Is Gov. Bruce Rauner a leader being unmercifully squeezed by Chicago Machine Democrats?
Or is he just another transactional man, a politician without a core, lost in the winds and beginning to frighten his campaign contributors?
Lately it’s been hard to tell. And that means trouble not only for Rauner but for Illinois Republicans statewide.
Rauner has tried to appease his Democratic critics in a series of clumsy moves. And early this week comes another: He’s reported to be ready to sign a controversial sanctuary state bill, protecting immigrants who are here illegally.
In doing so, Rauner opens a breach on his right political flank.
Actually, it’s not a breach. It’s more like a gorge, full of angry conservative whispers.
This rift could cost Rauner his re-election and the prospects of Republicans picking up seats in the Illinois House in hopes of curbing the powers of the dark lord, the state’s Democratic boss, House Speaker Mike Madigan.
The gorge between the governor and conservatives will only get wider if Rauner signs the so-called sanctuary state bill.
That legislation protects immigrants who are here illegally from federal law enforcement by curbing cooperation between local police and federal immigration authorities. It is supported by liberal Democrats, particularly Hispanics, and many of Chicago’s big business establishment Republicans who’ve also backed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s sanctuary city policies for Chicago.
Supporters of the bill say it’s largely symbolic. But if it’s only about symbolism, then why is Rauner signing it and risking suburban and downstate voters he’ll need in 2018?
“I said this could be the last straw, and every day I’m feeling it worse,” state Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, told me in an interview. “And this isn’t just the ‘right wing’ that’s angry. These are union members too, loyal union men trying to protect American jobs, and the last thing they need to see is a Republican governor making Illinois a sanctuary state.”
McCarter’s part of southern Illinois decidedly voted for President Donald Trump, largely on Trump’s call to control illegal immigration.
“In this 15th Congressional District, the president won (with) 70 percent,” McCarter said. “And for the governor to go against the president — and make illegal immigrants a priority as we’re facing a fiscal crisis in Illinois — it’s just not good policy and it’s not good politics.”
Rauner isn’t going to pick up votes of Democrats or Latinos if he signs the sanctuary state bill. On Friday, he vetoed a bill mandating a $15 minimum wage. He won’t get love from the left.
But now he’s looking squishy to his base, and that’s disastrous. It will cost him votes in the suburbs and downstate. And he can’t give votes away.
Boss Madigan and his Democrats have all but placed a crown on the head of their endorsed candidate, billionaire J.B. Pritzker, not for Pritzker’s charisma, but because he can self-fund an expensive campaign and help Madigan with legislative races.
“If Rauner signs this Sanctuary State thing, and his office said he’s going to sign it, then he’s complicating the message Republicans will be using in the elections,” McCarter said. “We’ll have to say, we support the governor on some things and not on others. That’s not what you want. That’s not a unified message. That’s not good politics. And it just makes the state House and Senate races more difficult.”
Rauner, of course, has his defenders, and a vigorous champion is Pat Brady, the former Illinois Republican Party chairman and Madigan antagonist who was my guest on an upcoming edition of “The Chicago Way” podcast.
I wondered aloud if it wouldn’t be better for Rauner to just pull the plug and announce he wouldn’t seek re-election. Brady said no.
“I fully support him,” Brady said. “It’s been rough. It’s been brutal down there. And he’s as tough a guy as I know. He just had a bad couple weeks. And he’s fixed it. And as long as they’re going to put up J.B. Pritzker, and it looks like they’re going to coronate him, we’re going to see a Gov. Rauner in a second term.”
His bad couple of weeks started off with that disastrous interview with Brett Baier of Fox News, where Rauner avoided specifics on almost every subject and became the subject of ridicule by national pundits.
Recently came Rauner’s firing of conservatives he brought on as communications staff from the conservative libertarian think tank, the Illinois Policy Institute.
The controversy was over an earlier IPI cartoon depicting a black child in a classroom and a white politician telling him there was no money for schools.
“Sorry kid, I’m broke,” said the white guy, who had plenty of tax increment fund cash, accurately reflecting the politics of public education in Chicago.
Democrats and their liberal mouthpieces shrieked that it was a racist cartoon and demanded Rauner apologize. Rather than use the opportunity to fight, he panicked. His communications staff issued a response that, “as a white male,” Rauner would have nothing more to add.
That wasn’t wise, but all the governor had to do was stand up and challenge the race baiters of the left and tell us what minorities in Chicago already know: that for decade upon decade, many minority children have received substandard educations in underperforming schools while being used as political pawns by white machine pols and the rest of the special interests that feed off the public schools.
But Rauner didn’t engage. He just twisted in the wind a bit. And that’s been his problem lately, the wind.
Listen to “The Chicago Way” podcast here: http://wgnradio.com/category/wgn-plus/thechicagoway/.