Capital Business

Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner ’78 looks back on four embattled years in Springfield.

On January 12, 2015, Bruce Rauner stood onstage at a flag-draped convention center in Springfield, Illinois, and took the job as the state’s 42nd governor. After a hugely successful 30-year career as a venture capitalist, and buoyed by a personal fortune north of half a billion, Rauner, a Republican, was stepping in as CEO of an operation in crisis. 

Indeed, if Illinois had been a business, a lot of managers might have declared bankruptcy and started over. 

The state had one of the largest unfunded pension obligations of any state—roughly $110 billion. Illinois’ credit rating had sunk to the worst in the nation. A deepening budget hole had left billions in unpaid bills. A steady population decline was accelerating while neighbors such as Indiana, Wisconsin, and Iowa were enjoying population growth. Financial analysts called Illinois the worst-run state in America. 

Campaigning for the office—his first venture into elective politics—Rauner had a casual, everyman style, riding to events on a Harley and boasting that his beverage of preference was beer. Still, he ran on the premise that his business acumen could rescue the situation, and his message was strongly anti-tax and anti-regulation, an agenda that faced daunting obstacles in the heavily blue state. On Election Day he narrowly beat the Democratic incumbent but still faced Democratic majorities in the state assembly. “If we work together, Illinois can be great again,” he promised in his inaugural speech.

That didn’t happen. Rauner battled constantly with Democratic legislators, a conflict that left the state without a budget for more than two years. He fought so hard for financial reforms that even some in his own party turned on him. The state’s credit rating approached junk status. His talk of endemic government corruption and his attacks on public-sector unions made hard-wired enemies. Over his opposition, the state’s income tax rose.

A year into his term, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn gave the governor an interim grade of “An epic F.” Things hardly got better, especially after another Republican businessman and rookie politician moved into the White House. In Rauner’s 2018 re-election bid, Democrat J.B. Pritzker—an even richer candidate—won handily. 

Not long after, Rauner sold his principal Illinois home, a Winnetka mansion, and spent more time at his out-of-state residences. In 2020 he voted in Florida.

“There was something very sad about him,” says Carol Felsenthal, a veteran Chicago political reporter. “In a way he reflects the impossibility of governing this state.”

As an Illinois resident during Rauner’s term (though a lifelong Democrat), I watched the arc of his political career with particular interest. It seemed that he could stand in for a great many Dartmouth grads and countless other Americans who see governments flounder and assume they can do a better job than the feckless current office-holders. With Rauner now out of the line of fire, I wondered how he felt about his experience. Had the crushing ordeal soured him on politics? Had it undermined his confidence in democracy?

So I called him.

Politics is “brutally hard—it’s nasty, it’s dirty and ugly,” he tells me in our first discussion, at the end of December. “There’s a big sacrifice. I lost 22 pounds and most of my hair in the four years. The stress level—worrying about the well-being of twelve-and-a-half-million people all day every day while the press is kicking the stuffing out of me every day and my enemies are trying to kill me every day—oh my goodness, it was hard. But I loved most of it—I mean, 80 to 90 percent of it I loved.”

Today Rauner splits his time evenly between business activities and philanthropic work. But he emerged from government service with insights on the fraught state of American politics and—even though he estimates he spent $150 million on the effort—doesn’t foreclose the idea of going at it again. “If good people don’t get involved in the process,” he says, “bad people run it with bad outcomes.”

His home state’s dire financial condition led Rauner into the political arena. “I got very concerned about government regulations and taxes that were pushing businesses out,” he says. By his account, the business community urged him to run and, after declining twice, he took the matter to his family. “We talked about it around the dinner table, all six of the kids, debating if Dad should run for governor,” he says. Several of his older children warned he would face “a nightmare” of attacks. “Daddy, I don’t want you to go to jail,” said his youngest daughter, 13 at the time. 

“She knew that of the prior nine governors, four had gone to prison,” Rauner says.

His wife, Diana, a liberal Democrat who heads a foundation for early learning, opened the door slightly: “If you want to go play in traffic, okay. Don’t hurt yourself too badly.”

He made the jump. “I’ve always been a pretty good public speaker,” Rauner says. “I’ve always enjoyed getting in front of a crowd, getting ’em revved up and talking about the issues.” He survived a tough primary in which rivals made an issue of his wealth. Pollsters considered the November race against the incumbent, Pat Quinn, a toss-up. As returns indicated a Rauner victory, his wife turned to him. “She told me ‘Oh, no, I said you could run, I didn’t say you could win,’ ” he recalls. “I was the dog who caught the car.” 

The roster of businesspeople who go into politics stretches far back in American history, but Rauner was joining what seemed to be the growing ranks of CEOs who aim directly for high elective office. Donald Trump provides the most obvious example, but others include Michael Bloomberg, for 11 years the mayor of New York City, and Rick Snyder, another venture capitalist who served as governor of Michigan from 2011 to 2019. 

As a candidate, Rauner often cited his business background as a useful tool in running the government. I asked Rauner if he still thought that. “I would say absolutely,” he says. “The skill sets that make someone successful in business are the same skill sets—you’re setting a plan, assembling a team, driving a result, selling, marketing, recruiting, negotiating, deal-making, convincing and cajoling, making your case.”  

Rauner also points out differences. The workforce, for example: “In the executive branch you have lifetime bureaucrats, most of whom are unionized. Those who aren’t unionized are in a civil service protection system. So you can control a few heads, a few tiny number of people in the government, but most of them are there for life. You can’t incentivize them, you can’t reward them, you can’t pay them flexibly, you can’t fire them.” Their loyalty to the existing system, he says, means change is incremental, especially on policy issues.  

Moving to the public sector also required a change in focus. “In business, you have a clear goal,” Rauner explains. “You’re trying to maximize shareholder value by providing great value to customers, filling their need or their want. Pretty straightforward. Change can be fast. You set a goal, set an agenda, go implement it—the rewards are quick and direct. In government and in politics, the goal is not satisfying a customer need, it’s improving the quality of life for people—at least that’s how I define it. Everybody’s got a different opinion of how best to do that and what’s the right measure. And so it’s way more amorphous, way more subject to fighting and disagreement. Business is about logic and a specific result. Politics is about emotion.” 

Another difference that frustrated Rauner: “In business, most of the time reality is more important than perception. In politics, perception is everything. I’ve never spent so much time debating what’s true.”

Rauner doesn’t think his administration was a failure, citing in particular accomplishments in education reform—long a passion for him and his wife. Among other things, he pushed through a more equitable system for funding schools and directed more money toward early childhood education. His criminal justice reforms reduced the prison population and increased job training opportunities. The courts provided one of his biggest victories. He initiated a lawsuit against AFSCME, the large public-sector union, challenging the union’s right to collect dues from non-members. In Janus v. AFSCME (2018), the U.S. Supreme Court came down on his side. Rauner stayed relatively liberal on social issues, at one point infuriating conservative Republicans by signing a law easing the right to taxpayer-subsidized abortions.

But on the biggest challenge of his term, straightening out the miserable condition of the state’s finances, he blames Democratic legislators for thwarting his efforts. By Rauner’s account, their only solution was to raise taxes. The conflict essentially hamstrung his administration. “Some people say politics is like war,” he says. “I think that’s kind of true. It’s war without bullets. The violence is verbal, it’s not physical. The bullets are votes.”

Critics, including some of Rauner’s supporters, argued that he was too stubborn, that his business experience hadn’t taught him to compromise, a mulish attitude that led to the state’s two-year budget impasse. “Illinois was in crisis,” he tells me. “It’s still in crisis. We needed a big change. If I was just there to administer the status quo, which is what most governors had done for the prior 40 years, I wouldn’t have made anything better.”

Rauner says his biggest frustration as governor was the media, and that it was impossible to get his side of the argument out. “The bias in the media—I’d heard about it, I’d read about it, but I had no idea until I was in office,” he says. “I’ve seen the polling and detailed analytics on it. The political partisanship or political leanings of members of the media and academia tilt much more liberal than the average American. I don’t know why that is.” 

At one point during the prolonged budget crisis, Diana Rauner’s foundation, Ounce of Prevention (now called Start Early), joined other organizations in a breach-of-contract suit that named her husband, among others, as a defendant. I ask if their conflicting political views made for some difficult dinner-table conversations. Rauner acknowledges that their talks were sometimes “entertaining.” 

Throughout his term Rauner kept a relative distance from President Trump. “How do I say this? I agree with most—certainly not all—but most of his policy goals,” he says. “I did not care for his behavior whatsoever.” Rauner says he didn’t know much about Trump before his candidacy. 

But as a rich Republican, Rauner couldn’t separate his image from Trump’s. Rauner thinks that’s what drove him out of office. On the night in 2016, when Trump lost Illinois by a wide margin but won the election, Rauner’s aides turned to him and said, “ ‘Uh-oh, we got trouble. In Illinois, Republicans are now toast.’ ” For Rauner, that turned out to be true. During his re-election campaign in 2018, the Democrats “ran ads that I was Trump or just like Trump,” he says. Pritzker beat him by more than 15 percentage points.

  Though Rauner’s rookie venture into politics came in his late 50s, he had long been interested in policy issues, particularly around education and the environment. At Dartmouth he majored in economics after taking an inspiring course with professor Colin Campbell, who had studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. Friedman had a vacation house near Hanover, and he would occasionally come to campus to meet with top students. One classmate recalls that Rauner—who graduated summa cum laude—could tangle intellectually with Friedman with a rigor that left other students behind. Rauner laughs and scoffs at this: “For me it was one of the many blessings of Dartmouth that I was able to talk with Friedman as a know-nothing undergrad economics major.” 

After earning an M.B.A. at Harvard, he embarked on a career in Chicago with the private equity firm that eventually became Golder Thoma Cressey & Rauner. The business brought Rauner enormous wealth, far above his upper-middle-class roots. When he first ran for office, he estimated his net worth at upwards of $500 million and he owned nine homes, including ranches in Montana and Wyoming. He’s also given away millions touching a wide range of causes, many connected to education and the environment. 

Through the years Rauner has been a generous friend to Dartmouth, which features his name on the special collections library, a residence hall, scholarships, and an endowed chair in economics. Four of his children attended the College and he has been active on a number of alumni committees. 

He also poured a fortune into his political career. “As I said every day,” he tells me, “home is worth fighting for.”

We spoke again shortly after armed protesters invaded the Capitol on January 6. “I was horrified,” Rauner says. “It’s just so contrary to what our nation is about. And there’s no question that [Trump] played an inciting role in it. It’s a tragedy on every level. Trump will be at war with the Republican Party for years, unfortunately. That’s bad for Republicans, but it’s bad for the country.”

In Rauner’s analysis, Trump exploited and aggravated divisions that were already fracturing the country. “It’s very hard to hold the center in American politics anymore,” he says. But Rauner remains confident in democracy. “It’s a horrible system, except compared to the alternatives,” he says, echoing Winston Churchill. He suggests two practical reforms: Eliminate gerrymandering and mandate term limits. “Too much power concentrated in one person through time engenders corruption,” he says.

The two reforms, he thinks, would ease the path for centrist politicians to regain power from the extremes. “I am an optimist,” he says. “I think we will re-establish leaders for the middle.”

And that might even include Bruce Rauner. “People ask would I do it again, and I say, yes, I would do it again,” he says. “I might run again some day—if I ever get my wife comfortable with it.”  

   

Richard Babcock is a novelist and former editor of Chicago magazine.                   

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