In Late April, Bruce Rauner requested a meeting with Jim Edgar. Nothing too unusual about that, you may think. Edgar, the governor of Illinois from 1991 to 1999, is one of the most revered Republicans in the state. And private equity pro Rauner had won the party’s gubernatorial nomination a month earlier, thereby joining a cohort of extremely wealthy businessmen with no political experience—among them Tom Foley of Connecticut, Scott Honour of Minnesota, and Jeffrey McCormick of Massachusetts—running for governor on November 4.
But the four-way battle in Illinois’s Republican primary had been a particularly nasty one. Rauner, 58, had tapped his fortune to flood the airwaves with caustic ads about his competitors, including state senator Kirk Dillard. Edgar had supported Dillard, his former chief of staff and a longtime friend. “We cannot afford a governor who has to learn on the job,” Edgar said at a March news conference, in an obvious reference to Rauner. “We need a governor who will hit the ground running.”
After Rauner squeaked past Dillard with a margin of 3 percentage points, some cheered. Others charged that he had bought the election. Now that the dust had settled, the first-time candidate wanted to bury the machete, getting Edgar on his side for the battle against Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn.
The two men met in a private room at the Sangamo Club, a favorite meeting place in Springfield for legislators and lobbyists. Rauner got right to the point. “Will you help me?” he asked the older pol.
Edgar replied bluntly: “I don’t know you.”
Any number of Illinois voters could say the same. Sure, Rauner regularly enters your living room via the seemingly nonstop TV commercials and other ads he and his donors have funded (cost: more than $10 million so far). So you know that his sartorial tastes lean more toward Eddie Bauer than Ermenegildo Zegna. You know that his wife, Diana, supports him even though she’s a Democrat. You’ve heard that he’s going to “shake up Springfield.” Much beyond that, though, things get hazy. Compared with him, the 65-year-old Pat Quinn—he of the Catholic upbringing and the 1,600-square-foot Northwest Side house—is an exhibitionist.
As Rauner’s advisers no doubt realize, the mere fact that their man is not Quinn could be enough to propel him into the governor’s mansion. Despite populist roots and some notable accomplishments on his watch, Quinn has failed to overcome a reputation for being indecisive and ineffective, especially when it comes to the state’s worrisome jobless rate (currently 6.8 percent), rock-bottom credit rating (the worst in the nation), and titanic unfunded pension obligations ($100 billion worth).
Accordingly, Rauner has positioned himself as a change agent while avoiding details that might turn off voters from either party. He sticks to a narrow script, advocating term limits and lower taxes without offering many specifics about what he would do differently from the “knuckleheads” (his term) currently running state government. Nor, as of presstime, has he discussed in any real detail some topics considered standard for politicians, such as his religious beliefs (if any), his family (beyond his wife and his maternal grandfather), or his stance on such hot-button social issues as abortion, gay marriage, drug policy, crime reduction, or capital punishment. He declined repeated requests through his spokesman to be interviewed for this story. So did Diana.
Who is this man who would be governor, who in early September was beating Quinn in various polls by anywhere from 4 to 14 percentage points? (Update: On Saturday, Sept. 13, the Chicago Tribune published poll results that put Quinn ahead by 11 percentage points.) I spoke to nearly 60 of his current or former friends and associates, gathered publicly available information from various sources, and drew on an interview with Rauner that I conducted for this magazine in May 2013. The picture that emerges is far more complex than Rauner’s commercials and campaign website suggest.
In the personal narratives that politicians craft for the campaign trail, one or both parents (Bill Clinton’s mother, Rod Blagojevich’s father) typically play outsize roles. Not so with Rauner. The relative who serves as his touchstone—his late grandfather Clarence Erickson—allows Rauner to hit a theme popular with politicians: humble beginnings.
The offspring of Swedish immigrants, Erickson worked at a Wisconsin cottage cheese factory and “lived in a double-wide trailer,” Rauner frequently says. Erickson and his wife, Viola, raised their daughter, Ann, born in 1931, in the rural village of Frederic, full of farms, forests, and lakes.
Lean and blond, Ann was studying nursing at the University of Michigan when she caught the eye of a tall, handsome Kalamazoo native named Vincent Rauner. The son of Franklin Rauner, an assistant attorney general who had argued cases before the Michigan Supreme Court, Vincent also became a lawyer, joining the Chicago patent firm of Mueller & Aichele. In the space of six years, he and Ann settled in a split-level in the northern suburb of Deerfield, and welcomed four children: first Bruce, in 1956, then Christopher, Mark, and Paula. (Rauner is not close to his three siblings, all of whom live in Arizona.) When Rauner was still in grade school, they moved to Chicago’s most old-moneyed suburb, Lake Forest—a fact that the candidate Rauner has omitted from his campaign bio.
Neighbors from that time recall a Leave It to Beaver exterior, but many found Vincent buttoned-up and remote. “He wasn’t a loving guy,” says one of Rauner’s old friends.
In 1971, when Rauner was a student at Lake Forest High School, the family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. Vincent had left his law firm to head up Motorola’s lucrative patents division, based in nearby Phoenix. Rauner finished high school there, then entered Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1974. He rowed crew as a freshman and joined a jock-heavy fraternity, Theta Delta Chi.
Though Rauner’s father eventually rose to be a senior vice president at Motorola before retiring in 1992, he was “tight with a dollar,” according to Dave Casper, an executive at BMO Harris Bank who was a roommate of Rauner’s. So Rauner worked in the dining hall and drove a beat-up Chevy Nova. But mostly, friends recall, he studied. “Bruce worked his ass off,” Casper says.
The young man’s childhood love of the outdoors—grandfather Erickson, Rauner has said, “taught me to love fishing and hunting and to shoot a rifle at age 10”—prompted an interest in environmental studies, which he focused on during a term in Sweden. Rauner returned to the Dartmouth campus impressed by Sweden’s social safety net. One fall weekend, he joined classmate Andy Ebbott and his parents for dinner. “My father thought he was a socialist,” laughs Ebbott, now an executive at a Boston real-estate investment firm.
But then came a class in economics. “I just loved the process, the theory, and the issues,” Rauner told a Sun-Times reporter in 2003. “I realized that economics and business is life. It’s what makes the world go round.” Rather than become an environmental scientist, Ebbott says, Rauner decided to major in economics and go to business school, which would let him make lots of money that he could give to environmental causes.
Rauner graduated with highest honors in 1978, with his eye on Harvard Business School. But first he decided to spend a year working at the economic forecasting firm Data Resources in Chicago. He, Casper, and Charlie Denison, another Dartmouth classmate, rented a $600-a-month apartment in Lincoln Park, next to the Armitage Avenue fire station. “Bruce had no furniture for the first nine months,” recalls Casper. “So he slept on a foam rubber mattress you used for camping.”
Casper, who was looking for a job, submitted an application at Harris Bank in the Loop. He was interviewed there by a young woman from Lake Forest, about three years his senior, who had spent a term at Dartmouth herself (she graduated from Smith College and from Northwestern University’s business school). Beth Konker joined Casper and his pals for a drink one night. Soon she and Rauner were dating.
Athletic, smart, and nice, Beth proved popular among Rauner’s Dartmouth friends. Though Rauner left for Harvard the next year, he proposed quickly. The couple married in August 1980, at the First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, when Rauner was 24 and Beth 26. Ebbott describes the reception as “a pretty posh affair.” They honeymooned in Bermuda.
By the time Rauner’s marriage began, his parents’ had ended. Vincent moved back to the Chicago area. In 1981, just a year after his firstborn tied the knot, he married Carol Kopay, a clinical psychotherapist.
Meanwhile, Beth had settled into a job as an officer at the First National Bank of Boston. Rauner was finishing his last year at Harvard and planning to sign on at the elite management consulting firm Bain & Company, where he was working part-time. But then he got a call out of the blue from a man named Stanley Golder.
A longtime executive at the First National Bank of Chicago, the well-liked Golder had left in 1979 to start his own firm, taking with him two younger colleagues: Carl Thoma and Bryan Cressey. The company they formed, Golder Thoma Cressey, initially focused on venture capital deals. But it soon began buying companies, finding new executives to run them, building them into much larger companies, and eventually selling them for big money. Golder was a pioneer of what would become known as private equity.
The entrepreneur had “seen my resume in the resume book,” Rauner told the Sun-Times. Golder asked Rauner to interview for a job. And that was the end of Bain.
After his 1981 graduation, Rauner moved back to Chicago with Beth and joined Golder Thoma Cressey. His timing was perfect: The nation was poised to enter an economic boom. Three years later, Rauner was a partner.
Golder’s widow, Joan, his son David, and his daughter, Nancy, told me in separate interviews that Rauner saw his boss as a father figure and a mentor. Like Rauner’s beloved grandfather, Golder loved to fish. And he was a happy philanthropist, supporting a wide range of causes, particularly education.
Rauner began adopting some of Golder’s signatures, including the cheap timepiece. “My dad wore the same watch for 30 years,” recalls Nancy. “A plastic Timex thing. Bought it for $4 in Hong Kong.”
Beth’s career had flourished too: She was now working at Northern Trust, known for its roster of wealthy clients. But with their family growing—Elizabeth was born in 1983, Stephanie in 1986, and Eric in 1988 (see “Meet the Rauners,” above)—she left banking to become a full-time mother.
One reason for that decision may have been that the workaholic Rauner was on the road half the time. To succeed in the early years, he told Crain’s Chicago Business in 1995, he had to get out of the office and meet the people who could bring him deals. So he “began eating four meals a day with prospective deal partners.”
As Beth’s career wound down, Rauner’s expanded. In 2004, he told another reporter: “I’ll get to know a CEO on a very personal level. We’ll play golf, go out to dinner, have a cigar, go hunting, fishing. … We become friends, which is part of the fun of the business. I find that the personal bonding that comes from fun leads to proprietary deal flow.” He added: “There’s no distinction in my day between my work and my play.”
The firm grew steadily, hiring young grads from the best business schools. In 1993, as Golder began dialing back from the business, Rauner got his name on the door. The firm was renamed Golder Thoma Cressey Rauner, or GTCR.
Around this time, a 20-something brunette named Diana Mendley signed on to Rauner’s firm as an associate. Raised in a Jewish family in the tony New York City suburb of Bronxville, Mendley had a résumé just as glittering as Rauner’s. She graduated magna cum laude from Yale, where she was an all-American fencer, then picked up an MBA at Stanford. In 1989, while working at GTCR, she married a fellow Stanford business grad from Highland Park, Lewis Ingall, whose father ran the pediatrics department at Evanston Hospital.
But back to Rauner’s wife, Beth. In the summer of 1990, she learned a devastating secret. According to court documents—obtained by Chicago and first reported by Business Insider this past May—Beth “discovered a paramour existed.”
That September, Beth, her husband, and their three young children moved to a large house in Winnetka. Two months later, Rauner left, moving first to an apartment in Evanston and then to one in Wilmette.
His Dartmouth buddies were shocked that he and Beth were breaking up. “They seemed great together,” says Steve Kaiser, another college friend, who today owns the Great Harvest Bread Company and lives in Rockford.
Mendley’s marriage was also in trouble. Court records show that she and Ingall separated in December 1990, a month after the Rauners did. Mendley had left GTCR and was working as an analyst for a San Francisco private equity firm when Ingall served her with divorce papers. He charged Mendley with “extreme and repeated mental cruelty,” according to court documents. (Ingall, an executive at a Chicago real-estate investment firm, did not respond to a request for comment.)
With no children and no messy squabbles over assets, their divorce was quickly issued in 1991. The Rauners’ divorce took longer. The proceedings dragged on for more than two years after Beth filed to end the decade-long marriage, in part because Rauner initially took the unorthodox step of forgoing a lawyer and representing himself in the divorce.
In May 1992, as settlement negotiations ground on, Beth’s lawyer filed a temporary restraining order against Rauner to stop him from buying more houses. According to Beth’s affidavit, Rauner had told her he was trying to buy a new home where “he intended to reside with his girlfriend.” The affidavit continues: “I fear that Bruce will enter into a contract to purchase an expensive home, which he will then decorate and furnish at great expense, causing dissipation of assets [and] irreparable harm to my rights and those of our minor children.”
The divorce was finally granted, on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences,” in July 1993. While Beth and Rauner were given joint custody of the children, who are now 30, 28, and 25, they lived primarily with Beth in that big Winnetka house. (Now remarried, Beth declined a request for an interview.)
In 1994, Rauner and Mendley wed. Not long afterward, their first child, Margaret, was born. She was followed by Matthew and Katherine, who was born a year after Rauner’s father died of cancer in 1997. (His mother, who never remarried, died in Arizona in 2011.) They, too, settled in a big house in Winnetka.
Private equity has been very good to Bruce Rauner. He made $53 million in 2012, according to the portions of his joint federal tax returns that his campaign released. His tax returns show adjusted gross income of $28 million in 2011 and $27 million in 2010. Many years of such earnings have allowed him to buy nine homes, including a $4 million Chicago penthouse overlooking Millennium Park, a $10 million Manhattan co-op on Central Park, and two cattle ranches out west.
One key to Rauner’s riches is the way GTCR structures the funds it raises to buy businesses. To date, there have been 10 investment funds, each named with a roman numeral. Investors include such giants as state pension funds, public employee retirement funds, university endowments, and foundations. The first fund, around the time Rauner was hired in 1981, was worth $60 million. By 2011, the fund reached $3.25 billion.
Regardless of the funds’ performance, GTCR makes money, thanks to its annual management fee of up to 1.5 percent. In addition, the partners split a percentage of whatever profits the firm’s investments generate.
Through the years, Rauner has invested largely according to Golder’s winning formula: Find a business that’s difficult to make profitable locally but that could be profitable regionally or nationally. Select a star CEO. Give him a couple hundred million dollars to buy companies in the same fragmented industries that are ripe for consolidation and economies of scale. Take the business public. Repeat.
The goal was never glitz or glamour, just profits. GTCR would buy mom-and-pop funeral homes, for example, then scoop up ancillary businesses: flower shops, coffin makers, cemeteries. Rauner once told a reporter that the funeral industry was “immune to downturns” and could “generate considerable profits.” He found the laundry industry equally attractive. “We have a locked-in customer base,” he explained to the Sun-Times. “If prices go up, the tenants still use it.” Elsewhere, he put it another way: “People have to wash their underwear, even if there’s a recession.”
Other businesses on Rauner’s shopping list: security, ATM networks, school buses, outdoor advertising, pay phones, fleet refueling, crushed stone, debt collection, check authorization, and steel tube manufacturing. “Over 19 years, we have generated gross returns of about 40 percent,” Rauner told the Sun-Times in 1999. “After fees, investors have averaged a 30 percent profit.”
One success, according to Crain’s, was “a $1 million stake in a chain of psychiatric hospitals yield[ing] a $10 million return when it was sold just one year after the original investment.” Then there was a $200 million investment in American Medical Laboratories, which was sold to Quest Diagnostics for $500 million in 2002. VeriFone, a provider of electronic payment systems, in which GTCR acquired an 88 percent stake in 2002, remains one of Rauner’s favorites. “We turned $60 million into $860 million,” he boasted to this magazine in 2011.
VeriFone is also a favorite of the Quinn campaign because it outsources much of its manufacturing to China, Singapore, and Brazil, providing Quinn with a sound-bite-ready example of how Rauner has hurt local workers. Quinn has also repeatedly criticized Rauner for the job cuts that typically follow the consolidations at the core of GTCR’s profits. And expect him to make more hay with allegations raised during the primary that GTCR plundered nursing homes, causing care to deteriorate and residents to die. “Bruce Rauner makes Mitt Romney look like Gandhi,” insists Doug Ibendahl, the former general counsel of the Illinois Republican Party. (In a televised debate in March, Rauner called ads citing the nursing home allegations “an outrageous political attack, taking advantage of a death or suffering of a family to score political points.”)
Rauner kept his early commitment to make lots of money and devote lots of it to the environment. His campaign spokesman says he has donated more than $1 million to various environmental causes. He even casts his considerable purchases of land in Montana and Wyoming as a way to preserve it from development. “I know this will sound corny,” Rauner told the Sun-Times in 2003, “but I remember my grandfather saying, ‘Bruce, when you die, just make sure the world is a better place because you were here.’ ”
But it is his commitment to education reform that has helped him segue from business to politics. Both individually and through his family foundation, Rauner has devoted more than $20 million to improving public education in Chicago, he has said—in part by funding charter schools. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first schools chief, Jean Claude-Brizard, tells me that he used to meet often with Rauner. “It’s hard not to know Bruce Rauner if you’re in education in Chicago,” he says. “Even folks in New York were telling me about Bruce. He was very hands on.” (Rauner has also given millions to his alma mater, Dartmouth, which three of his daughters attended; the special collections library there bears his name.)
Diana embraced philanthropy too, earning a doctorate in developmental psychology at the University of Chicago and becoming president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, an educational nonprofit for at-risk young children. Board seats followed: at the Latin School, at After School Matters, at the Kohl Children’s Museum. Her husband joined the board of the Chicago Public Education Fund, where other members have included such civic heavy hitters as Susan Crown, Ken Griffin, Penny Pritzker, and Helen Zell.
For years, Rauner saw his role in politics as writing big checks to candidates—more than $3.5 million since 1998, according to the Better Government Association—rather than governing. But then, about a decade ago, he began flirting with the idea of running for office. He didn’t pull the trigger at first, friends say, because he and Diana were worried about the inevitable media scrutiny.
And scrutiny there would be. Recall the Business Insider story, titled “Illinois Gubernatorial Candidate Divorced in 1993 After Alleged Affair.” (Rauner’s campaign issued no response.) And the Crain’s Chicago Business report that he had “clouted” one of his daughters into Chicago selective enrollment high school Walter Payton College Prep, despite the fact that she reportedly did not meet the entrance requirements. (Rauner told me in May 2013 that “we didn’t do anything inappropriate whatsoever.”)
There had already been bad press involving another of Rauner’s children. In 2010, Eric, then 21, got arrested for trying to rob a Walgreen’s drive-through in Missoula, Montana. He gave a pharmacist “a note threatening to blow his head off unless he handed over prescription painkillers, according to charging documents in the case,” reported the Daily Missoulian. The paper further reported that he told authorities that he was drunk at the time and addicted to pills. Originally charged with felony robbery, Eric, who had been unarmed, pleaded guilty in July 2012 to an amended charge of felony criminal endangerment and received a three-year deferred sentence.
Perhaps that unfortunate situation is one reason that Rauner—who doesn’t shy from using his wife for political purposes—has bucked the common practice of trotting out offspring in ads and on the campaign trail. His reluctance is not about protecting minors: Five of his six children are adults. (Eldest daughter Elizabeth got married four years ago in a lavish ceremony in Ojai, California, that was covered in the glossy magazine Martha Stewart Weddings.)
Might witnessing a child’s struggle with drug or legal problems shape a candidate’s approach to, say, public funding for rehab or penalties for certain offenses? It’s an interesting question. But an impossible one to figure out, given that Rauner has discussed neither his children nor his positions on those two issues.
After Bill Brady flubbed the 2010 gubernatorial race against Quinn—losing by 32,000 votes in a contest that Rauner believed even he, a political novice, could have won—Rauner’s mind was made up. “He didn’t see another candidate who he was excited about backing” in 2014, says Brian Simmons, managing partner of CHS Capital and a friend of the Rauners.
Rauner did, however, see two potential obstacles to his nomination. One was Aaron Schock, the U.S. congressman from Peoria. In January 2013, Schock was getting lots of buzz among Republicans, many of whom saw the well-muscled 33-year-old with a penchant for removing his shirt as the party’s best shot at rising out of the gubernatorial doldrums.
That winter, an Ohio-based nonprofit that wouldn’t disclose the identity of its donors began airing negative ads about Schock in his district. Schock’s chief of staff at the time, Steven Shearer, said then that the ads were misleading and meant to intimidate Schock out of the governor’s race. By April, Schock decided not to run. Critics accused Rauner of funding the ads. Rauner has adamantly denied it, calling the talk “political rumor mill baloney.” (When I asked Schock, who is now supporting Rauner, about the accusation, he replied, “I don’t want to go there.”)
The other major threat was Dan Rutherford. In the early days, the state treasurer was “a front-runner, if not the front-runner,” says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
But five weeks before the primary, a former employee filed a federal sexual harassment lawsuit against Rutherford, alleging that the treasurer had groped him and pressured him to do campaign work on state time. Though Rutherford stayed in the race, he wound up finishing dead last, with less than 8 percent of the vote.
A judge later dismissed the lawsuit for a lack of “probable claims.” It turned out that the accuser’s attorney had previously done some minor legal work for Rauner’s campaign and had connections to organizations that received money from him. “Do I believe that Mr. Rauner is behind trying to put a disparaging word out there with regards to my candidacy? Yes,” Rutherford said at the time. Rauner has called that idea “ridiculous.”
By all accounts, Rauner has taken to his own race with relish. He enjoys long meetings, thick piles of research, number crunching, and—somewhat surprisingly—campaigning. He has mastered a chuckling Reaganesque affect and the ability to tell and retell the same jokes as if they just happened to pop into his head. Appearing before workers on some factory floor, he patiently answers questions, and he doesn’t sneak a peek at his Timex. Rubber-chicken dinners downstate? Fine with Rauner. When he gave me an interview last spring, he said without irony that he loves state fairs and corn dogs. Pat Brady, the former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, calls Rauner “one of the best retail campaigners I’ve ever seen.”
At his very first fundraiser, at the Union League Club of Chicago, Rauner described the difference between himself and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, another Bain & Company alum and the man to whom he’s most often compared. “Romney was an analyst,” he told potential donors. “I’m a salesman.”
That difference, says Casper, is huge. “Romney tried, but he couldn’t get a good conversation going with voters. Bruce can have a good conversation with the guy who has two nickels and with the guy who has two billion.”
Because rauner crashed onto the political scene promising to fix Illinois, he was asked time and again during the primary to explain exactly how he planned to do it. He responded with the usual platitudes (cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse”) and with promises of “crystal clear” plans, made by a team of “top lawyers” he had assembled, to come before election time.
Rauner has shied away from specifics partly because his attempts at specificity have mostly blown up in his face. His first major gaffe came early in his campaign, when he tried explaining his position on the minimum wage. At a candidates’ forum before a business group in the Quad Cities last December, he called for reducing the state’s current $8.25 minimum wage by a dollar an hour.
After the ensuing outcry—political columnist Rich Miller observed that Rauner’s stance was “about as dangerous for a candidate as having a heroin arrest record”—Rauner backpedaled. In early January, he claimed he had misspoken and said he actually supported raising the federal minimum wage to $10, as long as other reforms were made. Then surfaced a video of Rauner on the campaign trail the previous fall, telling a downstate audience that he was, in fact, “adamantly, adamantly against” raising it. The whole episode echoed Romney’s infamous “47 percent” moment.
Rauner’s most specific plan to date has been his 21-page “Jobs and Growth Agenda,” released in mid-July. It promises to lower the state’s income tax (which Quinn had “temporarily” raised), freeze local property taxes, and expand sales taxes to include 32 services, from lawyers’ fees to trailer parks, thereby raising around $600 million in new revenue. He was promptly lambasted for not coming anywhere close to plugging the annual $8 billion hole that would result from the expiration of the income tax hike, set to sunset in January. Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown, among others, dismissed Rauner’s plan as a “mathematical impossibility.”
How would Rauner make up that $8 billion? That’s still unclear because his plan does not address spending—making it possible for Quinn to cast him as a “heartless billionaire” who is out of touch with 99.9 percent of Illinoisans and will slash state budgets for public programs for those most in need.
Fuzzy math or not, voters apparently ate it up. Two polls taken right after Rauner released his plan showed that most voters surveyed liked it and were therefore more likely to vote for him.
Rauner has largely succeeded in avoiding answering tough or embarrassing questions, sometimes by simply walking away, often leaving a chuckle in his wake. During the primary, he skipped several debates as well as editorial board invitations. He has released only the cover pages of his tax returns for 2010, 2011, and 2012. He promises the same limited release of his 2013 taxes on October 15. The omitted pages might shed more light on his personal finances and how he’s been able to fall into the 15 percent tax bracket (according to the recent 1040s he’s made public) despite being, as he told a Sun-Times reporter, among the top “0.01 percent” of wealthiest Americans.
For an idea of how bruce Rauner might govern, look at the governors he admires. Last year, he listed several for me, all Republicans: “Mitch Daniels in Indiana was the best governor in America for eight years. I’ve gone to Indianapolis to study with him. … Rick Scott in Florida is very strong. Jeb Bush is terrific; I’ve talked with him on education reform. Scott Walker in Wisconsin has done good things to improve the economy and tax burden.” He also likes Rick Snyder of Michigan, “a venture capitalist just like I’ve been.”
One thing that’s crystal clear about Rauner is that he is a true believer in pro-business fiscal policies. A free-market conservative, he wants lower taxes, less spending, less government interference in private business, and more business in government. His belief in the superiority of charter schools to Chicago’s public schools, his antipathy toward the Chicago Teachers Union, and his support of vouchers are real and deeply felt. But he’ll be governor, not mayor. He can leave Karen Lewis to his friend Rahm Emanuel.
A number of prominent Illinois Democrats, including James Crown, Newton Minow, and Manny Sanchez, see Rauner as a homegrown Michael Bloomberg: a self-made business genius turned politician who will bring to the governor’s office the same smarts and savvy he used to build his private equity firm into one of the most successful in the industry. Like Emanuel, Rauner would almost surely tap wealthy business leaders to roll up their French cuffs and work with him for a dollar a year. (Bill Daley? Ron Gidwitz? Michael Sacks?)
Steve Kaplan, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and an expert in private equity, says that Rauner’s business background is “terrific” preparation for governor. David Roberts, an accounting professor at DePaul, isn’t so sure: “If he and his supporters think that being governor is like being a CEO, they may be surprised.”
Remember that if Rauner wins, he’ll face a deeply entrenched Democratic supermajority under the tight grip of 40-year House speaker Michael Madigan and, to a lesser extent, Senate president John Cullerton. Even Quinn, a lifelong Democrat, hasn’t been able to work effectively with them.
In this deep-blue state, one route to victory in November, as Rauner realizes, is to capture just enough of the Democrats’ two most dependable voting blocs: African Americans and moderate and independent suburban women. (Quinn won more than 90 percent of the black vote in 2010; exit polls showed he also captured 49 percent of the female vote.) So, unlike previous Republican gubernatorial candidates, who did virtually nothing to court the black vote, Rauner is aggressively going after that constituency: on the South Side, on the West Side, in the south suburbs, in churches, barbershops, and beauty parlors.
His basic message, according to political consultant Hermene Hartman, who helped Barack Obama find his political footing and is now helping Rauner: “Stop being sheep and stop going to slaughter. What have the Democrats done? Look at our communities.”
With her help—he pays her for hosting breakfasts and other events—Rauner has grown close to several of Chicago’s influential black clergymen, including Marshall Hatch, on the West Side, and James Meeks, whose 15,000-member Salem Baptist Church of Chicago on the Far South Side is the largest in the state. Rauner first came to see Meeks back in 2009 because, Meeks says, “he wanted to know more about my philosophy and fight for education in Chicago.” The appointment was scheduled to last 30 minutes; they ended up talking for two and a half hours.
Like Hartman, Meeks thinks that Democrats have “totally neglected to take care of the African American base.” He says, “If I vote 97 times in a row, and I vote Democrat 97 times in a row, the party doesn’t have to keep any promises.” Particularly when it comes to improving public education. Whereas Rauner, Meeks notes, has given “$27 million of his own money to public education, both CPS and charters.” (Rauner has publicly stated that the number is about $20 million.)
African Americans are, in a way, a natural constituency for Rauner, who bills himself as a fiscal conservative yet gives the impression of being socially moderate. His strong advocacy of school choice and charter schools could prove appealing to African American voters. After all, it’s largely their children who are stuck in the city’s worst schools. But is he moderate enough to win over suburban soccer moms, the constituency that helped Quinn eke out a 2010 win over Bill Brady?
The answer hinges largely on the effectiveness of his not-so-secret weapon: Diana. “Bruce doesn’t have a social agenda,” she says reassuringly in a recent commercial, smiling out from the TV in a cheerful pink sweater. “He has an economic and education agenda.” The subtext: Bruce cares about the same things we Democratic women do.
A big sticking point for many women, however, will be his avoidance of the abortion issue. Helen Zell, the wife of billionaire Sam Zell, tells me there’s nothing she cares about more than women’s choice and Planned Parenthood. She supports Rauner. “Bruce is definitely pro-choice,” she explains, “but can’t talk about that.”
That’s not enough reassurance for some, even some old friends. “I don’t know if I’ll vote for him,” muses Joan Golder, the widow of Rauner’s mentor and a Democrat. “I want to hear him be a strong proponent of same-sex marriage. I want to be supportive of Bruce, but he’s making it difficult.” Golder’s daughter, Nancy, also says she’s undecided.
Jim Edgar—whom Rauner eventually won over during that Sangamo Club meeting—says that the election might ultimately boil down to a very simple question. “Not the question of ‘Who is Bruce Rauner?’ but ‘Do you like him better than the other guy?’ ”