Made wealthy by decades in the cutthroat trenches of venture capital, Bruce Rauner has never been shy about opening up his checkbook to push causes he considers dear to his heart.
Dartmouth College, his alma mater, has Rauner scholarships, a Rauner dormitory, a Bruce V. Rauner endowed professor of economics and a Rauner Special Collections Library, bankrolled over the years with millions of dollars in gifts from the now Republican governor hopeful.
Now Rauner is spending even more of a personal fortune he pegs at more than $500 million in an attempt to make his biggest and most personal impact yet on the public stage.
The opinionated, supremely confident salesman of his own brand has skillfully leveraged those assets to make critical business and social connections and wield influence on school policy at Chicago's City Hall. Now he has launched a political career from scratch that has seen him quickly become the front-runner in the March 18 primary election.
"I'm a successful guy at everything I've done," said the 58-year-old from Winnetka in a recent interview. "I've kicked tails. I've gotten results. I could go do a hundred other things. I love this state. This is about protecting our home. No one else is going to do it. I'll do it."
Critics of Rauner voice their disdain in equally forceful measure.
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union on which Rauner frequently heaps scorn, sees him as driven by intolerant bluster and an abiding hate of organized labor. "He sounds like he's running for emperor, not governor," said Lewis, who led a seven-day Chicago teacher's strike in 2012 that Rauner played a behind-the-scenes role in provoking.
All of which is to underscore how there is little subtle about Rauner: from his array of luxury homes; to the millions he donates to push charter schools; to slash-and-burn accusations that rivals take campaign cash "bribes"; to a booming bass voice and a 6-foot-4-inch frame that literally rises over the four-man field in the GOP governor's contest.
At its core, however, the story of Rauner's first-ever run for public office is a testament to his skill at making and spending his money.
Rauner is tapping his own deep pockets and those of powerful friends in corporate suites to construct a fundraising juggernaut he has used to saturate the airwaves with campaign ads.
He has donated $6 million of his own money to his campaign, nearly three times the total raised by all three of his rivals combined, and an Illinois record for a candidate's self-financing in a primary race for governor. On top of that, Rauner has raised about $8 million in individual donations, much of it in six-figure amounts from leaders of investment firms with stakes in an array of businesses.
Yet Rauner says he is confident those donations will have no influence on his decisions as governor, even as he contends rivals are deeply compromised for taking union contributions.
Rauner argues he is too wealthy to be for sale. "I have an agenda and I've laid it out, and it's not about special deals," he said. "That's what politicians do. I am not a politician."
Such tough talk sells well with Republican audiences tilting ever more to the right, but it's unclear how it might play more broadly in a deep blue state should Rauner gain the GOP nomination and take on incumbent Democrat Pat Quinn in November.
In 2012, voters soundly rejected the presidential bid of Republican Mitt Romney, who also made his fortune running a venture capital empire, drew core support from a wealthy investor class and owned an array of opulent homes.
Rauner dismisses Romney analogies. "He came across as a blue blood," said Rauner, who insists he is anything but. "I'm a regular guy. I drink beer. I don't drink Courvoisier or whatever the hell that stuff is. I drink beer and I smoke a cigar and I ride a Harley and I love to fish."
The regular guy imagery is front and center in Rauner's campaign, which portrays the candidate as a kind of Joe the Plumber of multimillionaires.
As a symbol of frugality, Rauner highlights his $18 wristwatch, apparently a cheaper model than the $34 timepiece he wore when the Tribune profiled him in 2003.
On the stump, Rauner also talks up his modest upbringing, relating a sometimes incomplete biography. He reminisces about growing up in a small Deerfield ranch house, not mentioning that parts of his youth were also spent in upscale Lake Forest as well as Scottsdale, Ariz.
Rauner also mentions that his father was an electrical engineer at Schaumburg-based Motorola, often not pointing out that the elder Rauner also was a lawyer who ran the patent department at the electronics giant and rose to senior vice president.
After Dartmouth, Rauner earned a graduate degree in business at Harvard University, then worked briefly with Romney at a Boston consultancy before joining a new venture capital firm in Chicago that would grow into a multibillion dollar enterprise and eventually carry his name.
GTCR Golder Rauner, which Rauner chaired for a quarter century before leaving in 2012, made tremendous profit in the corporate takeover business, squeezing out efficiencies as it bought and sold an eclectic blend of companies, from fried chicken franchises to nursing homes.
Through GTCR, Rauner became very rich very fast, along the way gaining prominence in Chicago's business community and agitating for changes in education policy favored by fellow corporate leaders. He also gained the ears of Mayors Richard Daley, who named Rauner to head the city's nonprofit convention bureau, and Rahm Emanuel, whom Rauner helped by underwriting education initiatives including a $2 million donation for a bonus fund to reward principals.
Rauner has said he met Emanuel when the future mayor was making millions as an investment banker and brokered GTCR's purchase of an alarm company in 2000.
Rauner, a twice-married father of six whose wife runs an early childhood education initiative, has become a polarizing force in the struggle to improve city schools. He is praised by some as generous and enlightened while described by others as a bullheaded union buster immersed in metrics instead of on-the-ground reality.
Even an avowed admirer like Martin Koldyke, founder of the Golden Apple Foundation that pushes teacher excellence, said Rauner can come off as single-minded. "I think he cares very deeply about the kids," Koldyke said. "But people have described him as my way or the highway. … He has a real contempt for the labor movement."
City records show that Rauner was granted extraordinary personal access to Emanuel and then-schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard when the new administration began putting its stamp on school policy.
But while arguing in the governor's race that he can bring major change to Springfield, Rauner has also publicly lamented how little his donations have done to improve education.
"My wife and I have spent more than $20 million trying to donate to teacher training, principal development, charter schools," he told an education conference in 2012. "And I would say probably 80 percent of the dollars that we donated have been wasted. Lost. No result."
That comment came just weeks before Chicago teachers walked off the job, a wrenching work stoppage that may have served to underscore his point.
Rauner spent $600,000 in seed money to gain passage of a 2011 state law that backers openly declared had rendered school strikes all but impossible while diluting the collective bargaining clout of teachers. Instead it achieved the opposite, helping to unite city teachers behind a walkout that ended with them gaining pay and other concessions from the Emanuel administration.
The money went to Oregon-based Stand for Children, which Rauner solicited to come to Illinois after it had achieved success battling teachers unions elsewhere. Some of the same industry leaders now writing six-figure checks to Rauner's campaign also provided more than $3 million in support to help the group woo like-minded legislative candidates in Illinois.
In just a few months, the group helped persuade state lawmakers to pass legislation that achieved many of its goals, among them a seemingly insurmountable new threshold that barred the CTU from calling a strike without assent from at least 75 percent of its membership.
Rauner acknowledges being disappointed in the results of the strike that followed, but he told the Tribune he is not afraid to contend with a divided General Assembly and its most powerful leader, Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago. Putting together multimillion-dollar business arrangements requires patience and problem-solving — traits he excelled at in the business world, Rauner said.
"I'm a deal-doer," he said. "I get things done."
Front and center on his to-do list if elected would be reducing the political power of public employee unions, which he holds responsible for many of the fiscal ills that beset Illinois. So disdainful is he of Illinois government unions that on the campaign trail he typically refers to the largest of them, AFSCME, as "Af-scam-ee."
Rauner says unions have "bribed" lawmakers with campaign cash to keep compensation and benefits unreasonably high compared to counterparts in the private sector, and he vows to push for a cut in pay for public employees. He also condemns as inadequate the controversial pension benefit overhaul signed into law by Quinn late last year, which unions are now challenging in court.
The only way to fix the state's fiscal woes, Rauner insists, is to effectively do away with the current pension system, though he would not seek to eliminate benefits already earned by public workers. Instead, Rauner says, going forward they all should be shifted into 401(k)-style plans that don't guarantee minimum retirement benefits but give workers the option to invest the money.
Workers in the private sector were long ago shifted to the more volatile 401(k) plans, he argues. However, Rauner would not have the state pay to extend Social Security coverage to those same public workers, even though that is legally required for those in the private sector whether or not they have 401(k)s.
While Rauner has accused the political establishment in both parties of selfishly misusing their power, critics contend he hasn't always lived up to the standards he sets for others.
One issue dogging Rauner has been his effort to get his daughter enrolled in Chicago's elite Walter Payton College Preparatory High School even though the family lived in Winnetka. Rauner said that at the time he was in the process of buying a $4 million downtown penthouse as a second home more convenient to his work and that of his wife.
Rauner insisted he pulled no special strings even while acknowledging he personally discussed the situation with then-Chicago Schools CEO Arne Duncan, now the U.S. secretary of education.
Also raising eyebrows have been published reports of $300,000 in campaign donations Rauner gave in 2002 to former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell during his Democratic run for governor of Pennsylvania. After Rendell won, Rauner's GTCR got $125 million in Pennsylvania pension investment business.
Rauner says there was no quid pro quo, that he donated to Rendell because of a mutual interest in education reforms, and points out that GTCR had already handled more than $116 million in Pennsylvania pension business in the years leading up to Rendell's victory.
Another question for Rauner involves a GTCR-owned Detroit-area imaging company known as Lason Inc., on whose board Rauner served when the company became a darling of Wall Street.
After GTCR had largely pulled out of the company, making at least $32 million, other investors and lenders lost about $285 million when the company collapsed in an accounting scandal that sent three top executives to prison. Rauner said he was unaware of the executives' misdeeds.
Rauner was also the target of anonymous accusations that he used donations to Dartmouth to win pension business.
Two years ago, the New Hampshire attorney general conducted a preliminary investigation into allegations raised in an anonymous letter, purportedly from whistleblowers at Dartmouth, that school trustees improperly steered investment business from the college endowment to firms run by some trustees and by Dartmouth donors. The attorney general found there was no reason to pursue an investigation.
Rauner said there was "no correlation" between gifts to Dartmouth and school business arrangements with GTCR, noting that the firm handled investments for many prominent universities, among them Yale, the University of Chicago and Northwestern.
"We've done an extraordinary job for our investors," Rauner said. "In the end what matters is results and performance."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun