Carol Felsenthal
On politics

What’s Wrong with Illinois, as Bruce Rauner Sees It

The gubernatorial candidate on his respect for Karen Lewis, his admiration of Ronald Reagan, and his plans to make Illinois more business-friendly.

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

On the day that Bruce Rauner, who is worth many, many millions, announced that he’s running for the republican nomination for governor, Chicago was first to post an interview with the new candidate. I advised Rauner, when we sat down together a couple of weeks before: “Keep your answers short because I have 14 pages of questions.” 

Rauner boasts of wearing an $18 wristwatch. I asked him if the watch he wore that day was the $18 number. He assured me it was; I couldn’t tell for sure, but it did look cheap. That was just one of the many Q’s and A’s that didn’t make the condensed first post, which appears in the magazine’s July issue. Here are the rest:  

 

CF: You are divorced with three children from your first marriage and three from your second?

BR: Yes.

CF: Did your wife and your children say,  “No, don’t do this because it’s going to reverberate in ways that could be painful for our family?”

BR: No, we’ve talked through those issues. It’s funny—my youngest daughter when we first talked about the possibility of running for governor she said, “Daddy, don’t run for governor. I don’t want you to go to jail,” because she’s read about the four of our seven governors that have gone to prison and she was worried that that somehow was a causal relationship. I assured her that if I do run, it’s exactly to clean up that kind of corruption….

We’ve talked over the issues as a family. The fact is that politics in Illinois is a blood sport. It’s really rough. It’s really nasty. We’ve talked through the fact that our family will be attacked. Our family will be dragged through the mud. My businesses that I’ve helped build and create will be attacked and dragged through the mud.  That’s politics. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it or thinking about it. We’ve done the opposition research on ourselves and others. We know the issues and I’m very proud of my track record and what we’ve done…. We’re going to try to keep my family out of the limelight, but unscrupulous folks will try to attack our family, but we’re ready for it. It won’t bother us.

CF: I’ve seen your name mentioned for several years as a possible gubernatorial candidate. Was there a tipping point that made you decide to jump in?

BR: I’ve been very engaged in Illinois and Chicago civic activities for a long time; mostly around building businesses and helping entrepreneurs grow companies, but also around education and education reform. My wife and I believe that there’s nothing we do together as a community that’s more important than education. [Since first looking at the race five years ago], it was pretty clear that we had… started the death spiral pretty significantly…. Since then, our problems have only gotten worse…. Some of the businesses that I’ve helped build have either left the state or are talking about leaving the state and I can see that the death spiral is accelerating. I just, I can’t sit back and watch… that happen.

CF: Can you name a business or two that left?

BR: Yes, one of the companies that got me to think about running seriously is a company that I helped personally finance. They came to me about two years ago and said, “Bruce, we know you love Illinois. We do too, but we think that the taxes are going to go through the roof, the regulations are hostile, and a big frustration we have is that the employees in our company can’t get their kids into good schools, and they’re getting frustrated. And we talked it over as a board and we took a vote and we think we should move to Dallas.”

CF: And did the company move?

BR: Unfortunately, some of their operations did. I was able to persuade them to keep some here.

CF: And the name of that company?

BR: Here’s an issue about naming companies. I’ve asked some to use their names…. Most don’t want me to use their names because if they’re still here, they are concerned about being criticized [for] being disloyal.

CF: You’ve been on this long listening tour up and down the state, what have you learned?

BR: There’s a business owner who has operations around the Midwest, and he said… “workers comp costs five times as much in Illinois as it does in Indiana and we’ve been quietly shifting our jobs out of Illinois… and hiring in Indiana and reducing our job base in Illinois….” I met a nurse who works for the state government in Springfield in the Health and Human Services Department who oversees Medicaid. She told me that she’s deeply concerned that there’s fraud and abuse and massive waste going on in our Medicaid system. In fact she believes we are treating thousands of people from the states around us—Missouri, Kentucky, other states—and we are not requiring them to be residents here, and we are therefore wasting… hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money….

I met with a young man who works in the [Illinois] Department of Transportation…. He told me a few years ago when Blagojevich through executive order forced in card-check unionizing, some of the union members came to him, basically threatened him, and said you have to sign this card or else…. He felt pressured… and signed the card. Pretty soon they pressured other people in his department. They got 51 percent to sign the card, they were unionized, and I believe he said the pay went up immediately 17 percent. And he said, in his view, the work effort has actually declined since unionization and the cost went through the roof.

CF: Have you run into people who think things are going along pretty well and think Pat Quinn is an honest and hard-working guy?

BR: I haven’t met with many folks who think that Illinois is on a good track.

CF: Are you hearing pessimistic comments about Chicago?

BR: The reality is the city’s future is inextricably linked to the state’s future…. Each one needs to do well for the other to do well. That’s simply true. And it’s a very tragic fact that our governors over the years and our mayors have tended to not get along very well and coordinate with each other. Unfortunately that’s been particularly true where we’ve had a democratic governor and [a democratic] mayor of Chicago. For some reason that dynamic has worked very poorly.

CF: Before you made your decision to jump in to the race, did you seek Mayor Emanuel’s counsel?

BR: No…. He’s a very loyal Democrat; I’m a free market, conservative Republican…. We do communicate. We work together to try to improve public education… to improve tourism, which I think… is one of the most important growth engines we have here in Illinois and the city of Chicago. We’ve also worked together to try to grow the technology sector around Chicago. Given my venture capital background, I know the tech sector well. He has a strong interest in that, and we’ve collaborated on some initiatives there.

CF: Is he a friend? Do you and your wife have dinner with Rahm and Amy?

BR: We’re friends. We’ve known each other a long time.

CF: But you have supported him [financially]… you’ve given to Republicans and Democrats over the years. You were one of Mayor [Rich] Daley’s biggest contributors.

BR: I was significant, I’m not sure if I was the biggest…. On Democratic contributions: First my wife is a big, active Democrat, so many of the donations that come up on records are hers. But I will say I have supported Rahm Emanuel and Rich Daley in the past very much around the issue of school reform and partnering with them to improve the schools. The mayors control the school system here, and it’s important to work with and through the mayors to do that…. The reality is I’m a very staunch free-market conservative and my donations to Republican causes and Republican candidates outnumber the Democratic ones by some margin like eight or ten to one.

CF: Mayor Emanuel says he’s running for re-election. Would you be inclined to support him?

BR: I don’t know…. I think he’s taking on the challenges in the city to a good degree.

CF: You said you don’t think the Democratic party can serve the disadvantaged because they’ve been taken over by special interests. When did that happen?

BR: I could see it coming a couple decades ago. The government unions, the trial lawyers, the folks who make their money from government, they bought, they own the Democratic party. Unfortunately they control Springfield. There is nothing—we should be really clear—there is nothing weak, vulnerable, discriminated against about those special interest groups and they have bought the Democratic party in Springfield.

Unfortunately they have bought a number of the Republicans too and when you look at what’s happened as a result, our taxes are high and rising, unemployment is rising, and we’re shredding our safety net. The safety net in Illinois—let’s be clear—is being destroyed. And our schools are being defunded while we are giving more pay increases, bigger pensions, free health care to those special interest groups in the government unions. That’s wrong, that’s pay-to-play politics at its worst and that’s what the democrats here are engaged in.

CF: If you were to become governor, would you see yourself as the kind of guy who serves one term, two terms, cleans things up and then goes on to something else?

BR: First I’ll say I’m a believer in term limits so I would fire myself after eight years no matter what.

CF: You have written one of the strongest op-eds that I’ve read in many years blasting the Chicago Teachers Union. Walter Payton College Prep is a school that’s really renowned in the state. Did your daughter have a good education there?  I mean, were her teachers first-rate like the kind of teachers you’d find at New Trier or the  U of C Lab School?

BR: I prefer not to talk too much in detail about our kids, per se. I’d rather keep my comments to the Chicago Public School system. The sad fact is the Chicago Public School system is one of the worst in the nation….  And a huge number of the children in Chicago are not receiving a good education here. And that’s a tragedy and it’s unacceptable. We absolutely should not take that as a given…. The sad fact is that Chicago Teachers Union is a huge part of that problem…. The Teachers Union protects the weak teachers… and makes sure they stay in the system. They make sure that the good teachers can’t get paid more and rewarded for their good performance. And they also demand unaffordable pay [from] the taxpayers of Chicago and, as a result, the real estate taxes are going through the roof. 

CF: You and Karen Lewis both went to Dartmouth, although she graduated the year you started.  What’s it like when you meet in public?

BR: She and I have chatted several times. In fact, I saw her at a Dartmouth event here in Chicago once…. You know, it’s interesting because I have respect for her.  She represents much of what is good in our community and much of what is very wrong and bad in our community. She’s  a teacher, and, from everything I know, she was a good chemistry teacher in high school…. My attitude is God bless her for that.  There is only one more important thing in our community than being a good teacher—and that’s being a good parent….

CF: If a same-sex marriage bill were to land on your desk as governor, would you sign it?

BR: It would depend on what’s in the bill specifically. The devil is in the details on that .

CF: Are you a supporter of same-sex marriage?

BR: Well, my view of a broad social issue like that is it’s probably best to decide it by the voters rather than by any politicians or group of politicians. My preference would be to see it decided in some kind of voter referendum style rather than by a particular politician.

CF: I noticed that you had Jack Roeser listed on your website as a supporter. [A conservative activist, Roeser is known for his controversial views on homosexuality.]

BR: He’s a supporter. I’ve gone out to Republicans and free-market conservatives all over the state to seek their support—Jack’s among the group—and I have folks who are very socially conservative. I have folks who are very socially liberal or moderate. I have very strong fiscal conservatives. I have a whole range of folks on our exploratory committee who are backing me.  And I’m all about rebuilding the party, reaching across the entire philosophical view of the republican party and seeing if they can bring a unification and a unity to the effort.

CF: You’re a motorcycle enthusiast. Do you ride your Harley in the city?

BR: I do, but I prefer the open road. It’s safer and more fun.

CF: The open road in Illinois? 

BR: Sure, yeah. Everywhere. [The Rauners have a home in Montana.] I’m in a motorcycle club, a Harley club called American Flyers, and we go everywhere…. I’ll be taking the Harley around for the summer, especially for the county fairs. I’m a lover of fairs and corn dogs. I’m a big outdoorsman…. I’m a big hunter. Avid fisherman.  Hiker. Climber. Scuba diver. Skier. Love the outdoors. 

CF: If you were to be elected governor, can you imagine yourself thinking you should be president?

BR: I really have no interest in that.  Very candidly, I love Illinois…. I never want to leave.

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