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.
"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."
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.