Rauner builds relationships with lawmakers ahead of inauguration
Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner offered to drive to McHenry County to see Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks on his home turf.
But the two settled on a meeting at Rauner's transition headquarters in Chicago.
The incoming governor had promised to work to get to know the 177 members of the Illinois General Assembly, and his meeting with Franks shortly after the November election was one of dozens he held in the run-up to Monday's inauguration.
Franks, of Marengo, offered Rauner a book, "Team of Rivals," about Abraham Lincoln's efforts to forge an administration of people who had opposed him. Rauner already had a copy, but Franks had a more practical gift, too.
"I brought him a large bottle of Excedrin," Franks said.
Rauner, the first Republican governor in a dozen years, might find it's a headache working with a legislature that has near-historic Democratic majorities in the Illinois House and Senate. Even if all Republicans go along with his plans, he'll need 13 more House lawmakers and 10 Senate votes to get things done. And more importantly, he'll need Democratic leaders to call his initiatives for a vote.
The value of good relations with lawmakers "can't be understated," Franks said. "The last two governors didn't have them."
Those governors were Democrats with Democrat-dominated legislatures.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich criticized lawmakers for spending money like "drunken sailors" and they never gave him the construction plan that would have allowed him to travel the state cutting ribbons. Then they impeached him after he was arrested on charges of corruption.
Gov. Pat Quinn, whose term ends Monday, took away lawmakers' pay out of frustration that they hadn't cut teachers' pension benefits yet. Months later, lawmakers failed to approve Quinn's signature budget proposal and suburban Democrats spent their re-election campaigns telling voters they didn't support the tax plans Quinn championed.
Two Rauner staff members sat in on Franks' meeting, and Franks says they've followed up about the discussions in the weeks that followed.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, said he met with Rauner for 45 minutes in Chicago shortly after Christmas.
Two staff members were again present taking notes, but Link said he and the incoming governor did all the talking.
Rauner asked detailed questions about gambling expansion, one of Link's key interests, but didn't commit to anything.
"At least I know there's somewhat of an interest there," Link said.
Rauner hasn't met with everyone yet.
Democratic Sen. Melinda Bush of Grayslake had the postelection message she left returned by Rauner, and in their brief phone call, Bush said Rauner told her: "I've heard good things about you."
Republican state Reps. David Harris of Arlington Heights and Sheri Jesiel of Winthrop Harbor haven't had sit-downs yet.
Rauner is engaging with Republicans in the legislature in other ways, too. State Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein said Rauner's staff talks to House Republican staffers before 8 a.m. many mornings.
"There's no doubt there was a discussion about how we have to play as a team down here," Sullivan said of Republicans.
Despite Rauner's honeymoon relationship-building, all will not go smoothly.
Democrats altered Rauner's first big decision by voting to create a special election in 2016 for comptroller, shortening the term of Rauner's pick for the job, Leslie Munger of Lincolnshire, to two years from four.
Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf called the move "constitutionally dubious" but said Rauner would move forward working with Democrats to try to merge the comptroller's job with Illinois treasurer.
Still, lawmakers widely said the meetings were a good way for Rauner to start his term.
"I think he's trying to understand the people involved," said state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.
State Rep. Stephanie Kifowit, an Aurora Democrat, carpooled to a Chicago meeting with Rep. Deb Conroy of Villa Park.
Rauner asked about both their priorities, and the two talked about legislation to prevent veteran suicides and help people with disabilities.
Kifowit said that what follows the opening meetings will be telling.
"I hope we just don't have our meeting and we're done." Kifowit said.