A Republican strategist who was expected to lead Gov Bruce Rauner’s 2018 re-election campaign has left his position days after Rauner replaced top employees with staff from a conservative think tank.
Mike Zolnierowicz was an architect of Rauner’s 2014 campaign. He also served as Rauner’s chief of staff before resigning in 2016 to work as chief strategic adviser for Illinois GOP political operations. XPS Professional Services announced Friday that Zolnierowicz is leaving that role to lead XPS’ political operation.
The move comes after Rauner overhauled his staff in the wake of a legislative defeat, hiring leaders of the Illinois Policy Institute to high-level positions, including chief of staff.
The departure of Mike Zolnierowicz, who headed the transition team after Rauner’s 2014 election and served as the governor’s first chief of staff, is a serious blow to Rauner as the governor prepares for the costliest reelection campaign the Midwest has seen.
Former Rauner staffers say the recent staffing decisions — not just clearing out key, loyal personnel, but hiring several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place — are an attempt to lay the groundwork for more upheaval up ahead. […]
Zolnierowicz was the behind-the-scenes architect of Rauner’s 2014 victory and a key to the governor’s 2016 election gains in the General Assembly.
He did not return messages seeking comment, but sources close to him say he was disturbed by a series of high-level Rauner staff changes this week, ending up this afternoon with the termination or resignation of most of the governor’s policy staff. Most of those positions reportedly will be filled with personnel from the Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian Chicago think tank that strongly opposes tax hikes and says the state’s budget woes can be solved via spending cuts and slashed benefits for state and local government workers.
Quoted in the Xpress news release was the head of its parent firm, Greg Baise, whose Illinois Manufacturers’ Association operates Xpress as a wholly owned subsidiary. “His understanding of the political environment extends beyond Illinois’ border, and his list of accomplishments is second to none,” said Baise, whose group is a major player in Illinois politics, usually on behalf of Republicans.
Already working for the firm is Eric Elk, who like Zolnierowicz got his start in politics working as a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk.
If you’re scratching your head wondering if you’ve ever seen anything like this past week in Illinois politics, stop. You haven’t.