CHICAGO — Bruce Rauner, the most vulnerable governor in the nation, is cleaning house in a radical office shake-up that has members of his own party fearing the blue-state Republican is making a hard move to the right.
Since Monday morning, the first-term governor has fired his chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and his spokesperson, among other aides. At the same time, he pushed through the demotion of a GOP state House legislative leader. In another sign of the turmoil gripping Springfield, state Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, who helped lead a grand bargain attempt to resolve the recent budget stalemate, resigned from office July 1.
The governor’s dramatic staff changes come as Rauner faces a reelection battle for the ages in a solidly Democratic state. And they follow on the heels of a budget crisis brought on by a long-running political fight between Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. The governor suffered a stinging rebuke last week when legislators — including nearly a dozen Republicans — voted to override his veto of a Democratic budget and put a permanent income tax increase into law.
Rauner is replacing his staff by opening the doors of the governor’s office to an influential — and controversial — conservative think tank: the Illinois Policy Institute. He hired its president, Kristina Rasmussen, as his new chief of staff, and its vice president of policy, Michael Lucci, as a deputy chief. He’s also bringing on Laurel Patrick, a former spokesperson for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, as his communications director, according to an internal office memo. More staffing changes are expected this week.
“I’m honored to join you as we position Illinois to become the most prosperous, compassionate, and free state in the nation,” Rasmussen wrote in a memo sent to all of the governor’s office staff on Tuesday. “Mutual respect paired with radical candor will make this an even greater place to work.”
That came one day after the governor’s former chief of staff, Richard Goldberg, was dismissed and his assistant, a longtime state worker, was escorted out of the premises by security.
The outcome of the budget fight dealt a serious blow to Rauner, who campaigned in 2014 as a change agent who would clean up the state’s fiscal mess and lower income taxes. After holding out on a budget deal for two years, Rauner ultimately won few of his policy proposals and was unable to stop a 32 percent increase to the income tax rate.
Some of Rauner’s allies believed the result could be spun into a positive reelection message — in their view, the governor would finally have revenue to keep state operations churning, while not owning the tax increase.
But in the days following the veto, Rauner, a multimillionaire former CEO with a reputation for scorched-earth business tactics, grew increasingly incensed over the turn of events, several people with knowledge of his decision-making said.
In addition to the tax increase, benefits to the city of Chicago were tucked into the budget package, including a measure helping put two city pension funds on a path to solvency — an issue that Rauner had vetoed in a stand-alone bill earlier this year and attempted to hold as leverage over Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Illinois Policy Institute CEO John Tillman, who has acted as an unofficial adviser to Rauner — and whose group has sharply criticized the governor at times — told POLITICO he believes Rauner is hitting the reset button.
“I think the governor has returned to where he started off: putting the people first and not putting the political class first,” Tillman said. The “override of the General Assembly made their case clear to the people of Illinois that they have too much money and the government needs more of it. I think the override is a terrible thing for the people of Illinois.”
Privately, Republicans who have in the past allied with Rauner fear he’s straying from his personal principles and alienating lawmakers he needs by pairing up with a conservative group that’s out of step with many of their constituents. They blame the IPI for contributing to a toxic atmosphere on social media, so much so the institute issued a warning to its followers last week to keep the conversation civil.
While Illinois finally has an operating budget, it isn’t yet out of the woods financially. Moody’s Investors Services has warned it may still face a “junk” downgrade because of the staggering $250 billion owed to the public pension system.
Rauner will need to build legislative coalitions if he wants to stave off future legislative rebellions and not be rendered ineffectual during the next 18 months in office. He has yet to advance an agenda that most Republicans still support — providing property tax relief, imposing term limits and making more substantial changes to the way injured workers are compensated.
“I think the one thing the governor has truly accomplished is changing the dialogue in Springfield — pushing the idea that just raising taxes was not the right answer,” said Lance Trover, a deputy chief of staff who just left the office. Trover had given his notice a month ago, he said, but was asked to stay through Friday.
But advancing Rauner’s agenda now could be a tall order after pairing with IPI, a hardline group that once advocated for the firing of all state employees. It’s grown in power in recent years, in part by buying out a state radio network and starting a wire service that provides free news content — including political cartoons and columnists — to newspapers.
Some state House Republicans blame the group (which has denied it) for distributing cell phone numbers of members who planned to vote in favor of the budget. At least one — state Rep. Steven Andersson — received a death threat that is now under investigation.
“The Illinois Policy Institute has done a wonderful job of bullying,” Republican state Rep. Bob Pritchard told POLITICO in a recent interview.
Democrats have used the recent moves — and the IPI connection — to paint Rauner as an extremist. While the governor so far is not facing a formidable primary challenge, a slew of Democrats are running to challenge him in what’s expected to be one of the costliest races in the nation — including billionaire J.B. Pritzker and Chris Kennedy, the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
“By hiring Kristina Rasmussen, Governor Rauner is saying that he’s going to war against working families, against unions, against people who deserve collective bargaining for fair wages and benefits,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ameya Pawar said on WJBC-AM 1230. “History tells us that there are lots of people who ruled with fear, but that only works so long as people are scared of you. Eventually one person will have the courage to say, ‘I’m not scared of you anymore’ and you start to see cracks in the system. That’s what happened last week with this bipartisan budget. People aren’t scared of Bruce Rauner anymore, his regime is crumbling and you can see it’s getting to him.”