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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Is Bruce Rauner Pro-Choice, Anti-Choice, or Just an Opportunist?

The candidate for governor spent the primary flirting with social conservatives and now trumpets his bipartisan credentials. Which is it?

 Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

“He’s not a Republican, he’s an opportunist,” says Doug Ibendahl, the self-described “lifelong Republican,” former general counsel of the Illinois Republican Party, and proprietor of the web site Republican News Watch about Bruce Rauner. *

Rauner’s wife, Diana, in TV commercials and interviews, insists her husband “doesn’t have a social agenda,” that his overriding interest is in creating jobs and fixing the state’s finances.

What’s a voter to think?

Here’s some things I know from having watched Rauner since 2010, when he was raring to get into the governor’s race but hung back for reasons I described in “Will the Real Bruce Rauner Please Stand Up?” 

Rauner was disingenuously inconsistent during the primary when he needed to appeal to conservatives. He sidelined Diana, a self-proclaimed Democrat who heads the progressive Ounce of Prevention fund that provides innovative programs for zero to five-year-olds. Bruce sidelined the subject of abortion as well, but he clumsily spoke out against same-sex marriage, noting that had he been governor at the time he would have vetoed the bill.

As soon as Bruce won the nomination, out came Diana, trumpeting her husband’s politically correct views on abortion and other social issues. Bruce, post-primary, has volunteered that he’s comfortable with Illinois’s same sex marriage law and wouldn’t try to reverse it.

Diana refused my repeated requests for an interview, as did her husband (I interviewed him in 2010 and 2013 before his communications chief, Mike Shrimpf, put me on his enemies list), but I’m confident in writing now that Bruce likely just wishes these pesky issues would disappear; that he honestly hasn’t given them much thought and will do his best should he be elected tomorrow to keep them at bay. He plans, he has said, to serve for eight years, so he’ll have to face voters again in 2018. As for Diana, her views on social issues probably line up with, say, Hillary Clinton’s.

In the meantime, however, for all their more recent words intended to buck up Democratic and independent voters, both Bruce and Diana have shown themselves to be remarkably casual about sticking to their principles when it comes to writing checks to candidates for the General Assembly. Both have given money in this cycle and previous ones to candidates who are unmistakable social conservatives

If someone administered truth serum to Bruce, he’d have to say, I think, that he’d throw money at just about any Republican for the Illinois House or Senate who would help him “fix” the state’s terminally ill finances. No matter how rigid his/her views on abortion, for example, if the member could help Bruce break the Mike Madigan/John Cullerton choke-hold that passes for governing in Illinois, Bruce would help them push enough money into their coffers to win.

On February 1, 2014, pre-primary, both Bruce and Diana gave $5,300 to Republican Rod Drobinski, a first-time candidate who is running against one-term incumbent Democrat Sam Yingling in the 62nd House District. (Both candidates ran unopposed in their primaries.) Yingling, the first openly gay member outside the city and a key player in passage of same-sex marriage legislation, is struggling to hold off Drobinski, a Georgetown Law-educated Lake County assistant state’s attorney.

There’s no public polling, but a source of mine who is plugged-in to the state Republican party assures me that’s it’s close. “We weren’t supposed to win here,” he said. “It’s a dead heat right now.” The Tribune endorsed Yingling; the Daily Herald Drobinski. My source, an enthusiastic backer of Rauner’s and a social issues moderate, told me that the Drobinski/Yingling campaign is being run solely on fiscal issues. Both men oppose making permanent the temporary state income tax increase. Yingling is strong for raising the minimum wage—a social issue if ever there was one, Yingling told me late Friday afternoon. Drobinski is for leaving it where it is because a hike will kill jobs.

Yingling charges that Drobinski is hiding his extreme views, pointing to the fact that on its 2012 990 form, the Lake County Right to Life Education Fund lists Drobinski as a director. Drobinski also attended the Lake County Right to Life Banquet in May. Earlier in this general election campaign, Yingling emailed me, “Drobinski is associated with many extreme tea party people and groups. He stood with [former congressman, current WIND talk show host] Joe Walsh when most Republicans were condemning Walsh’s racist language.”

In fact, Lake County Right to Life, a no-exceptions pro-life group, sponsored “Walsh Freedom—Day of Action” last June at Walsh’s Mundelein farm in support of several candidates, including Drobinski and U.S. Senate candidate Jim Oberweis.  Two weeks after the event, Walsh told me that he had 300 to 400 people out “walking for a number of different candidates.” Meanwhile, Rauner has kept his distance since the primary, Walsh says, and wouldn’t allow Walsh’s “Freedom volunteers” to distribute his literature. “Obviously he has decided that it is not to his advantage to be in public with Joe Walsh,” Walsh told me. That wasn’t the case pre-primary, he added, pointing to the fact that Rauner appeared as a “special guest” a year ago at a “Joe Walsh Term Limits & Reform Town Hall” in Elmhurst.

But back to the 62nd District. “After [Drobinski] announced as a candidate,” Yingling says, “political operatives [feared that he would] spew far right-wing ideas about abortion and marriage equality. They tried getting him focused on other issues. Since then he has avoided answering any tough questions.”

On that point, I agree. Drobinski didn’t answer repeated requests for interviews in July or when I tried to reach again on Friday. His campaign manager told me in a voice mail Saturday that Drobinski’s schedule was packed and he’d have no time to talk to me before election day. I called her back asking for Drobinski’s positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, and the minimum wage. As of post time, no response.

There’s a pattern here: the Rauners maxed out to Drobinski before the March primary. After it, no more money to Drobinski. Bruce appeared with Joe Walsh pre-primary, but not post. “The Rauners will say anything, lie about anything, if it serves their interest,” says Yingling. “It’s really disgusting that people like me, who have built a career on independence, bipartisanship, and compromise, are taking collateral abuse because the Rauners’ want the Governor’s Mansion.”

For Democrats worried about voting for Rauner, they might find comfort in the fact (emphasis on the word “fact”) that Rauner is no ideologue. He’s pragmatic. He didn’t write those checks for $10,600 to Drobinski because he agreed with his views; he wrote them because the Yingling/Drobinski race is considered one of the most competitive in the Chicago area, and Republican strategists thought they had a good shot at flipping this fiscally conservative, socially moderate swing district—80 percent of it in Round Lake and Grayslake—back to their column. (Yingling unexpectedly beat a Republican incumbent to win the seat. ) Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin calls the 62nd District “one of five or six critical contests for Republicans who want to break House Speaker Michael Madigan’s supermajority death grip on that chamber.” 

Marin is right: Republicans in the House need just one victory tomorrow to deny Madigan his veto-proof membership. The Tribune’s Ray Long calls it the “magic number” that will rob Madigan of his supermajority of 71 members. (In practical terms it means that Democrats would have to find one Republican vote to override a Gov. Rauner veto.) 

All that being said, it’s interesting to look at the self-proclaimed Democrat, Diana, who has given in 2014 the max in the primary and/or general to several Republicans, some who are decidedly not socially moderate. You can see the list for yourself here,

Just a couple of examples: David McSweeney (abortion and gay marriage opponent), Mark Neerhof (against gay marriage). Diana has also given generously ($10,000 in 2012; $5,300 this time around) to the Republican Renaissance PAC of the late ultra-conservative Jack Roeser (anti abortion, anti gay marriage).

Bruce has a much more extensive record of contributions—including $27.6 million to himself, $5 million to the state Republican party, and also, along with Diana, donations to McSweeney, Neerhof, and to Roeser’s PAC. (Roeser, who died last June, was an early Rauner backer and a member of his gubernatorial exploratory committee.) 

On Friday afternoon Crain’s Greg Hinz reported on allegations that Rauner had secretly funded anti-Quinn fliers—they carried the name of the Illinois Republican party and warned voters against casting a vote for Libertarian candidate Chad Grimm because Grimm is strongly pro-choice and pro same-sex marriage. (Grimm is, in fact, strongly anti-abortion, as Hinz noted in an update to his post.) Rauner and his people denied any role in the fliers, including Hinz’s contention that the millions Rauner gave to the party somehow makes him complicit. His campaign continued to insist that he is pro-choice. Through their family foundation, he and Diana have given more than a half million dollars over 13 years to the ACLU’s Roger Baldwin Foundation, which litigates for abortion rights. That’s probably pretty good evidence that, on this, Rauner’s response is honest.

In an email** to supporters on Friday, Diana reiterated that Bruce is pro-choice while noting that he supports parental notification for minors seeking abortions, but that she does not.

* Why Doug Ibendahl, who started his career at Mayer Brown, and who seems to devote most of his solo law practice to digging up dirt on Rauner and distributing it, so detests his party’s candidate for governor is a subject for another post.
** The above-referenced email is a fascinating, albeit brief, look at Diana and her marriage; worth a read.

 

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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