Illinois Senator to Lead NCSL, Run for Governor
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
State Sen. Steven J. Rauschenberger (R) represents a district 40 miles from downtown Chicago, where the city's sprawling exurbs start to fade into farm fields.
That also describes Rauschenberger's political situation after 13 years in the Illinois Legislature: an influential lawmaker, but one who finds himself outside the loop of Illinois' political power.
He is respected by his colleagues in Springfield, Ill., and nationally, and is admired by editorial writers in his state as a serious student of government. All of that will be rewarded in Seattle this week as Rauschenberger takes over as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures at the NCSL's annual conference, which runs Aug. 16 to 20.
Rauschenberger has said that during his year-long NCSL term he will tackle issues ranging from state's rights to telecommunications taxes. As president of NCSL, he will direct the bipartisan organization formed in 1975 to research state policy and lobby for the interests of the nation's 7,382 state legislators.
At the same time, Rauschenberger will try to widen his popularity among voters across the Land of Lincoln as he joins a crowded GOP field for the 2006 governor's race. He is a social and fiscal conservative in a state now controlled by Democrats. Republican voters around the state have yet to embrace the self-described policy wonk who finished third in an eight-way primary for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Because he cannot run for two state offices, his term in the Legislature will expire in 2006.
"He's appreciated by a narrow band of people that know something about the complexity of government. But it's been difficult for Steve to broaden that appeal," said Jim Nowlan a former Republican state legislator who teaches at the University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
Rauschenberger, who turns 49 on Aug. 29, grew up in Elgin, Ill., and is the fifth of six children in his family. He graduated from the public high school in 1974 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in accounting from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. After college he came home to Elgin, married his high school sweetheart, Betty, and began working for the family furniture business, which was shuttered after the recession of the early 1990s. Rauschenberger and his wife have two college-age sons.
In 1992, he was elected to an open seat in the state Senate and quickly developed a reputation as one of "the fab five" -- a group of sharp-witted, conservative, freshman lawmakers who were determined to shake things up.
In his first term he was appointed chairman of the powerful appropriations committee -- the first freshman lawmaker ever to hold that position in Illinois.
Although Democrats took control of the state Senate in 2002, Rauschenberger remains the ranking minority member of an appropriations subcommittee. He is respected by his colleagues as a consummate legislator and someone who will listen to and appreciate several points of view.
"To Steve's great credit, he has become quite open-minded and tolerant of perspectives that he wouldn't have accommodated when he entered the Senate," Nowlan said.
State Sen. Christine Radogno (R) sits next to Rauschenberger in the Senate chamber and called him a "caring, nurturing person ... who weighs the merits and concerns about a policy, rather than pandering to one group or another."
But Rauschenberger faces big hurdles in his gubernatorial campaign. He will face at least three other candidates in the GOP primary: dairyman James D. Oberweis, former State Board of Education chairman Ron Gidwitz and state Sen. Bill Brady. In addition, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka and U.S. Rep. Ray La Hood also may join the race.
If he wins the primary, he would face incumbent Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D ), who already has amassed more than $15 million for his re-election.
Despite nearly unanimous newspaper endorsements, Rauschenberger raised less than $1 million for his failed 2004 U.S. Senate race and got just 20 percent of the vote in the GOP primary for that seat. He finished behind Jack Ryan, a Chicago investment broker, who raised more than $8.3 million, and Oberweis, who raised nearly $3.4 million.
"Most people felt that [Rauschenberger] did not run a particularly good U.S. Senate campaign," said Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
In that race, Ryan withdrew from the general election after embarrassing revelations about alleged sexual improprieties during a failed marriage to actress Jeri Ryan. Democrat Barrack Obama coasted to an overwhelming victory over arch-conservative Alan Keyes, who moved from Maryland to Illinois to challenge Obama.
Some party members blamed Rauschenberger and state Sen. Dave Syverson (R) for inviting Keyes, said political columnist and blogger Rich Miller. "Keyes was a freaking disaster, with the emphasis on 'freak,'" he said.
Rauschenberger said he only "told someone where to get [Keyes'] phone number." And he said his 2004 U.S. Senate bid was a learning experience that taught him the diversity of the state's residents, especially in parts of the state that are "closer to the capitol of Tennessee than they are to Chicago."