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Local Column

Olson: Rauner an earnest if not natural pol

Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner speaks to the Daily Chronicle editorial board in the newsroom on Wednesday.
Illinois Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner speaks to the Daily Chronicle editorial board in the newsroom on Wednesday.

Bruce Rauner isn’t endowed with the charisma or magnetism of a natural politician, but he came off as an earnest guy in his visit to DeKalb this week.

Rauner, the Republican nominee taking on Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in the November election, is a father of six who says his wife, Diana, is a Democrat. Rauner has a good speaking voice – he says he used to be a radio newsman in college – and despite the fact that he’s Ivy League-educated and has a mind-boggling personal fortune, he’s still able to channel the upper-middle-class suburban kid he was growing up.

I was a suburban kid myself once. So maybe we connect on that level.

Rauner’s even-keeled with an air of certainty of purpose. He’s a businessman whose No. 1 priority is to improve the state’s business climate and bring more jobs and prosperity to the state.

But he’s also a first-time candidate, and although he’s well spoken, sometimes his lack of political polish shows. He’s a suburban Republican, and the financial issues are in his wheelhouse. He doesn’t really touch social issues, and even claims he doesn’t have a social agenda. The one reference he made to gun rights during his appearance at Hopkins Park for local Republicans seemed forced and awkward.

So if you’re looking for a culture warrior, Rauner’s not your guy. This is about business.

That’s OK, though. Illinois has a 7.1 percent unemployment rate. We need to encourage job creation, stamp out corruption and set the state’s finances on a path to recovery. These are times that call for government ethics and fiscal conservatism.

Rauner might be the guy who can deliver that. He made more than $50 million in 2012, and estimates his personal fortune at $500 million. Although Democrats are trying to use that against him by parsing his tax returns, Rauner says it’s a strength.

He doesn’t need the job, and says that’s why you ought to give it to him.

“I don’t need money from any special interest groups. I can’t be bought,” Rauner said. “I don’t want or need a political career. I don’t need the job, I’m doing this out of love of the state and to transform the structure.”

He makes a great point. A guy worth $500 million probably isn’t going to be bought, and probably won’t be looking to sell whatever’s not nailed down to benefit his campaign fund or seek graft from companies with state contracts.

This being Illinois, I have to say “probably.”

Four of Illinois’ past eight governors have gone to prison, and investigations are now underway into Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a program created just before the November 2010 election that accomplished little aside from making millions of taxpayer dollars disappear. A governor who doesn’t feel the need to curry favor with special interest groups would be refreshing.

Rauner says he loves Illinois, and rather than wearing a little American flag or a cross or other symbol on his jacket lapel Wednesday, he had a pin in the shape of the state.

Lots of us love Illinois and want to take pride in it. Many of us do, even though our baseball teams stink, our governors keep going to jail, our state budget is a mess and there are bloody gang wars being fought on the streets of Chicago.

These aren’t simple problems. Rauner would be learning on the job and might learn that making things happen in Springfield isn’t as simple as we all would like. (And if he somehow helps the Cubs win the World Series, he should run for president.)

But Rauner says he’s willing to “take the arrows,” make decisions on the tough issues. (Or at least, the tough financial issues.) He’s going to shake things up. He talks about easing the regulatory burden on businesses, and reforming the state’s workman’s comp and tort systems in order to make the state more business-friendly.

“These politicians, they don’t know what they’re dealing with,” Rauner said. “They’ve never met with anybody like me. Springfield has never dealt with anybody like me.

“I do not lose.”

Last I checked, House Speaker Michael Madigan doesn’t lose too often, either.

Rauner says recent polling data shows him with a 12-point lead over Quinn, but double-digit summertime leads are often meaningless – ask Michael Dukakis.

There will be much more money spent and more positions taken in the months ahead. Given Quinn’s troubles, Rauner has an edge.  

But he’ll be challenged in the months ahead, too, on his income tax returns, his minimum wage flip-flop, his business dealings. He’ll eventually have to say more about where he stands on social issues, which can’t all be resolved by referendum. He probably won’t be able to campaign on simply not being Quinn until November.

Democrats’ attack narrative seems to be that Rauner’s a rich guy who knows nothing of the troubles of everyday working people, and wants to dismantle the social safety net, stiff public employees and bust their unions so he can lower taxes for all his rich buddies.

Rauner’s own narrative is simple.

“I want to transform government so it’s efficient and effective and run for your benefit,” Rauner said. “That’s what it’s all about for me.”

Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email, or follow him on Twitter


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