By Meredith Wilson
Medill News Service
CHICAGO – If it was part of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s agenda to court the press during his speech at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference in Chicago, it didn’t quite work out.
Rauner, a businessman who made his fortune in private equity, gave the keynote speech on Saturday, the final day of the conference, to a nearly-full ballroom, pitching his ambitious agenda to transform Illinois.
He opened his speech with a request to reporters to help him pass his reforms, asking for the press’s support three times during his 15-minute speech.
“I’m here because I think you guys can help us spread the message here in Illinois,” Rauner said.
He described the many problems he saw plaguing the state: outmigration, falling real income, low job creation, huge budget deficit and a pension crisis. Rauner reiterated his belief that mismanaged government is at the heart of the state’s issues, and laid out a few of his plans to shrink bureaucracy, root out cronyism and address the state’s fiscal woes.
He stressed that conflicts of interest created by unions and lawyers contributing to election campaigns was a major cause of corruption.
After the governor wrapped up his speech, he declared he wouldn’t answer any questions from the audience. An audible groan rippled through the crowd. As he left, several reporters followed him into the hallway.
One reporter asked whether a private businessman’s $2.5 million contribution to Rauner’s campaign constituted a conflict of interest.
“They don’t have a contract with the state,” Rauner replied curtly.
The reporter was referring to Citadel CEO Ken Griffin, who made the donation to Rauner’s campaign in June.
Marty Wolk, president of SABEW, was taken aback by the governor’s quick exit.
“It surprises me that he couldn’t read the room full of national journalists and not expect to take questions,” Wolk said.
According to Wolk, it was a difficult process to get Gov. Rauner to appear at the event. He explained that all speakers know beforehand that their comments are on the record and are expected to take a few questions, given their audience is a room full of business journalists.
“An hour before he arrived, his advance person said no questions from the podium, but that he would be available for 15 minutes afterward to meet people,” Wolk said. Rauner left immediately after his speech.
“For a public figure to say, ‘I want you to help me sell this story’ and not understand it’s a two-way conversation, and not take questions? It fundamentally misunderstands the role of media in this age. In any age,” Wolk said.