CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner was already having a bad month. Now he’s barely treading water.
After he fired top staffers this week in the wake of a veto override vote, the first-term GOP governor has floundered in his public response — or the lack thereof — to devastating flooding in his state.
The timing could hardly be worse for Rauner, who is widely believed to be the nation’s most vulnerable governor as he gears up for his 2018 reelection.
Rauner is getting trounced in the local media for failing to visit, fly over, make a statement — or even send a tweet — after an unprecedented amount of rainfall in northern Illinois caused flash flooding, leaving subdivisions under water, shutting down a major amusement park, flooding a community college and even prompting the evacuation of a local hospital.
Just over the border, Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker is showing him up. While Rauner’s first visit to the damaged areas takes place today, Walker has already declared a state of emergency in Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties and deployed 100 members of the National Guard to assist with resident checks and other flooding-related complications.
Portions of both Midwestern states were soaked by a deluge of rain this week, beginning Tuesday evening.
Walker’s actions have only sharpened the focus on Rauner’s radio silence. Lake County, in northern Illinois, was battered by a torrent of rain that prompted evacuation of residences in several communities including an apartment complex in Grayslake whose residents were evacuated by boat on Thursday. Numerous roads remained closed Thursday evening including in Gurnee, where large sinkholes formed in the highway.
“Record flooding is occurring and Record flooding is forecast,” the National Weather Service alerted early Friday.
The damage was so bad even Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago weighed in:
“As flood concerns continue in Lake County, please help each other and pray for our brothers & sisters facing the same problem around the world,” Cupich said on his Facebook page.
While Lake County signed a declaration of emergency on Wednesday, it didn’t hear back from Rauner’s office until just before 6 p.m. on Thursday — when state officials said the governor would visit an emergency center the next morning. The phone call came after Rauner was pummeled in the local press on Thursday for failing to weigh in on the devastation.
“Has anyone seen our Governor during this massive flooding disaster in Lake County? #LeadershipMatters” tweeted Democratic state Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch.
“Isn’t this Governor 101? Why hasn’t @GovRauner visited Lake County Flooding? Too busy reorganizing new staff?” tweeted an NBC/5 political reporter.
“Scott Walker calls out the Natl Guard for floods in his state. @GovRauner does … nothing” chided another reporter.
Rauner’s office noted Thursday the governor was visiting Lake County today and did not immediately respond today to questions about the lack of response compared to that of Walker.
Rauner, who was in Lake County on Friday touring the flooded sites, sent out this tweet beforehand: "Stay safe out there. We’ll be heading to Lake Co. later today to see the damage from the nearly record flooding."
Asked if the governor’s lack of communication has hampered efforts, Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor said: “Communication is always helpful, more communication is always better,” Lawlor said. “Your constituents want to know their leaders are empathizing with them.”
But Lawlor added he was thankful Rauner would visit Friday and that he didn’t have a great experience with then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s office for a 2013 flooding event, which was less severe than this week’s episode. While Quinn’s office called and offered assistance sooner, Quinn himself didn’t show, he said. “I do remember that Quinn’s office reached out in 2013 and … attempted to schedule something and bailed at the last minute.”
In a sweeping change to his office, Rauner earlier this week fired a number of top aides — including his chief of staff and main office spokesperson — in a staffing shakeup following a series of legislative overrides in the General Assembly last week.
“It’s kind of dropping the ball,” said Kent Redfield, former director of the Institute for Government and Public Affairs in Springfield. “I think the transition, the shakeup and the lack of focus, gets you off your game. The people who would normally be saying: ‘what’s going on and how should the governor respond?’” are distracted or gone, he said.
Redfield noted the irony in Rauner’s lack of response, given that the multi-millionaire has taken great pains to create a folksy, “everyman” image, frequently wearing flannel shirts, riding a Harley and dropping g’s at the end of his words.
On Thursday, Walker tweeted a photo of the flooding: “This is the corner of the intersection by the Burlington Police Department (there is about 10 feet of water in their basement).”