February 28, 2013
Bruce Rauner, the multimillionaire bull in the quaint Illinois Republican china shop, sat down with me Wednesday morning at a diner on LaSalle Street to talk about politics.
Are you running for governor?
"I am thinking about it," said Rauner, 57, a Republican who has spent decades working for school reform, has been an adviser to Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel and is a target of the Chicago Teachers Union and labor bosses.
"I'm doing some serious evaluation, meeting with people, getting ideas on how to do this. But I make decisions. And I'm going to decide soon."
My translation? He's running.
He talked to me about bringing business back to Illinois, and jobs, and attacking the education mess and the pension debacle. He supports immigration reform, and he thinks Republicans should focus not on social issues but on shrinking government and fixing schools.
That sounds like a man running for governor. And he wouldn't have sat down for an interview with me and had his photo taken if he weren't close to it.
For weeks Rauner, the retired chairman of the private equity firm GTCR, has been meeting privately with Republican governors from Wisconsin's Scott Walker to Louisiana's Bobby Jindal to New Jersey's Chris Christie, as well as former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. He's been traveling across Illinois, speaking at Lincoln Day dinners and so on, and is putting a team together.
His twin passions are riding his Harley and bird hunting. He has two labs and a German wirehaired pointer. He wears an $18 wristwatch and drives a 10-year-old van. Like many people of real wealth, he's not flashy about it.
I had to ask him the Jesse Jackson Jr. question: You ever think about getting a $43,000 Rolex?
"Never," he said. "I don't have a Rolls. I don't have a jet. That's not me."
But he has millions to spend on his campaign. And that frightens other Republicans, and Democrats, too. Politicians like colleagues who can be leveraged.
There's something attractive about a candidate who can't be bought, especially in Illinois, where so many are for sale. But we've seen other wealthy candidates fail, in part because they were too defensive about their money.
Rauner isn't defensive about a thing, although he hasn't yet been scrubbed by investigative reporters, or dissected by opposition research teams on all his business dealings.
So he's already ordered up opposition research on himself, figuring that others will do it, whether it's Gov. Pat Quinn or Attorney General Lisa Madigan or Bill Daley among the Democrats, or state Treasurer Dan Rutherford or state Sen. Kirk Dillard among possible Republican candidates.
"I know that's coming in politics," he said. "We've built more than 200 businesses, and it will all be scrutinized. Who was fired? What about contracts? I understand that. That's politics."
Rauner's relationship with the Rahmfather will also be an issue. Rauner's firm worked with Emanuel on several business deals after Emanuel left the Clinton White House and became an investment banker in the 1990s.
"He came to me once for a job. I didn't hire him. I thought his name was Ron. I said, 'How are you doing, Ron?' And he said, 'It's Rahm, it's Rahm.'"
Though he's advised Emanuel, he's criticized him as well, and loudly, for getting rolled by the CTU in last year's teachers strike.
What's fascinating about Rauner is his independence. And an unapologetic candidate with his kind of wealth — he wouldn't say if he's worth more than a billion — threatens the political order.
"I think I'm going to be very dangerous to the people in Springfield," he said. "I think they're going to be scared. They should be. Because I can't be bribed, influenced, intimidated, threatened. I just want the state fixed and I just want to do the right thing for the taxpayers. You're right, I've done well in business. I'm very proud of it. I've got the resources to do whatever it takes to win, and to do what it takes to help fix the state. ... And the powers down there that like the status quo, they should be very scared."
The criticism of Rauner is that he's used to getting things done his way. That bull-in-a-china-shop mindset could hurt him in a campaign.
"I think it's a blessing and a curse," he said. "I have my strong views and opinions. I really want to transform Illinois government because this state is failing the taxpayers and the children. It's going to take steel backbone to get it done. Because I don't care about a political career. I certainly don't need a job. Getting re-elected is not on my top 10 list. I'll be willing to do things that politicians won't do. Because I don't care who I upset."
Republican consultants circle him, and the common wisdom is that they view him like a side of beef, eager to carve him up for dinner.
"These political consultants love business guys who've never been in politics to try and take advantage of them. I get that. What I'm going to do is try and study from the smartest governors. I'm a pretty disciplined investor and pretty disciplined buyer. I do my due diligence. I do my homework. I don't waste money."
He has a great upside. He's direct and uncompromising. Illinois voters might be seeking such a candidate to fix their broken state.
But business is business and politics is politics. And Bruce Rauner is about to learn the difference.
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