CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a multimillionaire who owns nine homes — including a condo overlooking Central Park in New York — is taking up residence this week under decidedly less luxurious conditions.
As he works to contain the latest — and perhaps most daunting — crisis confronting his administration, the first-term Republican governor checked himself into a central Illinois, state-run veterans’ home where 13 veterans died over three years from a deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak. His wife, Diana, is to join him at the Quincy facility over the weekend.
The move, denounced as a “publicity stunt” by opponents, is a sign of the urgency of the moment as Rauner struggles to contain an onslaught of criticism about his administration’s handling of an outbreak that has persisted at the facility. Of the numerous controversies Rauner has faced since his 2014 election, veterans dying on his watch is arguably the most explosive.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin has called for the facility to be shuttered if the state can’t guarantee its safety for residents. And legislative hearings scheduled for next week are expected to create a fresh blast of publicity on the issue.
“[The governor] plans to spend several days there with the residents and staff,” said Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold. “He wants to gain a more thorough understanding of the clinical, water-treatment, and residential operations of the home.”
Last month, WBEZ, Chicago’s public radio affiliate, published an investigation raising questions about how Rauner handled a 2015 outbreak of the Legionella bacteria, which revealed the administration delayed publicizing what appeared to be the beginning of an epidemic. In all, 13 people died and at least 53 staff and residents were sickened by the bacteria found at the facility. Now, 11 families are suing the state for negligence.
The Legionella bacteria, found in some water supplies, can cause a severe form of pneumonia. In December, in an effort to assuage concerns, Rauner told reporters he would drink the water at the facility.
But the governor’s attempts to tamp down the controversy have failed so far. On Wednesday, Rauner was excoriated by opponents after telling a local newspaper that Legionella outbreaks are not uncommon — “it happens,” he said. Rauner has defended his administration’s actions, saying he brought in every expert available including the Center for Disease Control.
Even before veterans’ home revelations, Rauner was widely viewed as the most endangered governor in 2018. He has suffered through staffing turmoil — including having three chiefs of staff in a three-month period — and presided over a more than two-year budget impasse that ended with Republicans banding against him in a veto override.
After being designated the “Worst Republican Governor in America” by the conservative National Review, Rauner stumbled again when he told reporters “I’m not in charge.”
All of it has created a daunting reelection road for a governor who now faces a primary challenge on the right — from state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a veteran herself. On the Democratic side, billionaire J.B. Pritzker leads the field, raising the prospect of what could be the most expensive governor’s race in the nation’s history.
“This is a cynical and transparent publicity stunt,” said Ives. “The conditions in the Illinois Veterans Home, as well as the delayed response from the Rauner administration, are betrayals of our veterans and the benefits they earned protecting our freedoms. This is what happens when the governor isn’t in charge, as he said. The state fails to abide its responsibilities and people die.”