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Analysis: Rauner’s latest flap could pack the greater punch

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner speaks patrons Italian Village restaurant Carbondale last week. (AP Photo/The Southern Steve Matzker)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner speaks to patrons at the Italian Village restaurant in Carbondale last week. (AP Photo/The Southern, Steve Matzker)

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Updated: February 18, 2014 9:52PM

After spending all last week putting out fires because he said he wanted to lower — and then raise — the minimum wage, multi-millionaire gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner began this week facing a brand new firestorm.

The Chicago Sun-Times revealed on Monday that Rauner had made a $250,000 donation to a foundation related to Walter Payton College Prep after the Winnetka multi-millionaire pulled strings to get his daughter into the school. Rauner made the donation one year and a half after he called then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan asking to reverse his daughter’s rejected admission.

One of Rauner’s opponents immediately pounced on the donation, calling it a payback.

Payton Prep was ranked the top high school in Illinois last year in a Sun-Times analysis. Rauner made the phone call in 2008, at a time when his family was living in the suburban New Trier school district.

The minimum wage flap, which involved Rauner pivoting 180 degrees, and now the Payton story, is a one-two punch for the candidate who is campaigning as the outsider and vowing in campaign commercials he is out to “Shake Up Springfield.”

Yet it’s the latest storyline that potentially has greater staying power — especially for any parent who has tried getting his or her child into one of the city’s competitive enrollment schools.

That’s because those parents personally know how excruciatingly competitive it is to get into an elite school in the city — whether it’s high school or elementary school.

It’s particularly rigorous for high school-bound students who attempted to adhere to a now-abandoned policy that called for perfect attendance in that student’s 7th grade year. It was abandoned after too many students forced themselves to attend school while they were ill.

The attendance requirement was on top of having to have perfect grades and killer test scores.

In 2008, the year Rauner called about his daughter getting into Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, there were more than 9,200 others who also applied. Of those, more than 7,000 students took the test that year and just 353 were admitted in all, according to data obtained by the Sun-Times.

So there are at the very least thousands of parents out there who know the hoops they have to jump through even to be a contender for a premier public education in the city. Even for those outside the city, the scandal raises the prospect of someone who earned $53 million in 2012 — enough to live in one of the wealthiest school districts in the nation — snatching a city kid’s shot of attending a good school.

For its part, Rauner’s campaign has said the candidate, a charter school proponent, has donated millions of dollars to public schools and that the Payton donation had no tie to his daughter’s admission. On Monday, Rauner’s campaign added that the principal appeal came after the candidate’s daughter had achieved top grades and a high test score but missed 10 days of middle school because of illness.

On Monday, Rauner’s opponents saw an opening and worked to capitalize on it. “Who was the child who didn’t get into that school today because Bruce Rauner’s daughter did get in?” gubernatorial candidate Kirk Dillard asked at a news availability on the matter. Dillard, a Republican state senator from Hinsdale, called Rauner’s $250,000 donation “a payback for getting his daughter in when she was rejected.”

Rival candidate Bill Brady also chimed in.

“We don’t know all the answers, but we now know that Mr. Rauner followed up clouting his daughter’s admittance to Payton with contributions many times larger than the household incomes of most Illinoisans,” the GOP state senator from Bloomington said.

Dillard charged that the latest revelation showed Rauner was a dangerous pick for the GOP nomination, even as reporters queried Dillard about his own anemic fund-raising.

“If Mr. Rauner is the nominee, there will be a drip, drip, drip of stories continuing now through the election that will become a river and flood the Republican parties’ possibilities of beating Pat Quinn in the fall, and Illinoisans will then be subjected to a continued economic and social down-swirl in the state of Illinois,” Dillard said.

Yet Rauner is the only candidate in the four-way primary who is up with TV ads and is light years ahead of his competitors in fund-raising. Since launching his bid, Rauner has raised $7 million. Rauner has pumped more than $2 million of his own money into his campaign warchest and recently won the Cook County GOP nomination.

But the question is can that fund-raising and TV advantage allow Rauner to continue to control the message and bury his recent vulnerabilities.

Dillard told reporters on Monday despite polls and his own fund-raising troubles, the race remains open because GOP donors were getting worried about Rauner. Dillard contended his campaign records will soon reflect a sizable donation from a high-roller who was now shying away from Rauner. Dillard’s largest recent contributions comes from his running mate — Jil Tracy, of Quincy, and her family members. Altogether, they kicked more than $100,000.

Rauner’s campaign hit back on clout, saying each of his three competitors were guilty of helping make recommendations for others to get into the University of Illinois. Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, is also competing in the race.

“The one or two people that I have ever written letters of recommendation … are public. This is just one story,” Dillard said, minimizing his own role in the University of Illinois clout scandal.

A scandal erupted in 2009 involving a shadow admissions process that allowed students with clout to get into the University of Illinois. Because that story has run its course, however, Rauner could have more difficulty gaining traction pushing that narrative.

Rauner’s campaign on Monday called Dillard a hypocrite.

“Kirk Dillard is the worst type of career politician. He’s double-talking and has more clout baggage than O’Hare during a snowstorm,” said Rauner spokesman Mike Schrimpf. “The fact is Kirk Dillard and the other career politicians repeatedly clouted people into the University of Illinois and never thought twice about it. Voters know he is a hypocrite and will reject him.”

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