Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was able to encapsulate the “Alice in Wonderland” ecosystem of Illinois politics in a few terse sentences.
After a recent state Farm Bureau conference, Rauner, as he does, came out swinging against his arch-nemesis, longtime Democrat House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, a reporter asked him that "if the speaker has been around for more than three decades, hasn’t the governor been in charge for the last three years?"
Rather than spinning that pointed question, the governor entered what could only be described as a Zen moment, with a dose of patented Rauner-style simmering frustration.
“I wish I had. We would have our problems fixed. Illinois would be on a great future,” Rauner said. “We’d have 200,000 more jobs in this state, we would have lower property taxes in this state, we would have term limits in this state, if I was in charge. I am not in charge. I’m trying to get to be in charge.”
Let’s review what just happened there:
• Rauner has been chief executive for three years.
• Rauner is running for re-election.
• Rauner said he’s not in charge.
The wisdom of articulating such a comment in that moment in time — one could hear the ominous attack ads firing up now — is up for debate. Yet Rauner is not wrong in what he said. And that's what makes his apparently off-the-cuff (or maybe brilliantly calculating?) remarks ring true.
Elected in 1971, Madigan has been speaker for all but a couple years since the early 1980s, corralling votes and endorsing or killing legislation as he sees fit.
Madigan is powerful. Too powerful. State government is a complex machine, and there’s plenty of blame to go around between the executive and legislative branches for the dysfunction, but Madigan’s sheer tenure means he’s been in the middle of most it since the Nixon administration.
Now 75, Madigan is undeniably unpopular, especially downstate, and has no signs of slowing down. The one clear goal lately is to simply block the Rauner agenda. Solutions about how to fix our state have been limited, to say the least. It is a poisonous relationship.
Rauner deserves credit for pushing on pension reform, trying to fix workers' compensation and lower property taxes and seeking term limits — with very limited engagement from the legislature and the speaker. He also happened to oversee a government that didn’t have a budget for two years and has amassed $16 billion in unpaid bills. The conservative National Review magazine called him "The Worst Republican Governor in America.”
Rauner faces a primary challenger in House Rep. Jeanne Ives, of Wheaton, and massive spending on the Democratic side, where seven candidates are in the race.
If Rauner loses in November, Madigan will have to work with — or not work with — his sixth governor since ascending to power. Until something changes, the Madigan era continues.