among the biggest employers in their districts.
"He's got a lot of money. A lot of people know what he's going to do," Phelps said of the governor. "I've got the soldiers and boots on the ground that can go door to door. I can't compete with tens of millions of dollars against me, and everybody knows that. But no one is going to outwork me."
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