Illinois Issues: Governor's Top Priorities? Message, Message, Message

Jul 22, 2015

News Analysis — Six months into the new administration, we finally have a sense of what Gov. Bruce Rauner’s top priority really is.

At times in the campaign, it seemed as though he might focus on weakening government employee unions, as was his message during the Republican primary. Or taking on issues of concern to business, as was his message approaching the general election. Or perhaps even making Illinois the most compassionate state in the country — a message with which he stunned supporters into silence during his election-night victory speech. The breadth of those policies gives a clue to Rauner’s governing priority. But it’s the mere fact of them, not their content, that matters. That’s because for Illinois’ novice governor, the top priority is the message.

  “I’m not a politician,” Rauner said back in 2013, in the early days of his campaign. “I’ve never run for office — I didn’t even run for student council in high school.” That may have once been true, but Rauner has proven a quick study, exhibiting an expert politician’s lack of sheepishness or shame when it comes to shifting positions.

Nowhere is Rauner’s political flexibility more apparent than in his change of tone on state employees. It’s worth revisiting a speech he gave on March 9, 2013, at a Republican Party Lincoln Day Dinner in Tazewell County. Video of the speech is on Rauner’s YouTube page: “Springfield’s never seen anybody like me, because I don’t want a political career,” Rauner said. “I don’t care if I’m re-elected. I don’t care who I upset,” he said, saying he’d be “like a bulldozer down there.” Rauner acknowledged he might have to contend with large Democratic majorities, but nevertheless promised to slash spending: “Even if they’ve got a major majority against us, you know what? They can’t stop us. They won’t stop me if I want to spend dramatically less. You need the legislature if you want to spend more. If you want to spend less, they can’t stop me. … And I apologize — we may have to go through a little rough times. If we have to do what Ronald Reagan did with the air traffic controllers — if we sort of have to do a do-over and shut things down for a little while, that's what we're going to do.”

There are three major points packed into that brief speech: Rauner doesn’t care about a political career, he can unilaterally slash state spending and he would proudly court a government shutdown and mass layoff of state employees. His more recent actions and statements, however, have contradicted those claims.

After campaigning on shutdown talk and more recently suggesting state employees are paid too much, Rauner has transformed himself into a champion of the bureaucrat. “I want you to know that we, in our administration, are working for you,” Rauner told a group of state employees at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency on the eve of the new fiscal year. “I want to make darn sure you guys are paid, you guys are paid on time, you don’t miss any payroll, and you’re paid 100 percent of your salary.” Instead of welcoming “rough times,” as during the campaign, he acknowledged the budget impasse could be difficult for the families of state employees: “I apologize for that. We’re going to try to minimize the stress on your families.”

Rauner also took a pass on unilaterally managing the Democrat’s unbalanced budget proposal. He could have used his veto power to reduce spending levels, or signed the budget as-is and simply ordered agencies under his control to spend less. “If you want to spend less, they can’t stop me,” he boasted during the Tazewell County speech. But Democrats didn’t have to stop him, because Rauner stopped himself. He vetoed the budget, refusing to negotiate unless Democrats caved to parts of his pro-business, anti-union agenda.

The governor also offered a harsh critique of the Democratic spending plan, using the word “irresponsible” at least six times in one news conference. But one of the major budget gimmicks Rauner criticized was part of his own spending proposal. Both plans counted on hundreds of millions of dollars in savings wrung from changing the terms of state employee health insurance. Rauner’s budget also counted on $2.2 billion in savings from a pension overhaul that was not introduced as legislation until July, and then in vastly different form. Even when the allegedly profligate Democrats led the way on a different pension overhaul several years ago, they did not count on immediate savings. That decision proved prudent when the Illinois Supreme Court struck down the pension law.

Then there’s Rauner’s statement that he’s not interested in a political career. Despite that, we’ve seen the governor consistently deflecting blame for the impasse that led the state well into the fiscal year without a budget. Along those lines, it was telling that in the TV ad intended to discredit Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, Rauner used half the air time to bolster his own public image. Finally, in discussions about term limits, the governor has said he’d limit himself to eight years in office — suggesting ambition beyond a single term.

'Pushing any specific labor regulation is not my priority at all.'

  And those are just examples that relate to one campaign speech at one dinner in one county. There are plenty of other instances of Rauner saying one thing and proposing another, particularly as it relates to labor unions. Less than a month before last November’s election, Illinois Radio Network quoted Rauner saying, “Pushing any specific labor regulation is not my priority at all.” A few months later, after he’d taken the oath of office, Illinoisans learned right-to-work zones were a priority after all.

In an interview, my public radio colleague Amanda Vinicky asked Rauner when he changed his mind about that. Rauner pointed to early campaign statements: “We talked about it all through. Now, I don’t remember a particular timing of emphasis. Obviously there a lot of issues to talk about.” From a politician as disciplined about adhering to his talking points as Rauner, that answer required a bit too much credulity. That’s particularly true because the “timing of emphasis” was so clear: Before he won the Republican primary, Rauner was rabidly anti-union in his rhetoric, so frequently villifying “government union bosses” that his repetition of the phrase approached the realm of farce. Then, after he won the primary, Rauner was virtually silent on the subject until after the general election. You say timing of emphasis, I say obfuscation, let’s call the whole thing off.

The essayist Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in The New Yorker, offered the following critique of the national political conventions in 1996: “So many words! … So little meaning! For when the object of the game is to sway the emotions of the largest possible masses of people vagueness is a precision tool. Politicians are not essayists; their purpose is not to make themselves clear but to make themselves, and their ideas, acceptable to a fleeting majority. The more precise a formulation is, the more it invites disagreement. If the essayist is a sculptor, chipping away at each thought until its significance is exact and unmistakable, the politician is a truck driver, hauling as much raw granite as his vehicle will hold.”

Have the roads of this state borne a heavier load of granite than Rauner’s campaign slogan of “Shake up Springfield. Bring back Illinois”? Shortly after the inauguration, I wrote about the many faces of Rauner on the campaign trail, and wondered which one would take the oath as governor — the union buster? The businessman? The compassionate conservative? “A candidate who won on the strength of slogans and platitudes owes it to the governed to finally reveal what exactly he plans to do with the power he’s been given,” I wrote.

At the time, it seemed there were signs of hope we might soon get a better sense of the man’s true priorities and how his administration would operate. But the governor’s endless reinventions, unmoored from past positions, have left the citizens of Illinois with a muddied picture of the man who’ll be running the state for at least the next three-and-a-half years.

A version of this story ran as the State of the State column in the August 2015 edition of Illinois Issues magazineSubscribe to the State of the State podcast and other WUIS programs on our podcast page, or by copying this URL into iTunes or any other podcast app.

Music: "What's On Your Mind (Pure Energy)" by Information Society, "Gonna Fly Now" from the Rocky soundtrack, "6 Ghosts I" and "13 Ghosts II" by Nine Inch Nails, and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.