After Governor Bruce Rauner hired Illinois Policy Institute President Kristina Rasmussen as his new chief of staff, I reached out to one of the House Republicans who voted to override the governor’s budget and tax-hike vetoes. How was he feeling?
“You mean after the irate phone calls and e-mails and the letter that arrived at my house today telling me and my wife (by name) to move out?” he texted back. “I’m doing fine – seriously I am. I can just guess what the new chief of staff might have in store for me.”
Rasmussen’s anti-tax group essentially weaponized its Facebook page against lawmakers during the run-up to and aftermath of the overrides of Rauner’s vetoes.
The group’s Facebook page generated hundreds of thousands of often profanity-laden and hate-filled comments, and even some that appeared to advocate violent acts such as lynching. It also succeeded in inundating legislators with calls and e-mails. At least one legislator, Representative Steve Andersson (R-Geneva), reported receiving death threats. The group claims to have an “unblemished” record of “decency, civility, and candor,” but that’s not how some of those legislators see it.
So instead of trying to woo back those 11 Republican legislators who crossed him on the budget, the governor brought in the very bane of their existence as his new chief of staff. You can’t send a clearer signal than that.
Rasmussen quickly filled the governor’s office ranks with ideological allies. She hired a new policy director, Michael Lucci – the Illinois Policy Institute’s former policy director. She hired a new “special assistant,” Jean Hutton – the Institute’s director of operations. Laurel Patrick, who worked for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, was hired as the new communications director. And Diana Rickert is reportedly being hired as the deputy chief of staff for communications. Rickert is the Illinois Policy Institute’s vice president of communications who once advocated firing all state workers so that they could be rehired on a new, cheaper pension plan. Her idea was derided as unworkable and not legal.
Rauner has always been a big fan of the Illinois Policy Institute’s way of thinking and ways of doing business. He insisted, for instance, that Rasmussen be included in some policy meetings. Rasmussen reportedly voiced support at those meetings for things such as shutting down some state universities and prisons, regardless of the consequences – including the possibility of a prison escape during a hastily arranged facility shutdown. That’s just the sort of “bold” thinking that Rauner likes.
As a corporate roll-up specialist, Rauner was a big fan of creative destruction and outsourcing. Under-performing executives were tossed aside like yesterday’s garbage. And he’s doing the same thing now. His once fiercely loyal staff is being treated worse than Pat Quinn’s staffers were when the Raunerites took over. If this looks like a hostile corporate takeover to you, that’s because it is.
And so we’re about to embark on an adventure that I don’t think any state has ever experienced. The governor of a large state is outsourcing the operation of his government to a libertarian-minded activist think tank that he helped fund before he was elected.
The organization is hostile to unions, public pensions, taxes, and government regulations. It has railed against this state’s governance for at least a decade, building up an impressive operation that supplies free news stories, opinion columns, and even cartoons to cash-strapped newspapers throughout the state. It has a legal arm that has filed or is handling anti-union lawsuits. It has mastered social media to spread its gospel and whip up the public and lash out at opponents online. It took over a statewide radio news network. It employs researchers who regularly spit out pieces about how Illinois lags behind other states, particularly Indiana.
In other words, it’s the perfect fit for Rauner, a man of almost identical ideology who nurses a constant obsession about “messaging.”
The Illinois Policy Institute’s higher-ups didn’t seem all that troubled about the two-year impasse and heartily cheered on Rauner’s attempts to use the fiscal crisis as leverage to try to ram through his business and political reforms.
We can probably figure that new executive orders and rules are on the way to further the governor’s new agenda. But he’s also bringing in a bunch of governmental neophytes, so we can expect a lot of rookie mistakes.
But what we probably won’t see is any legislative progress. Perhaps just the opposite, if the disaffected Republicans decide to continue crossing the governor.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.