When Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) went out and gutted unions in Wisconsin, he knew that the state legislature had his back. The state government was pretty closely divided between parties, but Republicans had the majority, and so they could ramrod most any decisions down the gut of the state. Which as we now know is just what they did.
It will be interesting to see how the same thing plays out under very different conditions in the state that borders it just to the south, Illinois.
When Bruce Rauner (R-IL) ran for governor of Illinois last year, his ads made it difficult to know exactly what party he was running under. (Rule #1 of TV campaign ads -- when a candidate doesn't make their party affiliation clear...they're a Republican. Most likely they're somewhat moderate for a Republican these days -- which isn't a very high standard -- and don't want to be tarred as a far right wing nut conservative. Of course, "somewhat moderate for a Republican these days" is not inherently moderate. Indeed, in some cases it can still be fairly conservative. Just not far right wing nut job...) And so, when I was visiting back home in Chicago and saw and heard Rauner ads -- which were hugely well-financed and ran for a long, looong time -- I had to do some online research to make absolutely sure that he was, indeed, a Republican. And yes, as I suspected, he was indeed a Republican. As feel-good as his "everything to All Men" ads wanted to seem, he was most definitely a Republican.
And so, he won the governorship in November, defeating the unpopular Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn. Still, unpopular as Quinn was, Rauner had to run as a "I'm not actually going to tell you my party" candidate, since Illinois tends to be solidly more Democratic. It does have a history of occasionally electing Republicans to national and state office -- this is the Land of Lincoln, after all. But it's also the Land of Obama. And despite Quinn's unpopularity, Rauner only sneaked in with 51% of the vote, beating the incumbent by five points. (There was a third-party candidate.)
Now, you might think that someone who ran as a moderate-ish hidden-party candidate who can work with both parties, and got elected in a pretty Blue state with only 51 percent of the vote, might tread lightly, at least when initially taking office. Build some bridges. But then, this is the party of George W. Bush who barely was re-elected president, even during a war, getting a mere 50.7 percent of the vote, squeaking through by just 2.4 percent, yet declared a mandate, saying, "I earned political capital and now I intend to spend it" and promptly governed as a far-right conservative in a deeply divided country.
And now, ever since the supposed-"I can work with all sides" Republican Bruce Rauner took office just one month ago in the Blue Illinois, he has gone out of his way to pull a George W. Bush meets Scott Walker and declared war on unions.
In his State of the Union address last week, Mr. Rauner said he wanted to ban political contributions from public employee unions and additionally asked that the state to let municipalities to pass "right-to-work" laws.
Those were just words. But he soon put them into actions.
Only a week later, Bruce Rauner has just used his executive authority to stop public employee unions from collecting mandatory "Fair Share" fees from workers. ("Fair Share" are fees that workers are required to pay in place of union dues when they opt not to join, since the money is used for negotiating collective bargaining contracts that also cover the non-union workers.) Rauner claims that the money is used to support political candidates that a non-union member may not like, and therefore he suggests this violates their First Amendment rights. The problem is that the state's biggest public employees union, AFSCME, says that those Fair Share fees are not used for political contributions at all. AFSCME Executive Director Roberta Lynch said that the governor's actions were "a blatantly illegal abuse of power".
The Chicago Tribune wrote that "The new governor’s decree effectively attempts to impose right-to-work rules on public employees, an idea Rauner and his pro-business allies also are pursuing for private-sector unions."
If this is the way he starts, so much for Bruce Rauner being that undeclared moderate voice who can work with both parties. Kumbaya.
But that's where the story might differ vastly from Scott Walker and Wisconsin. Because the Illinois state legislature might be able to overturn the Republican governor's order. And unlike Wisconsin, which was closely divided but in Republican control -- Illinois is a totally different ballgame. Not only are neither of the state legislative bodies in the same Republican control of the governor, the split isn't even close. In fact, in the Illinois State Senate, Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost 2 to 1, with 39 Democrats to just 20 for the GOP. And in the State House, there are 71 Democratic Representatives to only 46 for Republicans.
It isn't just a case of seeing if Democrats overturn this action (or if the courts do), but the governor has thrown down a blunt, conservative gauntlet that might make it difficult for him to deal as a supposed-compromiser with a heavily-Democratic legislature for the next four years -- unlike what he promised during his campaign -- now that they've seen the first part of his conservative agenda.
It might turn out that, as in Massachusetts when Mitt Romney was a Republican governor in a Blue state, that Bruce Rauner will find that he'll have to scale back his agenda, and work with the party in legislative power and a vast majority. We'll see. It's certainly not the start I suspect most state voters expected.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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