Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s choices for new top staff positions — from chief of staff to policy director to the head of his communications team — have created a firestorm in recent weeks.
That’s because a handful of key additions to Rauner’s administration come from the Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank with offices in Chicago and Springfield that has advocated for smaller government, lower taxes and decried the power of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Illinois politicos have used a variety of labels to describe the institute’s positions.
State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, said the Illinois Policy Institute advocates for “a bunch of extremist views inappropriate for governing in this state.”
State Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, accused Rauner of hiring “ideologues” who aren’t interested in negotiating a compromise with Democrats, who control the Legislature.
About 20 Rauner staffers have either quit or been fired over the last two weeks. Democrats said the new hires from the Illinois Policy Institute represent a shift further to the right for Rauner, whose old staff had worked for moderate Republicans such as former Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka or former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk.
But Illinois Policy Institute CEO John Tillman rejected those labels, and said the idea that a new staff means a new agenda for the governor is “silly.” And some Republicans said, if anything, the moves signal a shift in political style rather than policy substance.
What is the Illinois Policy Institute?
The Illinois Policy Institute advocates for “taxpayers and all citizens of Illinois on behalf of free markets and the founding principles of the country,” Tillman said this week in an interview with WBEZ.
He argued that it’s not accurate to label the organization as “libertarian” or “conservative.” But the group has advocated for traditionally conservative positions, such as less business regulation and lower taxes. It’s been a vocal opponent of labor unions. And the group argues that more state workers should be moved out of pension plans and into 401(k)-style retirement plans. (The group’s website said that it doesn’t push for social issues but “focuses on economic liberty and free market principles.”)
Tillman said his group has also pushed policies that have received some Democratic support, such as the expansion of charter schools and criminal justice measures like keeping low-level offenders from being incarcerated.
“Look around outside of Illinois and … you’ll see they’re very commonsense policies,” Tillman said. “I think it’s the media class here in Illinois, and in particular in Chicago and Springfield, that are actually living in a bubble.”
The Illinois Policy Institute’s agenda is generally a hard sell in the Democratic-controlled legislature, though it advocates for its policies on several fronts: newspaper columns, editorial cartoons, its own media outlet and a feature-length documentary critical of Madigan. It’s connected to a lobbying arm to work with lawmakers in Springfield, and a legal arm that has challenged state laws in court, including same-day voter registration, and a requirement that some non-union workers pay union dues.
Most recently, the Illinois Policy Institute took a stance against the state budget that legislators ultimately passed, in part because it increased the personal income tax rate from 3.75 percent to 4.95 percent.
When asked if 3.75 percent is the right tax rate for the Illinois, Tillman said, “I think zero would be better.”
He said some other states — including Texas, Washington, and Nevada — do not tax income. Though Tillman said the bigger problem in Illinois isn’t how much in taxes the state collects, but its spending levels. Instead of a tax hike, the group pushed for a plan to balance the budget that included cuts alone.
How will Rauner’s new staff change where his office is going?
While Tillman said he talks “regularly” with Rauner, he also said his call for abolishing the personal income tax in Illinois is his idea and not the governor’s.
When asked about concerns that Rauner’s new staff from the Illinois Policy Institute signalled a rightward shift for the governor, Tillman said that’s “one of the most silly things I’ve seen reported.”
Kristina Rasmussen, who Rauner tapped to be his new chief-of-staff, was previously the president and COO of the Illinois Policy Institute. She wasn’t immediately available for an interview with WBEZ. Other former staffers from the group include Rauner’s new deputy chief of staff of communications, Diana Rickert, and press aide Meghan Keenan.
“Some of the staff that have gone over there have been critical of the governor,” Tillman said. “This is a guy who likes to hear different opinions. He doesn’t want a bunch of sycophants around him.”
On Friday, Rauner had a similar answer for reporters when asked about the influence of organizations like the Illinois Policy Institute on his administration.
“I don’t care about partisanship and nobody tells me what my policies are,” Rauner said, adding that he has consistently called for things like a property tax freeze and changes to workers compensation.
The Illinois Policy Institute had recently criticized Rauner for supporting a budget plan that included a temporary income tax hike to 4.95 percent.
Tillman said he doesn’t expect the change in staff to change what Rauner pushes in terms of policy, but instead his new staff would have a more “aggressive and proactive” approach to pushing the governor’s agenda on social media and other platforms.
Reaction to Rauner’s new staff
Several Republicans also said the change in Rauner’s staff likely does not signal a change in his agenda. However, there could be a bigger change in how individual lawmakers interact with the Illinois Policy Institute.
State Rep. Steve Andersson, R-Geneva, is one of ten House Republicans who voted to override Rauner’s veto of the budget and income tax increase.
After the vote, Andersson resigned from his leadership position among House Republicans. He said he received death threats for his vote from people calling his personal cell phone, which “lit up for about 24 to 48 hours, non-stop.”
Andersson said one or two of the callers said they received his number from the Illinois Policy Institute website, an allegation the group denies.
Melanie Krakauer, an institute spokeswoman, said the organization does not condone posting state lawmakers’ personal cell phones. She also said nobody at the institute saw Andersson’s number listed in the comments section of the group’s Facebook page. (WBEZ did find a July 1 Facebook post from a page affiliated with the Illinois Policy Institute that listed a phone number for Andersson and encouraged followers to contact him. Tillman said that number is a pass-through that went to Andersson’s legislative office, not his cell phone. A call made to the number by WBEZ Friday did forward to Andersson’s office.)
Despite the angry calls, Andersson said he still supports the governor’s agenda and is optimistic that his new staff will be able to compromise with Democrats. But he said the group’s cuts-only budget proposal was never going to have enough support to pass the legislature.
“They’ve been in think tanks and they’ve done a lot of thinking, but there is a difference between a think tank and actually governing,” he said.
But the incident has left him bitter about the Illinois Policy Institute.
“After the way I feel I was treated, I think they can find plenty of other legislators that can help them,” Andersson said.
Those other legislators could include Reps. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, and Tom Morrison, R-Palatine, both of whom said they’ve worked well with the Illinois Policy Institute on bills.
Ives said she thinks Rauner’s new staff will be more focused on policy than his previous one.
“They didn’t really understand how policy fits together and how one policy affects the other,” Ives said of Rauner’s former staffers.
Morrison, however, said Rauner’s new chief of staff and communications team would focus more on how the governor delivers his message.
“One thing the Illinois Policy Institute does well is communicate the untold stories that maybe the media is unable or unwilling to tell,” Morrison said.
Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. You can follow him on Twitter at @tonyjarnold. WBEZ reporter Kijin Higashibaba contributed to this story.