By now, most people probably have a sense that things at the Illinois Statehouse have gotten downright nasty, even if it’s not completely clear what all the fighting is about—or, how it’s playing out behind the scenes.
To reveal the parts of the fighting that the public doesn’t get to see—the squabbling and cynical gamesmanship—we wanted to pull back the curtain.
But Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner also has been doing something that’s really gotten under Democrats’ skin.
If you think of the whole dispute at the Statehouse as a war, as it’s been described, then think of Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan as its generals; their back-and-forth is well documented. Much more so than how the shin-kicky, hand-to-hand combat is playing out on the front lines.
Enter Richard Goldberg.
Odds are, most Illinois residents have never heard his name, but Richard Goldberg is well known in the halls of the Capitol.
Goldberg works for Rauner—and he drives Democrats crazy.
Goldberg is young, he’s 32. He used to work for Congressman—now U.S. Senator—Mark Kirk. And, Goldberg’s very good on his feet: He’s quick-witted and fast-talking, and he seems to like a good political fist fight.
The way Rauner has deployed Goldberg is as his administration’s proxy with lawmakers. As in, Democrats have business to do with Rauner and the governor sends Goldberg as his representative.
Democrats don’t like it, they see it as a slap in the face. They call hearings and Rauner sends someone they basically see as a whipper snapper.
Case in point: May of this year. State Sen. Kwame Raoul (D-Chicago) called a hearing on workers compensation benefits. Raoul’s done a lot of work on the issue in the past and, and knows it well.
And Goldberg shows up. Here’s a transcription of how that went.
GOLDBERG: These reforms are directly tied to our budget, to the future of fiscal sanity in this state, to be able to grow our economy, to be able to create jobs, to be able have the revenue base for our budget so that we are not just...
RAOUL: I’d appreciate it if you could…
GOLDBERG: Mr. Chairman.
RAOUL: No, no. I am the chairman. I am the chairman.
GOLDBERG: Mr. Chairman.
RAOUL: I am the chairman.This is not the governor’s office.
GOLDBERG: Mr. Chairman.
RAOUL: Senator Haine, you’re recognized.
GOLDBERG: Mr. Chairman.
Democrats like Raoul feel like Goldberg breaks all kinds of rules of decorum by interrupting committee chairs and talking out of turn. That’s on top of the whole young whipper snapper effect.
“Some people want to give campaign speeches or maybe impress the governor, that’s fine to be done outside of the committee room, to be done wherever they want to do it – in the bathroom or wherever they want to do it,” Raoul told reporters after that shouting match. “But it’s not fine to be done when we’re supposed to be debating the specific provisions.”
This scene of Goldberg as Rauner’s proxy, and Democrats feeling insulted by it, played out a few times this year, and it only got worse.
In another Senate hearing, Democrats questioned the head of a state agency, Jim Schultz, who was appointed by Rauner. And even though Schultz was the one they wanted to hear from, he defered to Goldberg. As in, he tried to give Goldberg the floor.
Democrats were not OK with that.
SEN. KIMBERLY LIGHTFORD: How do you see this being a good bill for our schools?
DEPT. OF COMMERCE AND ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY DIRECTOR JIM SCHULTZ: Well, two points. One is our property taxes are one of the highest in the country, so I think we need to find solutions to that. But it’s tied to the other elements of this bill which I’d like to defer to Mr. Goldberg to address the question.
GOLDBERG: Senator, if I could just address your question specifically, because you know Governor Rauner proposed
LIGHTFORD: I’m still - I’m still talking to the director. Rich, you’re so rude. I’ll come to you.
SEN. DON HARMON: Mr. Goldberg. Mr. Goldberg. When a senator is speaking. Mr. Goldberg. Mr. Goldberg. When a senator is speaking to you, I would strongly counsel you to close your mouth and open your ears and then you’ll have a chance to respond.
Sen. Don Harmon, (D-Oak Park), the Democrat who told Goldberg to close his mouth, is the chairman of the Senate Executive Committee, where that exchange took place.
“It was part of a much longer hearing and I, frankly, listening to it now, not particularly pleased with my condescending tone,” Harmon recalled last month in an interview at his law office. “But at the time it was like talking to my pre-teen children who were talking over each other, yelling at each other."
It’s worth mentioning that Harmon is not known for talking smack. If anything, Harmon has a reputation for going out of his way to be fair to the people who testify at the committees he runs. He’s an attorney from west suburban Oak Park who’s been a state senator for 12 years.
But when Harmon agreed to an interview about Goldberg, it was obvious that Harmon’s had some things about the Rauner aide on his mind for a while.
“Rich’s job is to be the governor’s unmentionable anatomy. And he embraces that role with the flare and enthusiasm that can only have been born of years of experience in fraternity houses and undergraduate bars,” Harmon said.
After the initial interview with Harmon, WBEZ went back to clarify what the senator mean when he said, “unmentionable anatomy.” He said he meant something that rhymes with “grass bowl.”
Rauner’s administration did not make Goldberg available for an interview for this story. But his office did send a written statement.
“It’s no surprise that these local legislators aren’t willing to clean up Springfield, when they relish the opportunity to personally attack a Navy reservist who served our country fighting terrorism in Afghanistan,” said Lance Trover, a Rauner spokesman.
In other words, Trover said: Hey Democrats, you just called a war veteran a ‘grass bowl.’
Just a reminder that while all of this is going on, there have been virtually no meetings among leadership in Springfield, for months; and no real sign of progress. But Goldberg started doing something else that’s made him even more notorious.
You know how Democrats were so mad when Goldberg would try to speak at those committee hearings? The only thing that could maybe make Democrats madder than that is Goldberg not showing up at all.
Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion) put on a display because Goldberg didn’t show up at a committee hearing Bradley called into how Rauner was paying some of his staff.
“Is there anyone from the governor’s office here to testify? Is there anyone here from the governor’s office to testify? Is there anyone here from the governor’s office to testify?” Bradley asked three times out loud at the hearing.
Goldberg wasn’t there—because instead of showing up and antagonizing Democrats in person, he began to write them antagonistic letters.
The letters are full of lines where Goldberg straight up insults Democrats’ intelligence, or calls their hearings worthless.
In one letter Goldberg wrote, “As you may know, 35 minus 28 equals seven. Given your support for a budget out of balance by $4 billion, finding errors in basic arithmetic is not a great surprise.”
In another, he said “holding sham hearings to rehash questions already answered in another committee is not a step toward compromise."
Some of the letters are a fireworks display of condescension and petty insults. And the icing on the cake, Goldberg’s sign off:
“With warmest personal regards, I remain sincerely yours, Richard A. Goldberg, Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs”
Chris Mooney, the director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois, said on a scale of one-to-10, the snark level of those letters reaches an 11.
But what stands out, Mooney said, is the motivation for this level of snark. Because some of the gimmicks going on are designed to be traps and could be turned into campaign hit pieces by the other party. But Mooney said these particular hearings and letters aren’t likely to end up being used in campaign ads against one candidate or another.
“It’s really gratuitous in this case. I don’t quite understand it. It seems rather personal,” he said.
Some Democrats said they’re embarrassed for the Rauner administration because of Goldberg, and that his presence in that job is a signal from Rauner that makes Democrats feel hopeless that any kind of deal is on the horizon.
But Republicans defend Goldberg. They said Goldberg is a person of substance, and if Democrats would just listen to him they would see that. In other words, Republicans say, if there’s a problem here—if something’s toxic about what’s happening with Richard Goldberg—it’s the Democrats’ fault.
Tony Arnold is covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.