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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

It’s “Silly” to Call Him the De Facto Governor, John Tillman Says

The CEO of the influential Illinois Policy Institute, whose employees were recruited en masse for governor’s office positions, sits down to talk about pensions, Madigan, and who controls Springfield.

Tillman has been accused of pulling the strings in the governor's office. He says he's just one of many people Bruce Rauner draws from when it comes to policy.  Photo: Courtesy of Illinois Policy Institute

I interviewed John Tillman at the LaSalle Street offices of the Illinois Policy Institute, where he serves as CEO. His name has been buzzing (more than usual) in political circles lately: The Sun-Times’s Tina Sfondeles, quoting a “source,” writes that Tillman “clearly has the ultimate influence [on the governor] at this point.”  To many, it appears that Tillman tells the governor not only what to think but whom to hire

Anyone who follows local politics has read about how Republican Governor Bruce Rauner clumsily and cruelly fired his top staffers—stories had staffers hiding in the restroom and being notified of their dismissals via Twitter—and replacing them with IPI employees. His critics charged that Rauner was “outsourcing” the highest ranks of his staff to the libertarian, free-market IPI.

The 58-year-old Tillman, born, reared, and educated in Michigan, now lives in suburban Golf with his wife and daughter. And, reporters and pundits would have it, he is the scheming puppet-master and grand manipulator, comparable to the IPI’s (and Rauner’s) arch enemy, House Speaker Michael Madigan.

I had interviewed Tillman in 2014 while writing a profile of Rauner, then running for governor. Tillman had come to know Rauner, then still a private businessman with a deep interest in charter schools, in 2008 when Rauner called him to talk education policy. “We both would like to see parents … control their kids’ destiny,” Tillman told me last week, “and not have the bureaucracy control their destiny.” That led, Tillman added, to many conversations, meetings, and $600,000-plus in contributions from Rauner to the IPI. (Tillman laments that Rauner has not given him any money since becoming governor.)

Now Senate Bill 1, the state school funding bill that will determine whether Illinois’s 800-plus school districts can open on time and stay open, hangs in the balance: Rauner issued an amendatory veto and veto-override, so the ball is now in the General Assembly’s court. Considering recent events, I decided to ask for another sit-down with Tillman.

The following is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

You are called by some, “the de facto governor.”

Whoever says that is being silly. There’s only one governor and that, of course, is Governor Rauner. We share the passion of trying to help the people of Illinois have better lives. We talk a lot about that.

How did it happen that you lost so many of your people to the state government?

I don’t prefer the term “lost.” I think the state of Illinois is lucky to have these incredibly talented people. These are very difficult jobs, and I think this whole uproar about the staff shakeup is way over the top. Gubernatorial administrations have had turnover from the beginning of time. Perfectly normal. The people who are in there now will one day be out. The governor is advancing his vision and his mission and the staff’s job is to advance the governor’s agenda, not the other way around.

The people who left IPI to go to the Rauner administration generally have no government experience. Is that a problem?

The idea that you have to literally work in government as a government employee to have government experience is false. Every one of these people have been involved in the legislative process as advocates, have been involved in negotiating and talking to legislators and promoting legislation. More importantly, those who are experienced in government have driven the state into the ground. And I think it’s time for a change.

When I interviewed you in 2014, during the campaign, I asked you about the Rahm/Rauner friendship, and you said, the one thing they have in common is they get stuff done. Bruce Rauner has not gotten stuff done. Would you agree with that?

No, I would not agree with that. I think the governor has played the very difficult hand he has quite well. You have Democrat majorities in the house and senate, supermajority in the senate. You have Democrat leadership in Madigan and [Senate President John] Cullerton who want to block the governor every step of the way. The fact that the General Assembly had the school funding bill from May 31 to July 31 before presenting to the governor is an example of the blockage—to try to prevent the governor from having a legislative achievement.

Despite that, though, the governor has done a number of things: criminal justice reform, government efficiency, procurement, and managed health care, where he had some latitude or had some cooperation. In order to do more, you have to have a willing partner on the other side, and speaker Madigan had decided to be an unwilling partner.

What about Senate President Cullerton? Do you consider him more reasonable?

I’ve found him to be quite a charming man. During the 2011 tax hike fight, he took issue with something I said, and he called me up. We had what I would consider a very fun banter and exchange. Someone like president Cullerton would be much more willing to try to find common ground if he didn’t have a partner on the other side who was much less willing to do so. Speaker Madigan’s entire focus is on maintaining power. I think President Cullerton would actually like to solve some of these problems.

Lately Cullerton seems to be questioning Rauner’s mental state, telling him to “Get a grip,” similar to pundits and pols questioning the mental state of Donald Trump. What do you think?

I think it shows desperation on their part. It says more about them than it does anybody else.

How many people work for IPI?

Fifty-ish, split between here and Springfield. People ask why we have offices here and in Springfield. I always say it’s because the crimes are planned and financed in Chicago, but they’re committed in Springfield, so we have to be in both places.

How much influence do the views that are formulated in your think tank have on Governor Rauner?

I don’t think that’s the right question. I think the right question is, how does Governor Rauner get ideas that help him advance his agenda? He looks to us but he also looks everywhere. He looks all across the country. We are just one voice; I am just one voice of many that he talks to. He is a very curious person, with a very curious mind. He cares deeply about policy, because he knows that public policy changes people’s lives for the better or the worse.

He’s beginning to show real irritation, telling reporters, “Nobody tells me what my policies are, nobody.”

The governor identified the problem when he ran in 2014: The problem is that the people of Illinois have very little control over the government, led by Mike Madigan. Career politicians have been in there forever and driven the state into the ground—and some of them have been Republicans. But Mike Madigan is the longest-serving one, the most powerful one.

Who are some of the Republicans who have driven …

I think Governor Thompson and Governor Edgar, particularly Governor Edgar. He likes to pretend that he was the last responsible governor. That’s just not true. He knew and everybody knew that his defined pension ramp back-loaded pension scheme was a Ponzi scheme. [IPI has written often about its vehement opposition to public pension plans.]

And you’d do what about pensions?

What we should do immediately is have every new employee go into a 401K program and close down the defined benefit program for new employees. If you actually care about protecting current retirees and current workers, you should be advocating to put more employees into a 401K program. It has been done by other states, including Michigan.

Among the announced Democrats running for governor in 2018, who’s the biggest threat to Rauner in the general election?

They’re all going to be a junior partner to Speaker Madigan and I think the people of Illinois need to think long and hard about that.

How do you describe your political philosophy?

I got into this because I was so mad at Republicans who say one thing and do another. As I learned more, I got just as mad at Democrats. So I’m not a particular fan of either party. But my personal, political philosophy is this: If the policy empowers people, I’m for it. If the policy empowers government beyond its constitutional limit, I’m generally against it.

On social issues?

I don’t get into social issues at all.

Who did you support for President?

I’m not getting into that.

How’s Rahm doing as mayor?

I think Rahm has been an incredible disappointment as mayor. You quoted me earlier as saying that he’s someone who gets things done; I think he has gotten very little done. Look at the condition of the city from the day he started: It’s been all downhill and not good for the people of Chicago. The educational system is more poorly funded; the pensions are more largely unfunded; violence is worse; police morale is not good. The exodus of people from the city; particularly middle-class African Americans, is accelerating. You’ve had some high-profile companies moving in to the city, but in terms of average people who are not connected to political power, it’s been a very tough tenure.

Which president in your lifetime do you most admire?

I would have to say Ronald Reagan because I think people forget what Reagan inherited. As bad as what President Obama inherited, what President Reagan inherited was far worse: the lack of optimism, the Soviet threat, the Cold War, it was very difficult. The president that I would actually go back to that I admire, a Democrat, is Grover Cleveland. I’m reading a Cleveland biography written in the 1920s. I’m trying to read a book on every president. Maybe I’m 15 in.

What do you take away from Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics supplier that makes Apple products, going to Wisconsin?

Here’s the bottom line. If the state is competitive for business, businesses are going to come here. I talk to business owners regularly, who ask: If I move to Indiana or Iowa or Texas, how does that affect my individual tax load? How does that affect my workers’ comp expenses? I have a friend of mine who runs a small steel business. If he moves to Indiana he saves $90,000 on lower workman’s comp costs. So that’s $90,000 he can invest in his business. This is why we have slow growth. Because people make these decisions and they go where it’s rational. That’s what Foxconn did.

Do you have any desire to be part of Rauner’s administration?

I’m very happy to be where I’m at.

Tell me something about your background.

I grew up in a small town in Michigan, an hour north of Grand Rapids, in Fremont, the home of Gerber baby food. My parents got divorced when I was very young. My mom went from playing golf and bridge with the women at the country club to waiting tables at the country club. She was in and out of mental institutions when I was in high school. The greatest gift I had was growing up in the town that I did. Fremont in the ‘60s and ‘70s is a little like a Norman Rockwell painting. I lived with my football coach for a good part of my senior year, and I could have lived with other families that offered to put me up. I think about all the kids in the city of Chicago or around this state who don’t have those options, who don’t have that option of people who have your back, who are living in a neighborhood that’s dysfunctional. That’s probably why I do what I do.

I went to school in Detroit at Wayne State University. I have a B.A. in business administration. I don’t have a master’s degree, which I always say with pride. I started out at Central Michigan University, did that for three years, and decided I was not fulfilling my promise. I took a year off and was a ski bum in Steamboat Springs, and that really taught me about the importance of education, and focus. Eventually, I went to Detroit and Washington D.C. for a few years and ended up in Chicago in 1985. I’ve been a small business entrepreneur, I’ve worked in the call- center business.

Hobbies?

I’m a skier. I play golf, tennis, I love all sports. I love to do projects around the house. I built an awesome tree fort for my daughter. It’s now gone, but that was fun. It had eight-foot ceilings, three bunk beds, electricity, and lights, and no I did not ask permission or pull a permit. I’m sure the city would shut me down if I tried to do it.

 

Finally, post interview via email, I asked Tillman to respond to an item in a Mike Sneed Sun-Times column.

A top, top GOP politico tells Sneed Republican state legislators are being indoctrinated with far-right ideology … ‘They are being called in to meet individually with the staff of the uber-conservative Illinois Policy Institute for questioning and/or indoctrination on its far-right ideology — now that Governor Bruce Rauner has moved many of its staff, including his new chief of staff, Kristina Rasmussen, from the institute’s office into the actual office of the governor,’ the source tells Sneed.

Tillman wrote in response: “The statement is a flat-out lie. Had Sneed taken the time to follow up on this rumor, she would’ve found that it was just that: a lie. But then there wouldn’t be a story and where’s the fun in that?”

And the battle rages on. No end in sight, not even, apparently, with schools around the state about to open and funding still in limbo.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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