What Rauner's Been Telling Rank And File Legislators

Jan 8, 2015

During his first capitol press conference, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner vowed to get to know every legislator; he's making progress.

If you listened to Bruce Rauner on the campaign trail, you'd think that he would want to steer clear of Illinois' lawmakers. He reviled them. Especially those who had long careers in Springfield. Rauner, remember, ran on a platform advocating for term limits. But that was before he won election. Now, as he prepares to be Illinois' next governor, Rauner has spent a time reaching out to the politicians he'd once vilified. Amanda Vinicky checked in with some of them about how it went.

In early December, Gov.-elect Rauner visited Springfield when the legislature was in session. Rauner gave a primary reason for the trip: to meet with members Illinois House and Senate.

"My goal is to get to know everybody personally, on a first name basis. Over time get to know them and their goals and personal priorities and work style," Rauner said. "I want to get to know everybody well. And develop a good working partnership, a good working relationship."

His office wouldn't (or couldn't) say how many of the 177 General Assembly members he's met or talked to on the phone, but the tally's high. Rauner had gotten to know many of his fellow Republicans during his campaign. And while his relationship with them may well change once he calls on them to take tough votes, for now -- they're encouraged, excited.

It's Democrats whom Rauner really has to begin to get to know. Not only because most of them are strangers, but because Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Rauner's first big meeting was with the legislature's two honchos: House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton. They're the real crucial players going forward.

But rank-and-file Democrats, like Rep. Dan Beiser will pay a role too. Beiser, who's from Alton, says his meeting with Rauner lasted about 15 minutes.

"It was more informal. Very little politics of where 'do you stand on this issue'. There was none of that. It was more based on: just to get to know you, I've never met you, I'd like to get to know you. And it was not just one way. It was Gov. Rauner and Rep. Beiser exchanging those bits of information," Beiser said.

They talked about their families, and backgrounds.

"The biggest thing I think that I brought out of that meeting was that he sincerely is attempting to establish lines of communications, establish relationships, regardless of your political stances."

A big political issue in Illinois did come up during Rauner's meeting with Democratic Rep. Sue Scherer, whose represents parts of Springfield and Decatur. "He asked what was one of my most important issues, and I said 'minimum wage, because there are a lot of minimum wage workers in my district,'" she said.

That's contrary to Rauner's stance. While he changed his position on a minimum wage hike throughout the campaign, Rauner finally settled on a platform of supporting an increase, but only if it's accompanied other, pro-business policies like a redo of the workers' compensation system.

Scherer says she went to the meeting -- which was held in the capitol, in the comptroller's office -- solo. But Rauner had a couple of aides along."The staffers didn't say anything, but they took notes," she said.

One Chicago Democrat says they spent their meeting talking with Rauner about education funding, and what to do about Medicaid fraud; another, a leader of the Latino Caucus, about Rauner's stance on immigration.

Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg, focused on issues of concern in Southern Illinois that arose during Gov. Pat Quinn's reign: "I told him, I said, 'you know with fracking, coal, the oil that we have. The previous administration was not kind to us -- especially when they closed some of the prisons, because it's a big employer in my area.' But he understands it."

(Mind you, Rauner is a Republican and Quinn, like Phelps, is a Democrat.)

Phelps also apparently hit it off with Rauner with a chat about a mutual favorite hobby: "Well, you know, he said he's an outdoorsman. You know, I am as well," Phelps said. "We talked about bird hunting a little bit. Told him, I said, 'I'd love to go with ya.' It was just a very nice meeting. So, you know, I'm really anxious and excited to work with him."

If you're getting the impression that Democrats are a lot more enthusiastic about a Republican governor than you'd have expected, there are a few things to keep in mind:

-if controversial issues are to be dealt with over the next couple of years, Democrats will need Rauner, and he'll need them.

-there are some Democrats who are less than enthralled, to say the least, about a Rauner administration; they're just not as publicly outspoken about it, at least not yet. Some are rumored to have made a point to not return his overtures.

-it's as if many are starving for the executive branch's attention.

Longtime veteran legislators can sound almost wistful when they talk about the time George Ryan was governor. Though he landed in prison, many look back fondly on his inviting them to the governor's mansion; they can be reverential about Ryan's coming to the chamber floors to help revv up votes.

By contrast, Rod Blagojevich's relationship with all but a few legislators (his floor leaders) was acidic, to put it mildly. Outgoing Gov. Quinn's relationship with lawmakers generally bordered on non-existant -- many have a hard time citing when they last got even a phone call from Quinn.

As for Rauner, "he's eager to get involved, he's very engaged. I think he's going to have a much different approach to working with the legislature than the last two governors. I think it'll be refreshing," Rep. Jack Franks, an independent-minded Democrat from Marengo, said. "I don't think he's looking for yes people. That was always a big criticism I had of Gov. Quinn as well as Gov. Blagojevich. Oftentimes, if you disagreed with those gentlemen, they took it quite personally. And then it was difficult to work with them afterwards. They were just looking for validation instead of saying 'wait there might be another way.' I think Gov.-elect Rauner has a much different perspective. I think he wants people to challenge him."

All of that's projection, though. Rauner hasn't actually had to fulfill any of his campaign promises yet, veto any bills, or try to get any passed.

Legislators I talked to say Rauner was just as silent in their private meetings as he's been publicly about plans for Illinois' beleaguered finances. Democratic Sen. Emil Jones III, says when Rauner gathered members of the Black Caucus at a Chicago club/lounge, they tried to talk to him about the budget.

"That question was asked," Jones said. "And he simply stated: 'He's not a politician. He's a businessman. We're the politicians, we've been doing this. This is our career. He's trying to find out what we need. He knows what he's going to do and he says he will let us know at the proper time what he wants to do.'"

Jones says members pressed for details.

"Oh yeah, yeah. You know, as a politicians you want to know what the next man's plans are. He wasn't ready to deliver that yet," Jones said.

Even so, Jones sounds impressed with what Rauner did say: "He did say one thing that I really liked: the purpose of government is to do for people what they can't do for themselves. And he said that. It's not nothing I said to him. That came out of his own mouth. And that is the purpose of government. To help those who can't help themselves ... I was very surprised that he said that. But it lets me know he understands what the meaning of government is."

Of course, Rauner's a politician who just won statewide office. Given his success in his new profession, it's not surprising that he's adept at schmoozing, and chit-chat, even if he's meeting with fellow professional schmoozers, and even if small talk verges on wonky. Still, it's a good start.

"I ... really, think he's doing a great job reaching out to all members of the General Assembly," Rep. Beiser said. "And I think we might get back to those days where we, get back, into have some small group meetings over at the governor's mansion and things like that. Just on a social level, but also establish relationships. And everything in politics, in my opinion, or the vast majority of success in politics, is based on establishing relationships."

With the prospect of billions of dollars of budget cuts ahead given the rollback of the state's income taxes, there's a good chance these polite conversations will get a whole lot less friendly. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.