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Rauner is beatable—if Democrats don't self-destruct

Crain's Chicago Business

Saturday, June 17, 2017  |  Column  |  Greg Hinz

Rauner, Bruce

A billionaire and a guy with one of the most famous political names in American history. They and others wouldn't be running for the Democratic nomination for governor nine months before the first ballot is cast if GOP incumbent Bruce Rauner didn't appear ripe for the pickin'.

They may be right. Rauner has his hands full with a moribund economy, a state budget crisis that he seems unable to solve and a likely Democratic rebound in off-year 2018. He's also going to have to carry Donald Trump with him every step toward the finish line.

My message: Don't get cocky, Democrats. The donkey party is still quite capable of throwing away the 2018 gubernatorial election—just like Hillary Clinton let the White House slip away by assuming voters couldn't possibly elect a loudmouthed, insecure, tweet-aholic Russia lover.

A classic example of what could go wrong for the Dems is how the issue of rising property taxes and their link to insider favoritism has absolutely exploded in the past month, from one end of the state to another.

Already, Rauner was running TV ads suggesting that "corrupt" Democratic leaders who happen to be property tax appeals lawyers—read: House Speaker Michael Madigan and, to a lesser degree, Senate President John Cullerton—are the ones preventing the state from finally getting its fiscal house and economy in order. Rauner's polling must show that the ads worked, because in recent weeks he steadily shifted the focus of his state budget demands from term limits and workers' compensation reforms to demanding a statewide property tax freeze.

More recently, the Chicago Tribune, the state's dominant media vehicle, released a study of the Cook County property tax system that concluded that the system is stacked against the little guy, designed instead to help big property tax lawyers and their clients. Then, new Chicago property tax bills were issued, hitting owners with what the Civic Federation says is the largest single hike in modern history.

Amid all that, Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker got caught appearing to benefit from that system, yanking out the toilets from a Gold Coast mansion he'd purchased so it could be declared "uninhabitable" and thereby slashing its tax bill 83 percent.

Even a neophyte knows how to use material like that. The slow-starting campaign of another Democrat, Chris Kennedy, was quick to seize on it and connect the dots for voters. "If we don't stop politicians and parties from making money off the property tax system, they won't ever let us change the system," Kennedy said in late May, proposing a ban on allowing property tax lawyers to hold public office. "The political establishment in Springfield will oppose me with everything they've got because they know I'm not afraid to tell the truth."

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Kennedy didn't name Madigan—he didn't have to. The Democratic speaker has been breaking legs behind the scenes to help Pritzker win the backing of groups like the Illinois AFL-CIO. Kennedy's retort was pitch perfect for a populist era, Mr. Inside versus Mr. On Your Side, and the media gleefully carried the message.

Pritzker wasn't available to comment for this column. His people insist that other candidates have baggage, too, like the fact that Michael Daley, big Kennedy-backer Bill Daley's brother, is in the property tax appeals business. In the end, they say, the only thing that will really change the system is enacting a progressive income tax to replace the property tax, something that Rauner opposes and the other Democrats favor.

You get the idea. To stop Pritzker, Kennedy as well as Illinois Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, and North Side Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, will have to seize on stuff like this. And even if they don't, Rauner and his zillions of dollars in TV ads will be there to try to finish the job.

"Bring it on," says one Pritzker strategist. We'll see. Take the property tax kerfuffle as a sign that this race is unpredictable and far from over.