By Sophia Tareen
CHICAGO — Just weeks after being hired, four key members of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s communications team have resigned in the wake of the Republican’s confusing response to a political cartoon that critics called racist.
Rauner announced the changes Thursday, saying he didn’t sign off on a statement from his staff this week explaining that he wouldn’t comment on the cartoon “as a white male.” He characterized the resignations from the high pressure jobs as mutual agreements.
“The communications effort is incredibly hard because we have attacks, 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,” he said at a pension-related bill signing in suburban Chicago. “Getting people who can do it well and are willing to do on this scale it’s a challenge … Sometimes other things get in the way. Other loyalties get in the way.”
Rauner didn’t elaborate.
The four employees — Diana Rickert, Laurel Patrick, Meghan Keenan and Brittany Carl — were hired last month in a major staff shake-up that included enlisting several individuals from the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank. Last week the organization circulated a cartoon, meant as a commentary on Illinois’ ongoing school funding fight, of a black Chicago schoolchild panhandling for money from a white man wearing a suit.
The image and Rauner’s response prompted wide bipartisan opposition, with claims the image played up racist stereotypes and was insensitive after the recent deadly attack at a white nationalist rally in Virginia.
On Tuesday, a Rauner spokeswoman issued a statement saying the governor “as a white male” wouldn’t have anything further to add to the discussion. Hours later Rauner retracted the words, saying the statement didn’t accurately reflect his views.
Rauner said for days that he hadn’t seen the image, but acknowledged publicly Thursday that he saw it and understood “why some people would be upset by it.”
The cartoon prompted the Illinois House to stand up in opposition while in session last week. The Policy Institute removed the online image after the backlash, but continued to defend it as truthful and with statements from black residents who said they didn’t find it racist.
The resignations come at a critical time for Rauner, who’s seeking a second term next year. They also raise questions about his links to the Chicago-based tax policy organization that runs a statewide media service and legal arm, which has challenged Illinois’ same-day voter registration law in court.
Rauner, a wealthy businessman, donated to the group before he was governor. Last month’s hires included the institute’s former president as Rauner’s chief of staff and Rickert, who was the group’s spokeswoman. The staff housecleaning, that saw roughly two dozen people either fired or resigned, came shortly after the Democrat-run Legislature dealt Rauner a major political blow in ending the state’s roughly two-year budget impasse. Several Republicans broke ranks and voted for the spending plan that includes an income tax increase over Rauner’s objections.
Rauner defended the staff changes, saying he’s always trying to build a strong team and isn’t beholden to the Policy Institute. Messages left for the four people who resigned weren’t immediately returned.
“A very tiny fraction of our administration is from that organization,” he said. “And 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.”
In the meantime, the state’s legislative leaders are negotiating on a school funding deal. The new budget requires a revamped formula for public schools to get state money this academic year. The 20-year-old calculation Illinois currently uses is widely considered unfair, though Republicans and Democrats disagree over how to change it.
This story has been updated.