Is Bruce Rauner the Mike Bloomberg of Illinois?

 /  Dec. 6, 2014, 4:41 p.m.


“This one contest, the race for governor, is simply too important to the future of Illinois for us to stay silent.” This was the Chicago Sun-Times’s justification for endorsing Bruce Rauner for governor in October, breaking a three-year ban on political endorsements. Most media coverage of the Sun-Times’s endorsement focused on conflict of interest issues involving Rauner and the paper’s top brass. But most of the coverage failed to notice the comparison the Sun-Times made between Rauner and another wealthy businessman who ran for office, Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City. In its endorsement of Rauner, the Sun-Times suggested, optimistically, that he “could be the Michael Bloomberg of Illinois, fiercely free of political control, keeping his distance from the culture wars, achieving the kinds of economic wonders for our state that former Mayor Bloomberg achieved in New York City.”

It is easy to see why the Sun-Times might make this comparison: both Bloomberg and Rauner are prominent businessmen who, in troubled times, took on a political leadership role. And both endorse a pragmatic, efficient style of politics. But just how valid is it to compare the two?

Bloomberg’s road to riches was unique. Educated at Johns Hopkins and later Harvard, he left a job at a Wall Street investment bank to found his own company on a hunch that financial data would soon become a precious commodity. His intuition paid off, and Bloomberg L.P. grew into the most successful firm of its type, branching off into media and other technology sectors, and making Bloomberg a multi-billionaire in the process. The success of the “Bloomberg” data terminal, explains Joyce Purnick in her biography of the mayor, “benefited from Bloomberg’s stubborn insistence on doing things his way.”

That same “stubborn insistence” was crucial during Bloomberg’s first years as mayor, a chaotic period in New York City politics that saw racial divides festering within the Democratic Party and a $6 billion deficit. Of course, Bloomberg had another asset, his own $34 billion fortune. Bloomberg wielded money as a political tool, often using his personal fortune to step around politics and support people and organizations he favored. When budget cuts slashed the funds going to various arts organizations, Bloomberg sent many of them a check from his bank account. In fact, he used his personal wealth like no other government executive in history, doling out a combined $650 million over the course of his twelve years as mayor of New York. This money went to everything from tropical fish tanks in City Hall to art museums and elementary schools. The mayor’s personal donation of $6 billion to the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City reinvigorated the nonprofit sector and inspired other donors to contribute more than $40 million more. The Fund provided aid for crucial programs, including teacher development and health services for students. By the end of his term, many agreed that Bloomberg’s money had defined his mayorship to an extent that it has for no other mayor.

A partner at the Chicago private equity firm GTCR for thirty years, Rauner, too, is active in philanthropy, and has endowed professorships at numerous schools, including the University of Chicago. But it is unlikely that he will be able to use his wealth in the same way Bloomberg did. Beyond the fact that Rauner’s net worth of nearly $1 billion pales in comparison to Bloomberg’s, Rauner will also be governing a state, not a city, and will have to be more creative in finding ways to exert influence over a much larger and more politically diverse constituency. Without being able to exert the philanthropy-based political power that Bloomberg did, it will be difficult for Rauner to enact the same sweeping policies that the former mayor was known for.

Bloomberg was also a much more polarizing figure than the Sun-Times makes him out to be, and his legacy as mayor is still being hotly debated in New York. Bloomberg streamlined the city’s legislative process through a politically savvy partnership with Democratic City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Quinn and Bloomberg partnered to pass many of the mayor’s legislative goals, while also showing the public that Bloomberg (who later renounced his affiliation with the Republican Party and ran as an independent) was willing to work with Democrats. Christine Quinn’s counterpart in Rauner’s case is House Speaker Michael Madigan, Chicago Magazine’s “second most powerful Chicagoan.” To build a coalition, Rauner will have practically no choice but to form a relationship with Madigan, who holds the keys to legislative efficiency at the state level.

Rauner will also have to gain support from a diverse electorate. Over the course of his tenure, Bloomberg won the approval of many key groups in New York. Originally a Republican, he later became an independent, receiving the support of the Independence Party and the Working Families Party. The New York Times editorial board, which normally endorses Democrats, "enthusiastically" endorsed Bloomberg multiple times. Rauner, too, succeeded in pulling together a wide variety of supporters during the election, from African American pastors on the South Side of Chicago to the agriculture industry in more rural parts of the state. Perhaps the Sun-Times saw the broad support for Rauner as an antecedent to authoritative, Bloomberg-like policies.

But the legislation Bloomberg passed in his final years as mayor is still playing out, and many New Yorkers wonder if he focused on the right things. He presided over low crime rates, but alienated minorities and low-income neighborhoods with his commitment to controversial policing tactics, namely “stop-and-frisk.” His administration made health a priority, yet received its fair share of ‘nanny state’ criticism for a proposed measure to regulate soft drink sales. And he oversaw an economic resurgence in Manhattan, but neglected, according to some, to consider the needs of the lower class. Critics point to zoning laws that excluded small businesses from low-income neighborhoods, and major increases in affordable housing rent during his tenure.

Wealth and effective leadership do not necessarily correlate, says Mike Miner of the Chicago Reader. In an October article for the Reader, Miner questioned Rauner’s reputation as a strong leader. “Bloomberg's accomplishment in creating and building Bloomberg L.P. and Rauner's in buying and selling, juicing up and folding existent companies (that, when called on his failures, he always insists he had next to nothing to do with) are comparable in no way I can see,” Miner wrote in an email to the Gate. When reached, the Sun-Times declined to explain its rationale for the comparison.

A successful business career, Miner argues, does not necessarily translate to a successful career in politics. Despite Bloomberg’s success, it is unreasonable to expect the same of Rauner in Illinois . In addition to the demographic differences between Illinois and New York City, Rauner is conquering a far different political beast in Springfield than Bloomberg encountered at City Hall in downtown Manhattan. Without the philanthropy-based political power that Bloomberg exercised, it will be difficult for him to build coalitions in the way the former mayor was known to do. This is where the Sun-Times’s comparison fails.

None of this is to say that successful businessmen in politically divided states cannot govern effectively. Several states have seen leadership in the form of a top-down approach that emphasized bold action. Instead of expecting from Rauner what was accomplished in very different circumstances under Bloomberg, it may be more apt to compare Rauner’s governorship to Mitt Romney’s in Massachusetts. Romney, in just four years, was able to turn around the state’s finances by cutting spending and raising funds through means other than taxes. In his last two full years as governor, Massachusetts ran a surplus of over $500 million. Rauner’s tenure, instead of a Bloombergian display of wealth and power, could be the continuation of a trend of Republican governors enacting successful policies in traditionally blue states. For Rauner to succeed, he must approach the task of governing Illinois very differently than Michael Bloomberg did in governing New York City.

The image featured in this article was taken from Steven Vance's Flickr page and can be found here.

Will Cabaniss


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