Kass: Republican Bruce Rauner takes no position on gay marriage

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Bruce Rauner, the multimillionaire Republican businessman who wants to become governor of Illinois, sat down with me for an interview Thursday and dodged questions about same-sex marriage.

It took about four tries to pin him down on where he stands, and finally, it came to this: He's not for it. He's not against it.

"If, for example, the Legislature passes gay marriage, I'm not going to fight to reverse it," he said. "If they don't pass it, I'm not going to advocate for it. At the right time, the voters will make their views known."

Rauner, who accrued a fortune as a venture capitalist in Chicago, offered this profile in courage on the midmorning WLS-AM 890 radio talk show that I co-host with Lauren Cohn.

"Gay marriage, it's an important issue," Rauner said. "I think it's best decided by voters. Frankly, either voter referendum or whatever format voters think makes sense."

You have no personal feeling about gay marriage?

"I really don't," Rauner said. "I think it's best done by the voters. Society should accept it when the time is right for them."

Society might accept it. But the question is whether Republican voters will accept it in the party primary.

As he prepares to formally launch a campaign, Rauner has been touring the state, offering his vast business experience as contrast to the bumbling and craven political class that has run Illinois into the ground.

He's championed school reform and charter schools, and this has helped make him Public Enemy No. 1 of the public employee unions that rule Democratic politics and dictate policy, often at the expense of taxpayers.

I also asked Rauner about his relationships with Democrats, including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who made millions in business deals related to Rauner's venture capital firm.

Rauner has allies on World Business Chicago, Emanuel's business group that serves as an economic development arm for the city. Rauner's wife is a Democrat, and while they've donated to Republican candidates, they've also donated to Democrats, such as CTA chief Forrest Claypool and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, whom Rauner viewed as a champion of school reform.

The coupling of Republican business leaders and Democratic bosses is a marriage long recognized and approved by political Illinois. It is an ancient recipe of power here.

Rauner said he met Emanuel in the late 1990s, after the future mayor left the Clinton White House. They were introduced by Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

"(Bowles) asked me to do him a favor and meet Rahm Emanuel, who I didn't know. And he asked me to give him some advice. I did, met with him. Long story short, we kept in touch and I encouraged him to go into investment banking if he wanted to be in the business world because he knew a lot of businesses and he could use his relationships from the political world to put deals together.

"And he turned out — over a three- or four-year period in business — to be one of the most successful investment bankers and most effective investment bankers I'd ever met. Very relentless worker, great networker. He could put people together in very creative ways to get deals done. I was impressed. So we did some transactions together when he was in business and they were very successful."

I mentioned the number $16 million, which is about what Emanuel made in his brief hiatus from politics. "Something like that," Rauner said.

"I've worked in business for 32 years. ... Some of our big CEOs are big Democrats. Some are big Republicans. It doesn't matter. It's about producing results, and that's what Rahm did when he was an investment banker."

Rauner said same-sex marriage and other social issues take focus away from concerns that reach across religious and cultural lines. The main issue: The state's finances are in ruin, and an anti-business climate sends jobs, commerce, cash and productive taxpayers fleeing across Illinois' borders like refugees.

"If we argue among ourselves on social issues today rather than focusing like a laser on our economy, on the graft and inefficiency and corruption and waste in Springfield, and on our education system, which is the future for our children and the Illinois economy … if we allow ourselves to get distracted by other arguments … we won't fix the core problems of the state," he said.

Unfortunately for the GOP, other establishment Republicans who've expressed interest in a 2014 race have all the appeal of day-old bread. Past gubernatorial losers include state Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale. State Treasurer Dan Rutherford is also contemplating a run.

Conservative Dan Proft, the WLS morning drive-time host who also ran for governor and lost, would certainly liven things up if he decided to throw down the gauntlet.

On the Democratic side, Gov. Pat Quinn, the incumbent, has been at odds with the state's Democratic political boss, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. The boss' daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, is ready. Her daddy has been paving the way with the bones of rivals for years.

Bill Daley, brother of the former mayor and former chief of staff for President Barack Obama, is also thinking about a campaign.

Oddly enough, Daley and Rauner may be the only two establishment candidates who know enough about how business does business to actually govern Illinois.

In remembrance: By now you know that Roger Ebert, the great movie critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, has passed away. I didn't know him, but I learned to watch film by reading him. Perhaps you did too. The man did what he loved. May his memory be eternal.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

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