Every governor over the past 25 years—Republican and Democrat—has learned a lesson from Gov. Jim Thompson.
Every governor except one.
Running for re-election in 1982, Thompson was in the fight of his political life, and the Republican speaker of the House was making things worse.
Illinois had plunged into recession under Republican President Ronald Reagan, and Thompson was running against a household name, former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III.
Then, House Speaker George Ryan of Kankakee allowed an anti-union “right to work” bill to move to the House floor. Organized labor was furious. Thousands of workers gathered on the Statehouse lawn in June to angrily denounce Ryan. Thompson was met with a resounding chorus of boos when he took the stage.
More than a few statehouse types have been wondering aloud for weeks what Gov. Bruce Rauner is up to with his almost daily attacks on organized labor.
Just what, they ask, is the end game here?
His people say that the governor feels “liberated” since the election to speak his mind about a topic that stirs great personal passion in him. He played up the issue during the Republican primary, then all but ran away from it in the general election, including just a few weeks before Election Day when he flatly denied that “right to work” or anything like that would be among his top priorities.
Yet, there he is, day after day, pounding away at unions, demanding right-to-work laws, vilifying public employee unions as corrupt to the point of issuing an executive order barring the distribution of state-deducted employee “fair share” dues to public worker unions such as AFSCME. The dues are paid by people who don’t want to pay full union dues.
Some top Democrats believe that Rauner may be setting them up for a grand bargain this spring. Democratic lawmakers most certainly are going to freak out when Rauner presents his draconian budget. Rank-and-file members undoubtedly will demand some sort of tax hike to prevent draconian cuts to their cherished programs. Rauner eventually could say he’d agree to additional revenues in exchange for passage of his economic package.
But some top Republicans who have regular contact with the governor say they haven’t yet discerned a rhyme or a reason. “I just don’t see an end game here at all with them,” confided one GOP operative. Another concurred, saying if there is an end game, it hasn’t been shared with anyone else.
For their part, the Democratic House speaker and Senate president have asked the governor gently to focus his considerable energy on attacking the state’s massive budget deficit, rather than spend his time attacking labor. The governor will need all the cooperation he can get to fix that budget problem, and he’s making more enemies than friends right now.
Rauner and his top people are misreading the Senate President in particular, I’m told. The Senate Democrats, much like the U.S. House Republicans, vote privately on pretty much every major issue. If a majority is opposed to an idea, they don’t move forward.
So even if Rauner manages to muscle all 20 Senate Republicans onto a bill, that doesn’t mean the majority party will allow it to be called for a vote. And the more Rauner attempts to undermine their traditional supporters in organized labor, the less they may be willing to go along with him on other things.
And the Democrats aren’t his only problem.
Rauner met with members of the Senate Republican Caucus in a Springfield restaurant earlier this month and delivered a stern warning. Rauner started by reportedly referencing the $20 million sitting in his campaign account and said he wanted to be their partner in the upcoming session and would support those who supported him.
But then the hammer came down. Sources say the governor told the Republicans that he would ask for their votes on 10 issues and he needed them all to vote “yes” on all 10. Not five, not seven. Ten. And if anyone in the room didn’t vote for all 10, then they’d have a “[f-bomb expletive deleted] problem” with him.
Organized labor doesn’t have many friends among Senate Republicans, but they do have some House Republican allies. So top House Republicans hope Rauner will exempt those members from taking any anti-union votes. They point to folks such as Rep. Mike Unes, R-East Peoria, as a Republican who represents a traditionally Democratic district. If he starts voting against his district, he could be on the bubble.
In a major Democratic presidential wave year, with unions completely engaged against a hated governor, the Republicans fret they could lose even more seats if any of those 10 votes Rauner wants has to do with demolishing labor unions.
And the governor isn’t exactly inspiring confidence in the ranks. Rauner’s executive order about fair share dues was declared illegal by the attorney general last week. He reworked it to keep it on track, but it’s still not legal, according to the state’s highest-ranking lawyer.
In politics, it’s always unwise to threaten somebody with an unloaded pistol. Then again, $20 million can buy a whole lot of bullets, whatever the objective may be.