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Rauner redo: Now he says he wants to raise, not lower, the minimum wage



Bruce Rauner  |  Sun-Times file photo

Bruce Rauner | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: February 10, 2014 12:00PM

SPRINGFIELD — Veering 180 degrees in a stunning political turn, millionaire private equity investor Bruce Rauner said Wednesday he misspoke and was “flippant” when he appeared to advocate a rollback last month in Illinois’ minimum wage.

In fact, Rauner now says he wants to see the minimum wage increase.

“I have to be careful about my words, and I didn’t choose my words carefully enough,” Rauner told the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview following a report about his statement before a business group in the Quad Cities last month.

During that December 11 candidates forum, Rauner said he would “advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum wage” in remarks that came to light Tuesday and set off a potentially damaging backlash from union leaders and his GOP rivals.

Illinois’ minimum wage now stands at $8.25 an hour. The federal minimum wage is a dollar lower at $7.25 an hour.

Rauner insisted he never meant to suggest lowering Illinois’ minimum wage by $1.

“I never said that. I said we should tie the minimum wage in Illinois to the national minimum wage. I didn’t use numbers. I didn’t use $7.25. I didn’t say any of that,” Rauner said. “I said I want Illinois competitive with other states.

“In that context, I was flippant and short in that forum in the Quad Cities. I should’ve said, and this is the important point, I support increasing the federal minimum wage. I didn’t say that in that forum. It was a mistake. It’s the context of me tying the Illinois minimum wage to the national minimum wage.”

At no time leading up to Wednesday’s surprising retooling did Rauner move to set the record straight about his comments. His nearly month-old remarks were resurrected in an Illinois Radio Network report Tuesday, giving them the statewide prominence they had not gotten before.

In fact, Rauner’s campaign was operating under a wholly different political stratagem when asked Tuesday to verify what he had said at the forum. A campaign spokesman described Rauner’s comments at the candidates’ forum as “accurate” in a text message Tuesday to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The narrative of a multimillionaire who reported $53 million in earnings in 2012 digging into the wallets and purses of fast-food short-order cooks for $1 an hour threaten Rauner with the same kind of political scars that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney endured with his now-famous “47-percent” line that was an affront to the nation’s working poor.

In far Downstate Illinois on a statewide bus tour, Rauner launched a rare round of print and television interviews Wednesday in a bid to set the record straight and contain the political fallout, hinting he might go so far as to address the misstep in his barrage of political advertising that has blanketed living rooms across the state.

In his interview with the Sun-Times, Rauner said he does not favor rolling back Illinois’ minimum wage by $1 and embraces increasing the federal minimum wage to as much as $10 an hour. He said if there isn’t the political will in Washington to do that, he would support raising the rate in Illinois in tandem with a series of business-friendly initiatives like tort reform, a change in corporate tax structure and workers compensation reform.

“If we can’t get that done or increase the national rate, I do support raising the Illinois rate. But we’ve got to do that in the context of being much more pro-business in Illinois,” Rauner said. “We’re not competitive with our surrounding states, and that was the context of my comment.”

Rauner said a $9 or $10 per hour minimum wage “won’t crush small business owners, and it can help struggling families.”

In the Rauner video obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times from public-television station, WQPT, the GOP frontrunner for governor made no mention of a need to increase the national minimum wage and left what he now says was the mistaken impression he favored cutting wages for Illinois’ working poor by $1 an hour.

“I will advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum,” Rauner told business leaders in the Quad Cities. “I think we’ve got to be competitive here in Illinois. It’s critical we’re competitive. We’re hurting our economy above the national [level]. We’ve got to move back to the national.”

The owner of multiple luxury homes who has appeared in his commercials and in public wearing modest Carhartt jackets, Wrangler jeans and an $18 watch, Rauner was accused by Democrats on Tuesday of engaging in “class warfare” for taking aim at the state’s vast force of minimum-wage workers.

But Wednesday, he harkened back to his own pre-millionaire roots when he got a taste of earning the lowest wage permitted by law.

“I know hard work,” said Rauner, who owns stakes in three professional sports franchises. “I was a middle-class kid. In high school and college, I flipped burgers. I was a bus boy. I had minimum wage jobs regularly. Let’s be clear, minimum-wage jobs will not support a family. They don’t.”

The acknowledgement of a misstep of this magnitude was unprecedented for the tightly choreographed Rauner political engine, and the issue broadly touched on some of the same damaging fault lines between wealthy and poor voters that sunk Romney’s presidential ambitions in 2012.

In his campaign against President Barack Obama, Romney was secretly recorded during a fund-raising event dismissing nearly half of the nation’s population as being “dependent on government” and who “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

“My job is not to worry about those people,” Romney said in the now-famous “47-percent” video. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Rauner, when asked if he worries that his minimum-wage video could be as politically damaging as Romney’s video was to him, said he has never adhered to the beliefs the former Massachusetts governor espoused.

“I don’t believe that,” Rauner told the Sun-Times. “I completely reject and always have … that whole ’47-percent’ commentary and logic. I think that’s a mistake. That’s just not true.”

Leading up to his late-afternoon interviews Wednesday, Rauner was getting hammered by his rivals in the governor’s race and by Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who needled Rauner with a unique challenge.

Lewis, with whom Rauner has repeatedly locked horns on Chicago school reform, encouraged Rauner to try living on a $7.25-an-hour wage for three months “without government assistance, access to his overflowing bank accounts and the financial support of his family and friends” to see what it feels like.

“While he sits back and ponders where to take his next exotic vacation or which mansion to lay his head, others are trying to survive in a climate of foreclosures, rising medical costs, and the shuttering of neighborhood schools,” Lewis said. “Instead of pledging a war on poverty, he is vowing to advance a war on poor and working-class people.”

Rauner dismissed Lewis’ boisterous challenge that he take on a minimum-wage job as moot since he said he isn’t advocating a cut and declared her “an enemy of great education in Chicago.”

The two top Republicans in the General Assembly — Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, and House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs — distanced themselves from Rauner’s misstated minimum-wage stance and voiced opposition to rolling back Illinois’ rate.

And in the governor’s race, the elbows were flying to seize on an issue opponents hope could knock Rauner off his perch.

State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, called Rauner “out of step.” Treasurer Dan Rutherford said cutting the minimum wage is a “bad idea” that “would place an unfair burden on workers.”

And Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, likened Rauner to Romney and accused the Winnetka Republican of backtracking after checking with his “slick, Washington D.C. consultants.”

“Mr. Rauner’s positioning on minimum wage as a multimillionaire who owns nine homes was playing right into the Pat Quinn playbook on class warfare, and it’s a warning to Republicans that Mr. Rauner is a terrible nominee for us and would lose the election in the fall,” Dillard told the Sun-Times.

“He’s an extremely vulnerable candidate on many fronts, including showing his inexperience by mistepping badly on a ’47-percent Romney’ moment on the minimum,” Dillard said. “It’s endemic why the Republicans have to be very leery: This is just a sample of how Pat Quinn will use a playbook very effectively against a zillionaire like Bruce Rauner.”

Quinn did not weigh in on Rauner’s revisions, but the Democratic Governors Association lobbed a pointed blow at the wealthy Republican on the governor’s behalf.

“They say a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. In the case of Bruce Rauner, he showed his true colors when he said that Illinois’ minimum wage needs to be cut. Only a right-wing billionaire would think it’s right to take thousands of dollars a year from working people who live on the brink of poverty,” said the group’s spokesman, Danny Kanner.

“Forget his insincere apology today. The real Bruce Rauner would force thousands of Illinoisans into poverty if he had the chance, and voters won’t soon forget,” Kanner said.

Contributing: Natasha Korecki

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