Rauschenberger rich in legislative savvy

Tribune staff reporters

As a freshman Republican senator looking to shake up state government in Springfield, Steve Rauschenberger was ready to pick his first big fight with Senate GOP leader James "Pate" Philip.

Philip had proposed a bill allowing a landfill in his home county of DuPage to avoid paying taxes. Thinking that unfair, Rauschenberger--along with four other newly elected go-getter conservative senators--opposed the bill. And with the Senate evenly split without their votes, "The Fab Five" as veteran legislators dubbed them, thought they held the political upper hand.

Before the bill was called, Philip calmly took Rauschenberger and the others aside, trying to cajole them to compromise. Each refused. Then, to their astonishment, they watched as Philip crossed the Senate aisle and worked Democratic senators, who moments later gave Philip the victory he sought.

"Fifteen minutes later he went to each one of our desks ... and when he came to me he handed me a cigar," Rauschenberger recalled. "He said, `Senator, I respect you . . . but it cost you a lot more in what you believe in for you to force me across the aisle than it would have to have compromised with me.'"

It was a learning experience for Rauschenberger and the Fab Five, which included another state senator at the time named Peter Fitzgerald, who became a U.S. senator.

Now, running in the March 16 Republican primary to replace Fitzgerald, who is retiring, Rauschenberger, 47, believes it is experiences such as the one with Philip that give him an edge his opponents lack. While they might be rich, he says, he knows the legislative process.

But as Rauschenberger campaigns across the state, some may argue he still hasn't shed all of that naivete he came to Springfield with in 1993. Because he's unable to match the spending of his competitors, he's relying heavily on support from fellow Republican legislators to get the vote out for him statewide. Some have lent him their private mailing lists and use of their political staffs, small as they may be.

While many legislators are pledging to work hard for Rauschenberger, it's still a risky strategy. Even some of his backers concede that just because they are asking their supporters to vote for him doesn't mean they will.

"Steve's model is to build his support around his Senate colleagues," said state Sen. Peter Roskam of Wheaton, a Rauschenberger supporter. "It will be interesting to see how much goodwill voters for one politician will have for another."

Rauschenberger, however, casts aside those concerns, describing his primary battle as a "guerrilla campaign" that is counting more on grass-roots support than financial resources.

"The millionaires," he says of his opponents, only half-joking, "are about to fall into my trap."

Elgin beginnings

Rauschenberger, the second youngest of six children, was born and raised in Elgin, where he still lives.

After high school, he went to the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where he graduated with a degree in business, despite dropping out for a semester to work on a highway rebuilding crew.

After graduation, Rauschenberger held a variety of jobs, many at the same time, including delivering newspapers, managing a local movie theater and overseeing finances for his family's furniture business.

In 1980, he and older brother John purchased the store from his father and uncle. Five years later, they sold it, took out a loan and bought a three-store, Elgin-based furniture chain.

But in the 1990s, suburban downtowns struggled, and so did the Rauschenbergers' stores. Soon, the bank called their loan and forced the brothers to sell their Crystal Lake store. Within a few years, all the stores had to be sold.

By that time, though, Rauschenberger was headlong into politics.

His interest was sparked after the state moved up the date that retailers had to settle monthly claims to pay off their sales taxes.

Rauschenberger discovered the change was made as a bookmaking trick to help balance the budget. He was infuriated and decided to run for office.

Rauschenberger was an underdog in a 1992 race for state senator against James Kirkland, a state representative looking to move into an open Senate seat. But after campaigning door-to-door, Rauschenberger won--by less than 1,000 votes.

"It was not a big, planned career move," Rauschenberger said. "It just sort of worked out for me."

In Springfield, Rauschenberger quickly carved a niche for himself as a point man on the state's massive budget.

"He came in and was really addressing issues from a common sense perspective, as a businessman, as a family man," said state Sen. Dave Syverson, another of the Fab Five. "He was addressing issues that really made him stand out from a lot of other bureaucrats."

Tough assignment

Despite their differences, Philip gave Rauschenberger the plum job of heading the Senate Appropriations Committee, which determines where to direct money from the budget.

In this role he also helped push through the legislature several budgets of Republican Govs. Jim Edgar and, later, George Ryan. It is Ryan that current Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, routinely blames for the state's onetime deficit of $5 billion.

But Rauschenberger insisted he shouldn't be tarred with Ryan's budget mess, saying he was trying to stem the tide of wastefulness.

"I was the guy at the table fighting George Ryan on Illinois FIRST on overspending. I'm the guy that negotiated with (House Speaker) Mike Madigan to try to control the pressure of House spending," Rauschenberger said. "It's a process question. I was certainly there, but if that's what people think, they don't understand the process."

Rauschenberger also brought a complex personal agenda to Springfield.

On the conservative side, he voted to restrict late-term abortions and to lower the penalty on people who carry concealed guns.

Last year, he even said he would support allowing qualified teachers to carry guns into their classrooms, a position he reversed a month later.

As a leader with a national conference of state legislators, he has ardently supported implementing a consumer tax on purchases over the Internet, saying taxes on goods should be fair nationwide.

Showing a bit of a Libertarian streak, he supports a ban on motorcycle helmet laws and a current law allowing over-the-counter purchase of hypodermic needles, despite fears it may increase intravenous drug use. In addition to it helping cut the spread of AIDS, Rauschenberger backed the needle idea because his wife is diabetic and often carried hypodermic needles and because law enforcement hadn't enforced the law in years.

"I've never worked a single bill with an eye toward running for the U.S. Senate," he said.

Campaign concerns

But now that he is running, Rauschenberger has had to answer questions about his past. Ten years ago, while he was state senator, he was charged and fined for driving under the influence of alcohol in Hanover Park. "It was a mistake and it was my fault," he said.

He's also been forced to answer questions about whether he has improperly used his state campaign fund, Citizens for Rauschenberger, to help his U.S. Senate campaign.

Citizens for Rauschenberger donated more than $8,500 to various candidates and political organizations that have endorsed his Senate run.

But Rauschenberger said those donations carried no strings attached to his donations.

"I donate to people all the time," he said. "Donating those amounts is not unusual for me, and they endorse me because they think I'm the best candidate."

His state campaign fund also paid $2,200 in phone bills and made a $1,000 donation to Rauschenberger's Senate campaign--$2,200 more than the legal limit, state records show. The Rauschenberger for U.S. Senate fund paid the $2,200 back in December.

In addition, spokesman Charlie Stone said the Senate fund is in the process of paying back about $700 in phone bills that the state fund had paid when Rauschenberger was using his state campaign cell phone for his federal campaign.

While his opponents were busy running TV commercials, which he can't afford, Rauschenberger has resorted to publicity stunts to keep his name in the headlines.

So he shaved his beard, his campaign made a song called "Do the Rauschenberger" and he jokingly announced his interest in the head-coaching job for the Chicago Bears.

But all of that is the gamesmanship of running for office and has little to do with legislating, an act he professes to love.

On a recent day in Springfield, Rauschenberger dashed from committee to committee, asking pointed questions of the governor's budget director and then giving a speech before local leaders at a YMCA.

"I love the legislative process, I really do," he says, taking a minute to relax in his office in a corner of the statehouse. "It's give and take and talking to people and working out problems. It's democracy at its finest."

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Steven Rauschenberger


Age: 47

Birthplace: Elgin

Residence: Elgin

Current job: Illinois senator

Former job: Furniture store owner

Bio: Married, two children; undergraduate degree in business administration from College of William and Mary

Senate committee preference: Finance, appropriations, budget

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