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The Midwest’s basket case: Who should run Illinois?

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Sunday, July 30, 2017  |  Commentary  |  The Economist (online)

Budget--State (8) , Governor (44)
A clutch of Democrats are eager to replace the governor

IN THE two and a half years since he was elected governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner has met the media as little as possible. Recently, though, he has seemed more eager to communicate. In February he started to take questions from listeners once a month on WBEZ, the local public-radio station. On May 9th he appeared on Facebook Live with his wife, and last month he went on an impromptu tour of the state, visiting businesses and restaurants.

Mr Rauner is one of the most vulnerable Republican governors in the country. A poll in March by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute of Southern Illinois University found that 58% of those surveyed disapproved of the job he is doing. The fiscal mess he inherited is now so acute that, according to chatter on the bond markets, Illinois could go bust like Puerto Rico. The state’s debt stands at $210.4bn; Moody’s, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s all put its credit rating just two notches away from junk.

The main reason for this state of affairs is that the governor and the legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, have failed for two years to agree on a budget. Mr Rauner wants the state House of Representatives to pass his anti-union, pro-business proposals before he agrees to the tax increases and spending cuts needed to balance the books. Mike Madigan, the Speaker of the House and boss of the state’s Democrats, insists his party cannot accept such a radical agenda. On May 9th the Civic Federation, a right-leaning watchdog, sharply criticised Mr Rauner for the lack of detail in his budget proposals, for including an operating deficit of at least $4.6bn and for allowing unpaid bills to rise to nearly $20bn.

While the governor struggles, an unusually high number of Democrats have already said they mean to run for his job in November next year. J.B. Pritzker, a hotel magnate, and Chris Kennedy, a businessman and son of Robert Kennedy, an icon of liberal Democrats, have already thrown their hats in the ring. So have Ameya Pawar, a progressive Chicago alderman, Daniel Biss, a state senator, and Bob Daiber, the only candidate from downstate Illinois, who is superintendent of schools for Madison County. Scott Drury, a state representative, says he is thinking about it.

Mr Pritzker and Mr Kennedy both have deep pockets. They can match Mr Rauner, who was boss of a private-equity company before he ran for office, and who put $50m in a campaign fund last December even though he has not formally said that he will seek re-election. Mr Pritzker is even richer than the governor; Mr Kennedy’s name alone gives him access to plenty of funds. Neither man has ever held political office, so neither could be accused of being controlled by the deeply unpopular Mr Madigan, widely considered the godfather of Illinois politics, whose main focus is to get his minions re-elected.

Even so, says Christopher Mooney of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs in Urbana, it is not inconceivable that a less well funded candidate, such as Mr Pawar or Mr Biss, might win the Democratic primary next March. Mr Pawar makes a persuasive pitch to progressives, promising a “new deal” with more funding for public schools, universal child care, legalised pot, big investments in infrastructure and reform of the criminal-justice system. He points out that he is the only person of colour in the race in a state where, by 2020, most children will be either from a minority or mixed-race. And he promises to fix Illinois’s abysmal finances with a progressive income tax and the elimination of tax loopholes for companies.

Mr Rauner is unlikely to have a rival on the Republican side. His popularity could recover in the next 18 months if he manages to end the budget crisis. He is a capable campaigner with powerful backers, notably Ken Griffin, a hedge-fund billionaire, and Richard Uihlein, a conservative businessman from the Chicago suburbs.

At their Facebook Live session, Mr Rauner and his wife sat at a wooden table, beer glasses in hand, and talked about fly fishing, sunflowers and strawberry milkshake. Not all viewers were impressed. On screen one online comment flashed repeatedly: “Pass a budget!”