In the end, Mike Zolnierowicz had only one choice. Governor Bruce Rauner’s top political lieutenant and former chief of staff, the man everyone calls “Z” who was most responsible for winning the 2014 Republican primary, simply had to resign late in the afternoon on Friday, July 14.
The week began with the early-Monday firing of Richard Goldberg, Z’s close friend and hand-picked successor as Rauner’s chief of staff. Rumors had circulated for months that First Lady Diana Rauner had turned on Goldberg and wanted him out, and in the previous few weeks it was known among a select few that the governor had been calling around looking for a possible replacement, including calling a couple of people in Indiana who declined the offer.
But Z and others were caught totally off-guard when Goldberg was abruptly fired and not offered a position in the vast campaign apparatus that Z had constructed. Rauner had not only made a major decision without consulting Z, his supposedly number-one guy; he had also needlessly kicked Goldberg to the curb.
Goldberg’s secretary was told to pack her stuff and was then summarily escorted out of the building without being offered another position. Before working for Goldberg, she had also been Z’s cherished secretary. She didn’t ask for an extended maternity leave when she had her second child. Instead, she was so committed to her duties that she’d often bring her infant with her to the office. The callous treatment of her was widely seen as a direct affront to Zolnierowicz.
The governor’s top staff was mainly put together by two people: Z and Goldberg. And the loudest critics of those staffers from within Rauner’s personal inner circle included people at the top of the Illinois Policy Institute. When Rauner’s staffers were replaced by Illinois Policy Institute executives, it was seen as yet another jab at Z.
Rauner and Z reportedly met a couple of days after Goldberg and others were fired and the governor asked Z to stay on. But by Friday, when several more staffers were given the boot or turned in their resignations, it was abundantly clear to everyone that Rauner was going in a totally new direction. Rauner’s campaign side and his governing side should be on the same page, Z reportedly told the governor, so he tendered his resignation. In reality, I think Z probably would’ve been eventually moved out anyway by the coup plotters.
Z likely wouldn’t have felt the need to leave if Goldberg had been eased out in the “traditional” way, perhaps being sent to the campaign or to some other group after consultation with people such as Zolnierowicz; if the rest of the staff hadn’t been so shabbily treated; if the governor’s office hadn’t been so obviously outsourced to the Illinois Policy Institute. But if the sky were green, grass might be blue.
So what happens next? Z reportedly told the governor he was still willing to offer advice and help from the outside. He wouldn’t talk at all about it to me either on or off the record except to say that he believes Rauner still has a real chance at re-election
But Z’s departure is a potential disaster for this governor. It shows great weakness, and weakness is the deadliest virus in politics. If someone as loyal as Z felt he had to leave, what kind of person would ever work with Rauner now? Zolnierowicz is a lovable man with amazing skills who also has the ability to turn on and off the inner soul of a political killer – and that combination has served Rauner well. Z is the guy who built up the governmental and political apparatus to support Rauner. Without him, Rauner is just a limitless checkbook with a big mouth.
For the past year and a half, top Rauner-administration insiders have muttered their belief that John Tillman, who runs the Illinois Policy Institute, wanted to gain control of the governor’s state office, while conservative political activist Dan Proft wanted to control the governor’s campaign operation.
To their minds, Tillman “succeeded” with Rauner’s staff purge because several of Tillman’s own staffers were brought on board. And the Monday after Z quit, one of Proft’s people, Matthew Besler, was given the helm of the governor’s political operation.
It’s a whole new world, campers.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and CapitolFax.com.