Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday tried to deflect fallout from his staff’s fumbling of a response to a cartoon some called racist, insisting a purge of his communications teams did not mean his adminstration was in turmoil even as he privately warned of “enemies.”
And the governor found himself in the awkward position of having to publicly resist a Democratic state legislator’s demand at an unrelated news conference that the governor apologize for the cartoon.
Rauner said he denounces racism, but told state Rep. La Shawn Ford that he had nothing to do with the Illinois Policy Institute cartoon.
“I am not apologizing for anything I had nothing to do with,” Rauner told the West Side Democrat.
Hours earlier, Rauner had ousted four women from his communications team – after just weeks on the job — for a statement that tried to excuse him from weighing in on the cartoon because he is “a white male.”
But on Thursday morning, the governor described the latest late-night staff purge as normal turnover.
“I disagree with the characterization of turmoil,” Rauner said, responding to a reporter’s question. “Change comes as part of any organization.
And while he publicly painted a picture of smooth sailing in his administration, Rauner privately warned his remaining staff of “enemies” — everyone from Democrats, media, bloggers and “people who shouldn’t be our enemies, including people who used to work for this administration.”
The staffers ousted late Wednesday had only been on the job for weeks. They replaced members of Rauner’s team after a series of firings and protest resignations in mid-July. That shift came after Rauner vetoed a state budget that included an income-tax hike, only to see his veto overridden with the help of several Republicans.
The latest purge includes former Illinois Policy Institute staffer Diana Rickert, who served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications; Laurel Patrick, communications director; Brittany Carl and Meghan Keenan, both communications specialists.
They were ousted over the communication team’s response to a cartoon by the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank that has placed other former staffers in key roles in the governor’s office.
The cartoon depicted a black child in a Cubs cap begging for money for school from a wealthy white man. The cigar-smoking man was showing one pocket empty and the other stuffed with tax increment financing money.
During a morning staff conference call, Rauner sought to dispel controversy over the exodus, according to a source with direct knowledge of the call. He called rumblings of the departures of his chief of staff Kristina Rasmussen and chief legal counsel Dennis Murashko “rumors.” And he confirmed the communications staffers’ exits, saying they were not a “good fit.”
He spoke of the “intensity of the battle to serve the people of Illinois” increasing – “and it’s only going to keep getting worse,” the source said.
And as he warned of “enemies,” the governor vowed to go on the offense against attacks on his administration.
Rauner told staffers his administration would “fight every rumor and innuendo diligently,” calling them “disgusting,” the source said. The governor said his administration would “stand together” and squash rumors in every possible way and said some were coming because he’s trying to challenge the “status quo.”
Rauner in a statement on Thursday morning confirmed the communications staff exits, saying the four had submitted their resignations.
While multiple sources said exits of high-level staffers are also on the way, Rauner told reporters that the communications team resignations are the only exits, for now.
“We’ve announced some changes in the communications department and that’s all the change there are,” the governor said.
Rauner fired several communications staffers in July, with others resigning in protest. He acknowledged on Thursday that the “communications effort is incredibly hard” with attacks coming from all sides, while calling it a stressful job with a high burnout rate.
“We have attacks. We have political attacks coming 20 times a day. We have social media attacks coming 100 times a day. We have false rumors planted that have to be dealt with or responded with. We have legitimate questions coming from the media that deserves prompt turnaround and answering,” Rauner said after signing a police pension abuse bill in Naperville.
But he denied any suggestion that his administration is in disarray.
The forced exodus came after Rauner scrambled to undo the damage from a statement his newly revamped communications office issued on Tuesday, with Patrick writing that the governor would not offer an opinion on the Illinois Policy Institute cartoon, which some deemed racist — because he is “a white male.” The story was picked up on national wires, which undeniably painted the governor in a negative light.
Hours later, Rauner released a statement Tuesday night saying the intial comment “did not accurately reflect” his views.
The original statement was written by Rickert, and sent out by Patrick, the governor acknowledged on Thursday. And after a week of not commenting on whether he’d seen the controversial cartoon, Rauner confirmed he did.
“I have seen it now. I understand why some people would be upset by it,” the governor said, while not addressing whether he deemed the image racist.
“My job is not to comment on every cartoon, every political statement that comes from outside our administration and I will not do that,” Rauner said. “What I will do is fight every day for justice, fairness [and] equality.”
Pushed on the fact that he has employed several of the think tank’s staff, including his chief of staff and policy head, Rauner denied that the Illinois Policy Institute has influence on his administration.
“I have not leaned on them as my go to think tank. That is not an accurate statement,” Rauner said, adding there is a “very tiny fraction” of his administration came from the organization. “In no regard, in no regard does that organization speak for me or our administration. And I do not lean on them for any particular issue or policy.”
The staffers’ exits mark another chapter to a series of public flaps for Rauner since he directed a staff takeover in mid-July — including the firing of his “body man” on his first day for sexist and racially insensitive tweets; criticism over the right leanings of his high-level staffers; a clarification by email of his comments on Charlottesville and a highly criticized national interview on Fox News.
Carl, too, came under fire when an online post revealed she argued that abortion is being used “to rid the world of disabled and other “unwanted’ persons” — comparing it to Nazi Germany.
The negative headlines come as Rauner is seeking re-election — and he is considered a vulnerable Republican governor, despite the vast wealth he has to support his campaign.