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Stop griping, Gov. Rauner, and make your case

Chicago Tribune

Thursday, December 7, 2017  |  Editorial  |  Editorial Board

Rauner, Bruce Madigan, Michael--State House, 22

If money could buy thick skin, Gov. Bruce Rauner might be in a stronger position for re-election. But in politics, industrial-strength exteriors can only be grown, not bought.

Three years into his first term after promising to “shake up Springfield,” Rauner continues to allow the most powerful man in Illinois politics — yes, it’s House Speaker Michael Madigan and let’s not feign surprise — to mess with his psyche. At a news conference Monday, Rauner offered a quirky assertion that even though he is governor, he is not “in charge” of state government. Madigan is. Rauner also suggested Madigan “rigged” the Democratic primary field, presumably clearing the path for gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker, who has picked up numerous endorsements from the Dems’ political elite — most of whom genuflect to you-know-whom.

Let’s take a cleansing breath and acknowledge Rauner wasn’t factually wrong. Through the House legislative process he controls, the Democratic Party he rules and the clout he has amassed, Madigan can pull levers in state government that Rauner, despite his higher rank, cannot. Madigan can determine which bills reach Rauner’s desk. He can advance legislation strategically, or not at all, to put Rauner in a twist or to block his agenda. Madigan has done both, repeatedly.

Let’s also recognize that both parties rig elections (legally, yes) in a way that obstructs transparent, good government. Ground zer Madigan’s re-election campaigns in his own Southwest Side district have included underhanded maneuvers to block, remove and punish competitors. That strategy has been cloned in countless races where Madigan holds an interest.

Don’t forget, Madigan’s attorneys also write and tweak the election code almost annually to make it easier for incumbents to cruise to re-election and harder for challengers to topple them. And don’t get us started on a redistricting regimen that does favors for incumbents of both major parties. We share Rauner’s frustration that a person who represents a small House district lords over the entire state.

But just because Rauner can make those claims doesn’t mean they should be the linchpin of his appeal to voters. Which is how it seems sometimes. With three years as governor, Rauner is not a hapless outsider. He controls powerful interests — a budget office, agency directors, attorneys, communication experts and a cabinet that reports to him. He also holds a fat personal checkbook that grants him freedom from fundraising. That’s huge.

With Madigan constantly in his sights, however, Rauner comes across as a perpetual victim. That posture only elevates the stature of Madigan, who is adept at getting under people’s skin. That’s what he does. Those people include former governors of both parties. Chicago mayors. Fellow Democrats statewide. Even his staunchest loyalists and, at times publicly, his daughter, who happens to be the attorney general.

Rather than partake in Madigan’s games, Rauner should be talking about his own record and what he would do with another four years. As a candidate in 2014, Rauner was John Wayne: “Mike Madigan has never negotiated with someone like me. He’s negotiated with career politicians who need money, who need favors, who owe special interest groups. I don’t owe anybody anything and I don’t need money and I don’t need a political career and I don’t need a job,” he said the month before he was elected.

Rauner underestimated Madigan. Many have.

Rauner also stood up to Madigan. During Madigan’s 47 years in the legislature, almost no one else has. Even Rauner’s critics privately admit they’ve seen nothing like this battle of wills. Nothing like this war for the future of Illinois. Will this state continue its long decline into public-sector debt and private-sector flight to more hospitable locales? Or will Illinois loosen the control of public employee unions, reduce government spending and attract more employers and jobs?

Madigan shouldn’t be the focus of Rauner’s re-election campaign. Rauner should be the focus of Rauner’s campaign.

Our advice to the governor: Stop griping. Pivot. Regroup. And do it soon.