‘Z-less’ Rauner just a big mouth with big money

In the end, Mike “Z” Zolnierowicz had only

one choice. Gov. Bruce Rauner’s top political lieutenant, the man everyone

calls “Z” who was most responsible for winning the 2014 Republican primary and

the governor’s former state chief of staff, simply had to resign late in the

afternoon on Friday, July 14.

The week began with the early Monday morning firing of

Richard Goldberg, Z’s hand-picked successor as Rauner’s chief of staff and his

close friend. Rumors had circulated for months that First Lady Diana Rauner had

turned on Goldberg and wanted him out, and in the previous few weeks it was

known among a select few that the governor had been calling around looking for

a possible replacement, including calling a couple of people in Indiana who

declined the offer.

But Z and others were totally caught off guard when Goldberg

was abruptly fired and was not offered a position in the vast campaign

apparatus that Z had constructed. Rauner had not only made a major decision

without consulting Z, his supposedly number one guy, he had also needlessly

kicked Goldberg to the curb.

Goldberg’s secretary was told in short order to pack up her

stuff and then summarily escorted out of the building without being offered

another position somewhere else. Before working for Goldberg, she had also been

Z’s cherished secretary. She didn’t ask for an extended maternity leave when

she had her second child. Instead, she was so committed to her duties that

she’d often bring her infant with her to the office. Her callous treatment was

widely seen as an unnecessary abomination as well as a direct affront to


The governor’s top staff was mainly put together by two

people: Z and Goldberg. And the loudest critics in Rauner’s personal inner

circle of those staffers included people at the top of the Illinois Policy

Institute. When Rauner’s staffers were replaced by Illinois Policy Institute

executives, it was seen as yet another jab at Z.

Rauner and Z reportedly met a couple of days after Goldberg

and others were fired and the governor asked Z to stay on. But by Friday, when

several more staffers were given the boot or turned in their resignations, it

was abundantly clear to everyone that Rauner was going in a totally new

direction. Rauner’s campaign side and his governing side should be on the same

page, Z reportedly told the governor, so he tendered his resignation. In

reality, I think Z probably would’ve been eventually moved out anyway by the

coup plotters.

If Goldberg had been eased out in the

“traditional” way, perhaps being sent to the campaign or to some

other group after consultation with people like Zolnierowicz; if the rest of

the staff hadn’t been so shabbily treated; if the governor’s office hadn’t been

so obviously outsourced to the Illinois Policy Institute, then Z likely wouldn’t

have felt the need to leave. But if the sky was green, grass might be blue.

So, what happens next? Z reportedly told the governor he was

still willing to offer advice and help from the outside. He wouldn’t talk at

all about it to me either on or off the record except to say that he believes

Rauner still has a real chance at reelection.

But Z’s departure is a potential disaster for this governor.

It shows great weakness, and weakness is the deadliest virus in politics. If

someone as loyal as Z felt he had to leave, then what kind of person would ever

work with Rauner now? Zolnierowicz is a lovable man with amazing skills, but

who also has the ability to turn on and off the inner soul of a political

killer – and that combination has served Rauner well. Z is the guy who built up

the governmental and political apparatus to support Rauner. Without him, Rauner

is just a limitless checkbook with a big mouth.

For the last year and a half, top Rauner administration

insiders have muttered their belief that John Tillman, who runs the Illinois

Policy Institute, wanted to gain control of the governor’s state office, while

conservative political activist Dan Proft wanted to control the governor’s

campaign operation.

To their minds, Tillman “succeeded” with Rauner’s

staff purge because several of Tillman’s own staffers were brought on board.

And the Monday after Z quit, one of Proft’s people, Matthew Besler, was given

the helm of the governor’s political operation.

It’s a whole new world, campers.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and



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