DEMOCRACY can be cruel because elections deprive the demos of the delight of alibis and the comfort of complaining. Illinois voters have used many elections to make theirs the worst-governed state, with about $100 billion in unfunded public pension promises, and $6.7 billion in unpaid bills. The state is a stark illustration of prolonged one-party rule conducted by politicians subservient to government employees unions.
A new Gallup poll shows that Illinois has the highest percentage — 50 percent — of residents who want to leave their state. If Illinois voters re-elect Gov. Pat Quinn, 65, they will reject Bruce Rauner, 58, who vows to change the state’s fundamental affliction — its political culture.
The state’s strongest civic tradition is of governors going to jail. Four of the last nine have done so. Lt. Gov. Quinn ascended to the governorship in 2009, because Gov. Rod Blagojevich, of fragrant memory, tried to sell the Senate seat Barack Obama vacated. In 2010, Quinn defeated a downstate social conservative by 32,000 votes out of 3.7 million cast. Quinn’s job approval today is about 35 percent.
Rauner, born a few blocks from Wrigley Field, grew up in a Chicago suburb — his father was an electrical engineer at Motorola, his mother was a nurse. He attended Dartmouth, earned a Harvard MBA and joined the private-equity firm GTCR, where he made enough money to buy his nine homes. When a reporter asked him if he is among the 1 percent, he cheerfully replied, “Oh, I’m probably .01 percent,” an answer that was better arithmetic than politics.
Rauner spent $6.5 million of his own in winning the Republican primary, partly because Democratic-aligned unions spent millions trying to pick Quinn’s opponent — attacking Rauner and supporting one of his GOP rivals. Quinn is, as Winston Churchill reportedly said of an adversary, a modest man with much to be modest about. Hence Quinn’s campaign theme: Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.
Concerning social issues, which energize much of the Republican base but repel many suburban voters in the “collar counties” around Chicago, Rauner is impeccably prudent, meaning disengaged. Abortion, he says, is “a tragedy” best left to women, not government. Gay marriage? Let each state decide by referendum “that particular contract between adults.”
Quinn, unable to work the “war on women” trope, must rely on contemporary liberalism’s only other idea, rage against the rich. But this becomes awkward.
Rauner’s support for more charter schools and school choice voucher programs is one reason why he has been endorsed by the Rev. James Meeks, pastor for 15,000 members of the South Side’s Salem Baptist Church, Illinois’ largest black church. And one reason the teachers unions oppose him with ferocious disparagement of his wealth.
Which is amusing. Since 2000, the Teachers’ Retirement System, Illinois’ largest pension program, has invested $120 million with GTCR and reaped an average annual return of 25 percent, much better than TRS’ other private-equity investments. For Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, it suffices to say that Rauner is a “millionaire capitalist.” He replies, “Teachers hired me for years.” Public pension funds are by far the largest funders of private equity firms.
Illinois’ population growth rate is the sixth lowest among the states and its 8.4 percent unemployment rate is exceeded only by Rhode Island’s, another Democratic-dominated state, and Nevada’s. Michigan’s unemployment rate, the Midwest’s second highest, is nearly a full point lower than Illinois’. Bewildered liberals will say the state’s stagnation is “despite” Democrats having raised the corporate tax rate from 7.3 percent to 9.5 percent, and imposed a “temporary” income tax rate increase from 3 percent to 5 percent. Now, unsurprisingly, Quinn proposes making the temporary increase permanent. Two contiguous states with Republican governors — Michigan and Indiana — have cut corporate taxation.
“Cleanliness,” says Rauner, quoting former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, “is next to godliness, except in the Illinois legislature where it is next to impossible.” Governors come and go in Springfield but state legislators linger and real power resides in the speaker of the House, Michael Madigan, who has been a legislator since Richard Nixon was President (1971). Rauner helped to finance the gathering of signatures to get term limits for state legislators on the November ballot, thereby energizing the huge majority that favors limits. Illinois voters can choose Rauner and term limits, or the acceleration of stagnation and the end of the pleasure of complaining.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.