CHICAGO – Bruce Rauner’s wealth has been an underlying theme throughout the campaign for Illinois governor, from his choice of wristwatch to critics’ questions about his business dealings to rivals accusing him of trying to “buy” the GOP nomination with more than $6 million of his own money he has put into the campaign.
A sustained advertising campaign has helped propel the Winnetka venture capitalist to become the front-runner in Tuesday’s primary against state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford. But his rivals and others have accused his businesses of putting profits before people, saying voters still don’t know who Rauner really is beyond the carefully crafted image his campaign has portrayed.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the 58-year-old insisted he’s just who he says he is – an outsider intent on dramatically shaking up how “career politicians” run Springfield, and who has the financial independence to do so. Addressing the campaign criticisms, he said his fortune has given him a voice in school reform and other public causes, and now he wants to focus on better leadership in Illinois.
“Money’s important, but it isn’t a motivator for me,” said Rauner, whose tax returns show he made about $108 million between 2010 and 2012. “I want to do something that I’m proud of and that I can look back on with pride of accomplishment.”
Rauner’s rivals contend that he would have remained a virtual unknown statewide if it wasn’t for the more than $14 million he has raised in total, much of it spent on TV ads.
“If Bruce Rauner hadn’t spent nearly $20 million, with his lack of experience he wouldn’t be given a look by any voter in the state of Illinois,” Brady said.
Rauner’s campaign puts his net worth in the hundreds of millions – enough to buy nine homes, but not to land on Forbes’ list of wealthiest Americans. Depending on the day and the market, he hovers in the ballpark of being a billionaire. But he said his message has been more important than how he’s spent his money.
In the interview at his Chicago campaign headquarters, Rauner said he acquired his wealth through hard work, not an inheritance. He grew up in what he describes as a middle-class family that became upper class, son of a Motorola engineer and executive. His role model was his grandfather, a dairy farmer and member of the butter makers union in Wisconsin who taught him the importance of hard work and giving back.
Growing up, Rauner had a paper route and parked cars. While studying for a Harvard MBA, he met two bank executives who were starting a venture capital firm and invited him to join. Rauner said at first he didn’t know exactly what venture capital was.
“I found some young little companies that we invested in that did very, very well,” Rauner said.
By 31, he was co-head of the company known as GTCR, ultimately a highly successful investment firm. Some of the firm’s investments have become material for rivals’ attacks in the governor’s race, including criticisms levelled in TV ads funded by labor unions who adamantly oppose him.
One centered on Stuart Levine, a convicted figure in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s corruption scandal. Crain’s Chicago Business reported Levine was making $25,000 a month from a company partially owned by GTCR while the company was soliciting state pension investment business. Levine was on the retirement system’s board, and GTCR eventually received about $50 million in business.
Rauner says GTCR didn’t have any involvement with Levine, and got the pension business because it did an “outstanding” job.
Dillard has been skeptical, saying during one debate, “I don’t believe that answer one iota.”
Another union-backed ad alleged that another company partially founded by Rauner’s firm drained money from nursing homes, causing residents to become malnourished and dehydrated while Rauner’s company profited. Lawsuits filed on behalf of three residents who died led to more than $1 billion in judgments against the company that managed the facilities.
Rauner says his firm had nothing to do with the company at the time of the incidents and called the ads “an outrageous political attack.” He said the company was in bankruptcy when the judgments were awarded and presented no defense. The verdicts are being appealed.
Dillard and Brady have attacked Rauner about another case, in which GTCR reportedly made at least $32 million by selling its stock in a company before an earnings scandal that sent top executives to prison became public, according to the Chicago Tribune. Neither Rauner nor his partners were accused of wrongdoing.
“When you finance 400 companies, very rarely but occasionally some executives behave badly and they need to be prosecuted and sent to jail and we cooperated with that,” said Rauner in a debate Thursday.
The money Rauner and his wife have given to education has funded private school vouchers, teacher merit pay and non-union charter schools. They funded a YMCA in a Chicago neighborhood and the Midwest headquarters of the American Red Cross.
In the interview, Rauner noted more than 6,000 donors have given his campaign about $8 million, combined. And he says history has proven Illinois elections can’t be bought.
“There are plenty of examples of very wealthy people who have run for office and failed, certainly in Illinois,” he said. “Frankly, I would never ask a supporter to bet big on me if I wouldn’t bet big on myself. It wouldn’t be fair.”