CHICAGO – The rising issue of a minimum wage hike tripped up Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner on Thursday, as he declared his previous support for cutting Illinois’ minimum wage a “mistake” and said he would now do the opposite: support raising it.
The suburban Chicago venture capitalist’s reversal on minimum wage came after a downstate candidate forum last month where he said he’d like to roll back Illinois’ $8.25 an hour to the national rate of $7.25. The comment sparked criticism from unions and his Republican opponents, making it the most prominent issue of the 2014 campaign season so far.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who’s seeking re-election, wants to raise the rate to at least $10 an hour, an approach that runs parallel to a national Democratic strategy and one that could linger throughout the campaign.
Meanwhile, Rauner made big efforts to defend and clarify his position, including an opinion piece published Thursday in the Chicago Tribune.
“I was flippant, made a mistake, made a comment without thoroughly explaining my views,” Rauner told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I didn’t use careful language.”
The same day, a video emerged of Rauner in which he tells a Ford County Republicans group in September that he’s “adamantly, adamantly” opposed to raising the minimum wage. The footage, posted online by the Chicago Sun-Times, was shot by American Bridge 21st Century, which is a Democratic-funded super PAC. A spokesman said a tracker for the group took the video at an event held at a Gibson City golf course.
Rauner said Thursday that he’d support boosting the state minimum wage under the right circumstances, a view that differs from his three Republican opponents who don’t support an increase. Rauner also said he’d back raising it if the national wage was first increased or if Illinois first approved workers’ compensation and tax reforms.
“I support raising it to $10 ... but I want it done in the context of improving the business climate,” he told the AP.
Roughly 1.1 million workers in Illinois earn minimum wage, according to the Illinois Department of Labor. Raising the rate is a popular idea among voters and something Quinn has already pushed for, but business groups say it kills jobs and hurts businesses that’ll have to cut payroll or hours to keep up. Opponents also argue Illinois’ rate is $1 more than neighboring Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin, which gives businesses incentive to move.
The other Republican candidates – Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady – all blasted Rauner’s comments as flip-flopping and as being out-of-touch since Rauner is a billionaire.
“If we raise the rate, we discourage job growth. If we cut it, we impact hard-working Illinois families who depend on a minimum wage as better jobs continue to leave Illinois,” Brady said in a statement.
Rauner’s shifting on the issue could be a mark of being a new candidate, political experts said. Rauner is seeking public office for the first time.
“This shows he hasn’t necessarily thought through every possible answer,” said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “He’s not real comfortable in his role yet. He hasn’t dealt with these issues. That’s all because he’s a newbie.”
In response to the video, Rauner’s spokesman Mike Schrimpf said Rauner “has learned his lesson about the need to give well thought-out responses to the issue of raising the minimum wage.”
Meanwhile, Quinn likened the four Republicans to the wealthy villain on “The Simpsons” television show.
“These guys have all the compassion of C. Montgomery Burns,” Quinn said in a campaign email.
The Chicago Democrat often portrays himself as a man of the people, a theme he’s likely to return to often on the campaign trail.
Quinn’s Democratic primary challenger, Tio Hardiman, supports an increase of at least $12 an hour.
Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sophiatareen .