by Steve Bogira
Rauner has shrugged off the story. His opponents are just trying to derail him, he said. "Frankly, I scare politicians in both parties," he told the Sun-Times.
The 56-year-old Republican has never run for office, but he has money and connections. He's a multimillionaire venture capitalist who's good buddies with many pols, including Rahm Emanuel.
The election isn't until November 2014, but the primaries are only ten months away. Rauner's not quite in the race yet; for now, he's only a candidate to be a candidate. In February, he set up an "exploratory committee."
So far the committee's mainly been exploring how much it can raise. CEOs, investors, bankers, and assorted other VIPs have kicked in the maximum personal gift of $5,300. Members of the financier Crown family—Lester, James, Nancy, and Steven Arie—donated $5,300 each. Several corporations have contributed the $10.5 K max. Rauner himself has given $249,000, the limit for a candidate who's not self-funded.
In two months, he's amassed $1.3 million, not bad for an exploratory candidate. He's already bought ads on the net: "Bruce Rauner: Reclaim, Reform, Rebuild."
Rauner is a free-market conservative. He wants to get rid of the "knuckleheads who are mismanaging state government," he told a reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield in January. He stands for lower taxes, less spending, and fewer of those regulations that are handcuffing business.
He's a big contributor to charter schools; one on the near-west side bears his name. He's no fan of unions. After Chicago's teachers walked out last fall, he wrote in a Tribune op-ed: "We must not be fooled by the rhetoric that teachers are striking in the interest of students. Baloney. This strike is about protecting political power." The union wanted "to protect Chicago's incompetent teachers at the expense of students and good teachers," he said.
Rauner's in a politically mixed marriage. His wife, Diana Mendley Rauner, is a Democrat. The bulk of the political contributions from the family has gone to Republicans, but some has crossed the street. Diana Rauner's also president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a nationally acclaimed organization that has advocated tirelessly for quality early-childhood education.
Bruce Rauner hasn't been lounging around as his exploratory committee gathers in the checks. "While some suggest Bruce should sit in Chicago and run TV ads, that’s just not his style," his committee's website explains. Instead, he's been on a listening tour. "I’ve been listening to folks all over our great state," he says on the website.
Political listening tours, of course, tend to be selective-hearing tours. So far Rauner has reported hearing a businessman's complaints about "excessive paperwork and burdensome regulations."
Rauner may be a tycoon, but he's really down-home with the people, according to his website: "He hunts birds, hikes, loves riding his Harley, and jumps at every opportunity to fish. In other words, Bruce won’t need a briefing on how to talk to people anywhere in the state of Illinois."
And lest you fear that he's inclined to toss money around like those knuckleheads in Springfield, his website makes clear that success hasn't turned him into a big spender: "He still drives a 20 year old camper van and when he's on the road he stays in the cheapest hotel room he can find."
Was it thriftiness, then, that led him to take homestead exemptions on all three of his Illinois homes, when he's only allowed to take one?
The Daily Herald reported in late March that Rauner, who's had a house in Winnetka since 1995, bought a penthouse and a condo in 2008 in a building overlooking Millennium Park. In 2008 and 2009, Rauner claimed the homestead exemption on two of his properties, and in 2010 and 2011, he took it on all three. Since 2008, he'd received a total of $4,768 in exemptions on his Winnetka home and $1,616 on the Chicago units, according to the Herald.
The money saved was chump change for Rauner. And it must be hard to keep your tax deductions straight when you've got so many assets. So probably taking the extra exemptions was indeed just an "oversight," as a Rauner spokesperson told the Herald. Rauner immediately reimbursed the $1,616 he'd saved in Chicago. He kept the larger Winnetka exemption, since the Winnetka address was Rauner's primary residence, according to the spokesperson.
Maybe one of those pols who want to upend him leaked the homestead info. On the heels of that story came the charge that Rauner clouted his daughter into Payton College Prep in 2008.
Payton is a selective-enrollment public school on the near-north side. U.S. News & World Report rates it the second-best high school in lllinois (behind Northside College Prep), and 45th in the nation. Admission is based mainly on test scores and grades. Thousands apply each year for the school's 200 freshman seats. A berth in Payton is fucking golden.
According to Crain's columnist Greg Hinz, Rauner's daughter, who's now in college, sought admission to Payton in 2008. Because her family had a home in Winnetka, she could have attended New Trier—but it's ranked only 12th in the state. Her family's Millenium Park residences, however, meant she could apply to Payton. (She could have also attended her father's namesake charter, but she apparently wasn't interested in that.)
Hinz wrote that according to CPS sources, Rauner's daughter's test scores and grades left her shy of admission to Payton. Hinz said a report by the CPS inspector general that hasn't been publicly released confirms that Rauner called Arne Duncan—now U.S. education secretary, then CEO of CPS. A Duncan aide then called the Payton principal, after which Rauner's daughter was admitted. Hinz wrote that another source confirmed that the daughter got in not on her scores but "by way of a supplemental, alternate procedure."
Hinz didn't describe this alternate procedure. But 5 percent of students admitted to selective-enrollment high schools can get in via "principal discretion."
"Principal discretion" has long been derided as a route into Chicago's choice schools for the children of the influential. In 2009, after a federal grand jury began issuing subpoenas concerning the use of principal discretion, the CPS inspector general also began investigating. The IG reported in 2010 that principals "consistently abused" the process, giving "preferential treatment to politicians, public figures, friends, high ranking CPS staff, school staff and others rather than selecting students who were uniquely suited to the school's defined educational mission and who could contribute to the school's intellectual and holistic diversity."
The IG also found that some clout-laden admissions in 2008 could be "directly attributed to influence exerted by the CEO's office." That CEO was Duncan, who by the time of the IG report had moved on to his cabinet post.
No federal indictments were handed down. Today, principals of Chicago's ten selective-enrollment high schools can still use their discretion to admit up to 5 percent of their freshmen. But on the IG's recommendation, CPS instituted controls over the process: principal-discretion picks now must be approved by a review panel in the central office to ensure they're not the product of political clout.
A spokesman for the education secretary told Hinz that Duncan "doesn't recall" talking with Rauner about his daughter.
Rauner's exploratory committee responded to Hinz's queries with a statement: "While the Rauners expected to be attacked throughout this process, they are not going to allow their children to be used as a political football and will protect their children's privacy. . . . They won't be bullied or intimidated by the insiders' scare tactics. The kids are off limits on this issue and in the future."
"It's all baloney," Rauner told the Sun-Times, about the claims in Hinz's story. "It's just minor. It's stuff that doesn't matter, it may have partial truths in it. It's all part of the process of slinging mud early against someone who's doing really strong."
In an e-mail to supporters, he thanked those "who sent encouraging notes to Diana and/or me over the past week. Unfortunately, we know the political attacks are just beginning—but they won't deter me from offering up major reforms for the state I love."
But the Payton story isn't about Rauner's kids. It's about his integrity. Integrity is an important concern in any campaign, but especially in a race for Illinois governor, given how many of our recent governors have been short of it. While Rauner's exploring whether to run for governor, shouldn't voters be exploring him?
The extra homestead exemptions don't show that Rauner is nefarious, given the modest amounts involved. Nor, however, do they display a well-developed civic responsibility. The Payton issue is more significant. The use of clout to obtain something that those without clout can't obtain isn't "stuff that doesn't matter."
If Rauner doesn't want his daughter stuck in the spotlight, why doesn't he just say what really happened and dispose of the subject? There might be an innocent explanation. Maybe Rauner never called Duncan. Or maybe he called him, but it was just an exploratory call. What are the "partial truths"? I e-mailed Rauner's committee four days ago, saying I had some questions for him about Payton. I haven't heard back.