Rauner: GOP could lose seats in fall, turn Madigan into Illinois ‘dictator’

By Rick Pearson and Kim Geiger. 
Chicago Tribune
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said Monday he is “going to run again” in 2018, but acknowledged Democrats could pick up Illinois House seats in November and warned that could turn Speaker Michael Madigan into “the dictator of the state.”

During a far-reaching interview with the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, Rauner also suggested Mayor Rahm Emanuel was not strong enough to stand up to the Chicago Teachers Union and said a teachers strike or allowing Chicago Public Schools to file bankruptcy was needed to turn around the financially struggling district.

Rauner’s comments came as he stepped up his media appearances with Illinois approaching one full year without a state budget, a historic stalemate in which he has sought to use his bully pulpit against what he called Democratic “mouthpieces” angled against him.

The first-term governor is pushing a six-month stopgap spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1, as well as a full-year education funding plan Democrats contend does little for what CPS says is a $1 billion deficit. Rauner has spent recent weeks asking the media’s “viewers,” “listeners” and “readers” to contact lawmakers to back his legislation.

Rauner, however, stopped short of discussing what specific tax increases he would support in exchange for Democrats backing what he calls his “turnaround agenda.”

“I have a loud megaphone. And what I’m not going to do is spend a lot of time screaming about this tax has got to go up,” he said.

At the heart of the Capitol impasse is Rauner’s economic agenda that would make cost-cutting changes to workers’ compensation and local collective bargaining rules. Madigan is leading the opposition, fueled by allies in organized labor and among civil liability attorneys.

During his Monday appearance, Rauner went far beyond his recent statements about the extended Springfield stalemate and also discussed his political future, his standing among voters and his chief political nemesis, Madigan, who has served as speaker for 31 of the past 33 years.

The re-election pledge came as Rauner accused the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the state’s largest employees’ union, of trying to wait out his term before working toward a new contract.

“The union wants nothing. They just want to delay. They want to delay (contract talks) for another two-and-a-half years and hope that I’m gone, but I’m going to run again, so, you know,” said Rauner, who is seeking a state labor board ruling stating that contract talks are at an impasse.

The Nov. 8 legislative elections are shaping up as a referendum between Rauner and Madigan, with Democrats holding supermajorities of 71 of 118 seats in the House and 39 of 59 seats in the Senate. All 118 House seats and 40 Senate seats are up for election.

With Illinois traditionally a strong Democratic state in presidential election years and with controversial businessman Donald Trump as the presumptive GOP nominee, Rauner acknowledged Republicans may have difficulties in picking up legislative seats from Democrats.

“It could certainly happen,” Rauner said of Democrats gaining seats this fall. “The speaker’s senior staff told me they think that this could be a Democratic tidal wave year in Illinois and that they’ll pick up three or four seats” from House Republicans.

“The speaker will move from the most powerful politician in this state to the dictator of the state,” the governor said of such a result, adding later, “I feel very bad for the people of Illinois.”

If Madigan picks up seats, Rauner said, “Then they’ll be in a position where there probably ain’t going to be much in the way of reforms and … they’ll be able to jam through whatever it is their particular goal is.”

Rauner has promised to use his personal wealth along with that of his allies to help fund Republican legislative candidates in an attempt to erode Madigan’s power. On Monday, campaign reports showed he personally donated $2.5 million to a Republican-allied PAC that has worked on GOP legislative campaigns.

Asked if the donation was meant to send a message to Madigan, Rauner said he was “just exercising my rights as a citizen.”

“If we could pick up a few seats, I think there’d be a little bit more balance and I think there would be a different dynamic in Springfield,” he said of Republicans.

The governor, holding his first public office after years as a private equity investor, said voters are fickle when it comes to the government they want versus the government for which they want to pay.

“Voters want conflicting things. They want a lot of government spending, but they don’t want higher taxes,” he said. “So what do unprincipled politicians do? Give ’em what they want, stay in office long enough and bail when the crisis hits. Well, that’s what’s happened.”

Rauner acknowledged he could be a negative for some Republican legislative campaigns, and said tongue-in-cheek that he could improve his job “approval ratings” by signing an “unbalanced budget” that defers spending on public pensions in favor of spending elsewhere in the budget.

“If you want popularity, don’t pay pensions because it allows you to keep spending what you don’t have. It’s borrowing in a secret basis. And the tax hike (to pay off the growing pension debt) is way bigger, but it comes after you’re gone from office. That’s the kind of baloney that’s gone on for years,” he said.

On the fate of CPS, Rauner repeated his criticism of its management and called it a “patronage” haven that has cried “wolf” about money woes so often that it lacks “credibility.” The governor said CPS should take a teachers strike or get legislative authorization to file for bankruptcy, not something likely to materialize.

But Rauner saved his sharpest school-related criticism for Emanuel, a one-time vacation friend and business associate, for having “caved” to the CTU during the last strike and saying the mayor would do so if the union walked out again.

“It takes someone with a unique background to stand up to the threat of a strike, and win. And win. You’ve got to have the children and the students be able to go somewhere safe and a learning environment, and he’s not willing to do that,” Rauner said.

“So the teachers union gets to dictate terms. This is going on all over Illinois and around America. And if you can’t take a strike and come out the other side and win, the union is the dictator. They dictate the terms,” he said.

Rauner, who described himself as a free-market conservative, went so far as to say that Illinois is being damaged by a “collectivist economy,” employing a term generally used to suggest communist or socialist influence.

“We’ve become a collectivist economy in Illinois. It’s crushing us. And no problem is going to get fixed unless we bring more economic freedom into the state. And I believe that very passionately,” the governor said.

“That’s going to kill us in the long run. I’ve got to change that. And the other issues, we can debate, but that one I have to stay very strong on,” he said.

Rauner had planned to host a Monday event at the DuSable Museum of African American History to celebrate Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery. But he canceled the event after learning community activist groups planned to protest.

“Some special interest groups got wind we were doing it and they made clear they were going to come and disrupt it and shout us down and disrupt the whole thing,” Rauner said. “If yelling and threatening, intimidating and chanting solved problems, Illinois wouldn’t have any problems. We’re good at that stuff.”