Bruce Rauner clearly idolized his maternal grandparents, Clarence and Viola Erickson. From his earliest days in politics, he has repeatedly invoked their memory as role models for the kind of selfless, rugged and generous person that he hoped voters would find him to be.
It was of little surprise then that, as he appeared with immigrant activists to sign a controversial law putting limits on policing of the undocumented, Rauner retold his own favorite story of immigrants — the Ericksons from Sweden.
“My grandparents were proud immigrants to the United States of America, here to Illinois in the late 1800s,” Rauner said. “My grandparents did not speak English when they were young.”
Variations of the Erickson story have been staples of Rauner appearances for years. But the key word here is “variations,” because the governor has not always been consistent in the telling.
So what is the real immigrant story of those grandparents Rauner is always talking about? We decided to check.
First, a little context. Bruce Rauner grew up in the upscale North Shore suburbs of Deerfield and Lake Forest as well as Scottsdale, Ariz., and his father was a high-ranking executive at electronics giant Motorola. Rauner went to Ivy League colleges, became enormously wealthy as a private equity investor and was the owner of nine luxury homes and ranches when he launched his campaign.
His campaign was clearly sensitive to how that might play with voters as it sought from the first to portray him as a regular guy.
Early campaign ads featured Rauner with his $18 Timex watch and a two-decade old family van that he said his children dubbed the “rolling trash can.” The Chicago Tribune asked in 2014 about comparisons to wealthy private equity investor turned politician Mitt Romney, and Rauner bristled: “He came across as a blue blood, 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.”
Cue the Ericksons as a key component of Rauner’s down-to-earth cred.
Here’s the story as highlighted on Rauner’s campaign website:
“Bruce’s grandfather was a Swedish-speaking, small-town dairyman who taught Bruce about fishing and hunting, the value of hard work and the importance of giving back.”
And here is how Rauner described his grandfather during a campaign stop in Wauconda in October 2013:
“My best friend growing up was my grandfather on my mom’s side. Swedish immigrant. Didn’t speak much English. Lived in a double wide trailer in a cornfield outside Whitewater, Wisconsin. Dairy farmer. Taught me to milk cows. Taught me about huntin’ and fishin.’ Taught me about hard work and giving back.”
A year later, he was quoted in the Pekin Daily Times this way: “America’s built on immigration, my grandparents were immigrants, and I would like to see us a welcoming state for immigrants from all over the world.”
More recently, when Rauner was interviewed in June 2017 by the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, he again talked of his grandfather. “He was my best buddy growing up. He was an immigrant, didn’t speak much English. He spoke Swedish,” Rauner said.
And he also said this on Aug. 11, 2017, in an interview with Bret Baier on the Fox News Channel: “Illinois is a state built by immigrants. My grandparents were immigrants.”
A few weeks later, as he addressed the crowd at the high-profile signing event for the Illinois Trust Act on Aug. 28, he expanded on his grandparents’ narrative, adding that they came to this country “in the late 1800s” and “did not speak English when they were young.”
Notice the difference? When Rauner talks off the cuff about his grandparents, they are immigrants challenged by English. But when Rauner’s official website describes Grandpa Erickson, there’s no mention of him being an immigrant. He spoke Swedish, the website stressed, but that hardly means he didn’t also speak English.
And there may be a good reason for the parsing. Records from U.S. Censuses taken between 1910 and 1940, the latest year publicly available, clearly show that both of Rauner’s maternal grandparents were born in Wisconsin — Clarence Erickson in 1901 and Viola Erickson (nee Wedin) in 1900. In other words, neither of them were immigrants.
What’s more, the census shows that Viola’s mother — Rauner’s great-grandmother — was also born in Wisconsin. Viola’s father, while born in Sweden, emigrated to the U.S. at age 6 in 1868. As for Clarence, the census describes him as speaking English and having a seventh grade education. In the 1940 count, his profession was listed as “buttermaker.”
In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain called them stretchers — engaging stories that don’t meet the smell test. Politicians who spin engaging personal narratives can be artful practitioners of the stretcher.
Here in Illinois, former U. S. Sen. Mark Kirk often inflated his resume, exaggerating the importance of jobs he held, his educational background and military service. Most famously, Kirk overly dramatized details of a Lake Michigan boating accident and rescue that he claimed altered his life and led him to commit to public service.
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich used to place himself at the center of an “ah shucks” story about being mistaken for former Mayor Richard Daley. Depending on Blagojevich’s audience, the mix-up occurred on a busy Loop street, or at a memorial service for a prominent businessman, or on his way to the airport. The only thing clear about the story was that it always got a laugh.
Rauner’s grandparents’ story has elements of that genre.
No one expects children to have more than a hazy grasp of details about what came before them in the family, and Rauner was just a boy when those close bonds with his grandparents were formed. So it’s tempting to cut his memories some slack.
Except for this: Rauner the adult knows that his grandparents weren’t immigrants and admitted as much in a 2014 interview with reporters from the Tribune.
“My great grandparents came to this country, it was my great-grandparents, and my grandparents grew up with them in Wisconsin speaking Swedish,” Rauner said. “They were born to immigrants.”
Bruce Rauner said his grandparents were immigrants from Sweden who came to the U.S. “in the late 1800s.”
We have no reason to doubt that Rauner’s grandparents meant the world to him. But the Census plainly refutes his claim that they were immigrants. What’s more, both couldn’t have come to the U.S. in the late 1800s because they weren’t even born until the early 1900s — in Wisconsin, not Sweden. Rauner’s assertion in August that his grandparents immigrated to Illinois is yet another inaccuracy.
Since we don’t have a time machine, we can’t say for certain what language was spoken in the Erickson and Wedin childhood homes. But to the extent that Rauner implies the Ericksons’ facility with English was limited, Census reports refute that notion as well.
Topping all that is the acknowledgement by Rauner himself in his 2014 Tribune interview that his grandparents were not immigrants. Still, he continued to repeat the claim on many occasions.
Census records and Rauner’s own admission show that this statement has no credibility. That is why it earns our lowest possible rating, Pants On Fire.