Rauner, Emanuel and one dead fish | WBEZ
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Governor Bruce Rauner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and one dead fish

The public battle between two of Illinois’ most powerful politicians culminated Friday with the use of a familiar political weapon: A dead fish.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner referenced local political lore Friday, as he held up a plastic-wrapped fillet of tuna for reporters and said he would send it to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in jest.  

The fish stunt was Rauner’s attempt to add some levity to the tension that’s been heating up between he and the mayor, ever since Chicago’s City Council approved Emanuel’s budget for 2016 and as the State of Illinois is about to enter its fifth month without a budget. The budget includes a property tax increase for city residents and businesses. The historic levy will mostly go toward funding the city’s ailing police and firefighters’ pensions.

In recent weeks, Emanuel and Rauner have been in private talks over some initiatives the mayor needs the Statehouse to approve. That includes an exemption to that recently-approved property tax increase, for residents whose homes are worth less than $250,000. And Emanuel is still waiting for Rauner to say he’ll sign off on a new payment schedule for those financially struggling pension funds.

Emanuel criticized Rauner for not supporting what the mayor called “the economic engine” of Illinois, referring to the City of Chicago. In response, a Rauner spokesman said Emanuel needed to “get serious” about if he’ll endorse the governor’s policies, or become, a “tax-and-spend” politician who is already planning to raise more taxes.

On Friday, the public back-and-forth escalated even further.

“You’re 120 days behind budget, $6 billion and counting and not paying bills,” Emanuel said, referring to the ongoing state budget impasse. “Stop name-calling and just do your job.”

Soon after, Rauner held his own news conference at a Chicago meat market -- and this is where the fish came in. The governor said he would send the cut of tuna to Emanuel, a reference to the infamous story that, years ago, Emanuel once sent a dead fish to a political operative.

But the humor only lasted so long. While Rauner said he’s “very fond” of Emanuel, he later grew more serious when asked about Chicago’s property tax increase.

“Chicago, I believe, has made a fundamental mistake,” Rauner said. “It’s the reason I’m opposed to what the mayor has done. He’s put a massive tax hike on the people of Chicago without significant structural reform. I think that’s a mistake.”

Rauner also said Emanuel, on principle, wants some of the policies that he’s pushing for, like changes to workers compensation.

“There’s some hiding, dodging,” Rauner said of Emanuel. “We need structural reform.”

Emanuel and Rauner are old friends and often speak privately. But the public dispute is a sign that the political impasse stretching out in the Statehouse is reaching the City of Chicago.

Lauren Chooljian and Tony Arnold cover politics for WBEZ. Follow them @laurenchooljian and @tonyjarnold.

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