Covering a closed-off candidate

How Illinois journalists are tackling Bruce Rauner's gubernatorial campaign

CHICAGO, IL — If the Chicago Tribune’s editorial endorsement is any indication, Bruce Rauner is getting his message across.

Rauner is the Republican nominee for governor in Illinois, and he was always likely to get the backing of the right-leaning Tribune editorial board in his campaign to unseat the incumbent Democrat, Pat Quinn. But when the endorsement came out Oct. 10, it was hard to imagine Rauner could have scripted things any better: While Quinn’s a nice guy who had his chance to tax-and-spend and failed, it argued, Rauner is a no-nonsense businessman who would bring a laser-like focus to jumpstarting the state economy, reforming government, and staring down “entrenched Illinois interests.”

And if the details of how and why he can accomplish all that were a little vague … well, that’s part of the Rauner message, too. As he makes his case to voters in one of the most competitive gubernatorial races in the country, Rauner’s campaign has offered a big-picture vision and agenda with few details—and a cold shoulder to journalists examining how his career in private equity has prepared him for the governor’s mansion. 

“The Rauner campaign is far and away the most closed organization I’ve encountered,” says Carol Felsenthal, who wrote a profile of Rauner for the October issue of Chicago magazine that is the most detailed and comprehensive look at the candidate to date. “I’ve been writing since the late ’70s and covered a lot of politics—and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Rauner is hardly alone in freezing out the campaign press corps, of course. Lack of access is a perennial journalists’ complaint, and reporters here are quick to point out that Quinn’s campaign is also tight-lipped, especially when it comes to the details of scandals that have long dogged him.

Even so, Rauner’s campaign stands out, especially since there would seem to be so much to discover. He has never before held or even run for elected office, and began the race as a relative unknown even to some prominent Illinois Republicans. Though he has a record as a prominent supporter of education reform, he has not, as Felsenthal wrote, “discussed in any real detail … his stance on such hot-button social issues as abortion, gay marriage, drug policy, crime reduction, or capital punishment.” He has largely declined to discuss the actions of companies his firm invested in, or how he would approach negotiations with powerful Democrats (some of those “entrenched interests”) in the state legislature. 

Instead, Rauner has tapped into his formidable wealth, pumping more than $17 million of his own money into the race, which has helped his campaign outspend Quinn’s by millions on the airwaves (an outside group backed by organized labor has made up much of the difference).

“There’s a belief among politicians that, when you have that much money, you can get your message out another way,” says Mark Anderson, who writes for Ward Room, a political blog of NBC 5. “You no longer look at journalists and journalism as entity to be managed. You look at them as entity that represents risk.” 

Romney redux?

There’s an obvious place to start vetting Rauner, and reporters here have found it: his days as chairman of the Chicago-based private-equity firm GTCR. “The only record that we have is his business record,” says Amanda Vinicky, statehouse bureau chief for the Illinois Public Radio and WUIS. “So it’s a fair game, obviously, to examine it, especially when he’s a candidate who’s running on his business experience and what he calls his successes.”

“It’s really hard to judge whether somebody’s record will translate into how good a governor he’ll be,” says Dave McKinney, Springfield bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times. Few people predicted Rod Blagojevich’s disgrace based on his congressional resume, he notes.

But McKinney adds: “That business record of [Rauner]—it’s revealing. If nothing else, you can see how he made his money and how he treated people who worked for him.”

Part of the reporting challenge, of course, is that just what the record reveals is open to dispute. Remember the 2012 presidential campaign? Mitt Romney—whose background has some striking parallels to Rauner’s—ran on a record of business success, opponents cast him as a heartless plutocrat, and independent observers studied up on modern financial capitalism and tried to figure out just what a private-equity titan’s responsibility for the firms in his portfolio was, or what a particular tax maneuver signified. There have been some echoes in coverage of the Illinois campaign.

Still, there has been some intriguing enterprise reporting, much of it rooted in court cases. McKinney and colleagues recently wrote of the “hardball” approach Rauner used in dealing with a messy corporate situation (which might come in handy in Springfield, actually). Earlier Sun-Times coverage explored GTCR’s ties to a company involved in Detroit’s pay-to-play politics. 

And in a closely watched case, GTCR is among the defendants currently being sued in connection with the bankruptcy of a troubled Florida nursing home company, by plaintiffs who allege a scheme to evade liability from wrongful death lawsuits. Rauner, who at one point sat on the board of the nursing home business, is not personally named as a defendant, but the Tribune has been covering the trial’s every turn since it began last month.

One of those Tribune articles summed up a critique of Rauner that could apply to other rich-guy financier candidates: “He touts his financial acumen … while repeatedly professing little knowledge about the inner workings of companies built by his firm that later faced accusations of mismanagement, fraud or worse.” That’s not really an evaluation of his business record or whether he’s prepared to run the state, but it is a useful attempt to assess whether Rauner’s case for himself, as he’s made it, is on the level.

Getting answers for voters

The case for Quinn, of course, has plenty of holes, and his approval ratings have long slouched below 40 percent. That’s why it made sense for Rauner, a Republican seeking to maintain conservative support while also peeling away Democratic votes, to avoid questions, stay on message, and run as not-Quinn. But whether because of critical reporting, underlying partisanship, or something else, the lead he held through the spring and summer looks to have vanished; the last three polls all had Quinn up by a narrow margin.

It’s anyone’s guess how Rauner’s campaign will react in the coming weeks. Will he discuss where he stands on social issues? Will he offer a more detailed plan for the state’s pension crisis, or how he’ll implement his pro-business agenda? Will he present a clearer case for how his business career translates to running the state? Or will he double down on the current strategy?

Either way, says the Sun-Times’ McKinney, the job of reporters like him will continue to be to keep asking tough questions. “If a candidate is being evasive, it’s incumbent on us to ask as many questions that are on point as possible and be explicit in our reporting about it,” he says. “I think the voters are smart enough in Illinois … that, if they feel like they are not getting the answers that they think they deserve, then, come Election Day, they’ll hold the person responsible.”

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Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.