Meetings & Agendas
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In June 2014, then-candidate Bruce Rauner arrived at a Chicago press conference he’d called to discuss the cost-savings measures he planned to bring Illinois’ budget into balance if elected governor. To illustrate his point, the Republican gubernatorial nominee brought along a few feathered friends.
An assistant unveiled a cage containing three prairie chickens — the very same fowl that an Associated Press story named a month before as the beneficiaries of a state program that flew the birds from Kansas to a habitat near Effingham. Though the three-year program to save the endangered birds was largely funded by federal grants, critics marked it as a complete waste of taxpayer money.
Rauner’s campaign seized the opportunity to match a visual with his claims of government waste, and so top Rauner aides borrowed three prairie chickens.
The chicken press conference, as it came to be known, turned out to be just the opening salvo of a campaign marked by costumes, stunts and other attention-grabbing strategies that accompanied Rauner onto victory that fall. Four years later, Rauner’s re-election bid has a new cast of characters — quite literally — and Democrats have trotted out some of the same strategies to varying degrees of success.
Some may scoff at or even mock the strategies at work, decrying them as a “dumbing down” of democracy. But political strategists told The Daily Line that when used correctly, these characters and stunts cut through the noise of a seemingly endless political season and deliver a simple message about a candidate’s opponent.
Rauner no pioneer
After the chickens, Rauner’s 2014 campaign continued to add to its arsenal of costumed characters as the months progressed, eventually employing a campaign worker to spend days on end dressed up as a cross between then-Gov. Pat Quinn and fairytale character Pinnochio, famous for having a nose that grew every time he lied. This hybrid character, Quinnochio, was often joined by another campaign worker dressed in an orange jumpsuit and a rubber mask of imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
But Rauner’s first gubernatorial bid was not the first time an Illinois Republican created spectacles to attract media attention. Many of Rauner’s 2014 campaign staff had come from former U.S. Senator Mark Kirk’s office, where the senator’s 2010 election campaign had found a highly original way and extremely simple way to illustrate the alleged ties between Kirk’s opponent, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, and the mob.
Enter: the shark.
Giannoulias’ family bank, Chicago-based Broadway Bank, had been the financier behind a loan to ex-Chicago Heights mobster Michael “Jaws” Giorango, who had used to loan to purchase partial ownership of a Florida hotel, in which Giorango promoted a nationwide prostitution ring.
When a mobster — whose criminal affiliation already brings to mind the word “shark” — is literally nicknamed “Jaws,” that opportunity is too good to pass up, veterans of the Kirk campaign told The Daily Line.
And so Giorango was reincarnated into an actual shark…or at least a guy in a shark costume.
The Kirk campaign would send the dressed-up campaign worker to Giannoulias events all over Illinois, where “Jaws” was particularly adept at interacting with passersby, asking kids for “high fins” and urging voters to support Giannoulias because “mobsters do not support Kirk!”
Kirk’s campaign figured out pretty quickly that “Jaws” seemed to bother Giannoulias, which only made the character a more effective way to target the Democrat.
Lance Trover, a communications consultant at the Chicago office of Tusk Strategies, served on both Kirk’s 2010 campaign and Rauner’s 2014 gubernatorial bid. He told The Daily Line that grabbing media attention with these characters isn’t necessarily the point — though sometimes the interaction between a candidate and the character or stunt will force attention from journalists.
“It's especially helpful for campaign staff if they find out it gets under the opponent's skin because that information can be used strategically to get inside the opponent's head,” Trover said. “For example, putting the character front-and-center where your opponent has to see or walk past them before a major event like a debate.”
Toward the end of the 2010 campaign, for example, Giannoulias had ended a difficult press conference in Chicago, and was scheduled to fly to Carbondale for the next campaign event. The Kirk campaign, knowing Giannoulias had already had a tough day, sent “Jaws” down to Carbondale, where Giannoulias eventually noticed the shark dancing in the back of the event.
But even before “Jaws” swam onto the scene, the Illinois Republican Party had experience using political “street theater” to its advantage in the latter years of the Blagojevich administration.
When the ex-governor skipped out on being present in Springfield for debate on a mass transit bailout plan during November 2007 — in favor of attending a Blackhawks game — the Illinois GOP could have held a run-of-the-mill press conference denouncing Blagojevich’s absenteeism.
Instead, the state party sponsored a contest for one lucky Illinoisan (and guest) and called it “Governor for a Day.”
A few days before Christmas 2007, winner Mike Messuck and his daughter were treated to a deep tissue massage and manicure at a downtown Chicago day spa, a lunch at Ralph Lauren Restaurant, a three-hour limousine tour around Chicago and, of course, a Blackhawks game, all courtesy of Illinois Republicans.
Trover said the giveaway happened against the backdrop of an especially bleak time in the Illinois Republican Party, as Democrats were on the upswing in the state and across the country, and Republicans controlled no statewide offices in Illinois and very few congressional seats.
“We knew that to get our message out we had to be creative,” Trover said.
The medium to get that message out was a calculated move.
“Now, Rod Blagojevich often made it easy because he was often so ridiculous that the response almost demanded that we be just as ridiculous — i.e. ‘Governor for a Day,’” Trover said. “So, in order to call attention to our issues we would sometimes turn to street theater.”
Rauner - Quinn 2014
As a political neophyte, then-candidate Rauner needed a way to introduce himself to voters in the winter of 2013. The wealthy Winnetka businessman had already broken the contribution caps off of the race earlier that fall, and with some of that initial money, he commissioned a series of ads in which he starred, wordlessly interacting with props like a sledgehammer and a milkshake, which served to introduce Illinoisans to the Republican’s message that he was going to “hammer down on corrupt politicians” and “shake up Springfield” to “bring back Illinois.”
To accompany the themed ads, Rauner’s campaign set up a novelty URL, hammerandshake.com, which redirected back to Rauner’s main campaign website. It was the first of many themed websites Rauner would employ throughout the 2014 and 2018 campaigns, often set up to a accompany catchy ads, stunts or new characters.
After Rauner’s primary win in March 2014, his attacks narrowed to Quinn and the Democratic powers at work in Springfield. The eventual costumed characters became the physical embodiment of the baggage the governor and his party carried around as Quinn tried to win a full term after Blagojevich was arrested, impeached and removed from office.
The dressed-up “Blagojevich,” for example, served as a living, breathing representation of the Democratic party’s alleged inescapable culture of corruption. Though Quinn and Blagojevich were not close, Quinn had served as lieutenant governor under Blagojevich.
The chickens also came back to haunt Quinn — not as poultry, but in a yellow fuzzy costume that would sometimes appear with Blagojevich or other characters.
But no character was as ubiquitous in the 2014 campaign as Quinnochio, whose message was flexible as the Rauner campaign could just change out the sign to highlight whatever issue the campaign was alleging Quinn lied about that day or week.
In the spring and summer of 2014, a Sun-Times investigation revealed mismanagement in a $54.5 million anti-violence program called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, which resulted in public dollars being steered toward those with political connections and even a gang member accused of murder.
Quinnochio could often be found near Quinn events — both government-sponsored ones and campaign stops — holding signs that said things like “I lied about NRI.” The signs also accused Quinn of lying about taxes and term limits, which played right into Rauner’s narrative that he was for term limits and against higher taxes.
A former Quinn staffer who served in both the governor’s office and later on his campaign staff told The Daily Line that Quinnochio proved to be a pretty effective tactic from the Rauner campaign.
“The Quinn administration was forced to spend a lot of time worrying about where Quinnochio was going to be,” the staffer said. “We spent a lot of time trying to make sure that he wasn’t standing next to the governor.”
The Rauner campaign even made a parody promo trailer for “Quinnochio” in the style of a Disney movie, featuring footage of Quinnochio dancing around and holding signs, with narration that included the line, “and introducing Mike Madigan as Geppetto,” a nod to longtime House Speaker Mike Madigan’s reputation as one who pulls the strings in Springfield, not unlike puppet maker Geppetto in the real story of Pinnochio.
But Quinn’s campaign didn’t take the character attacks lying down. While he never had as many characters as Rauner, Quinn did employ a character named "Baron von Moneybags," who looked very much like “Rich Uncle Pennybags” from Monopoly. Moneybags first showed up in the days leading up the March primary, even before it was clear Rauner and his wealth would win the Republican nomination.
Moneybags came back later in the campaign season, making an appearance in his three-piece suit outside of Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair in 2014, sweating in the heat of an August afternoon, but making a point on behalf of the Quinn campaign that Rauner was trying to buy the election with his wealth.
Moneybags even cut an ad for Quinn, in which he promoted the game of “Rauneropoly: the game that billionaire Bruce Rauner is playing to become governor,” and derided the Republican for “ma[king] a fortune on the misfortune of everyday people,” a nod to Rauner’s former private equity’s firm’s business practices.
In addition to the Rauneropoly ad, Quinn also put out a few "novelty" ads featuring Martin Sheen, one reprising his beloved role as President Jed Bartlet on The West Wing and another with Sheen's voice talent narrating "Business Noir," a video that told of the alleged scandalous dealings that earned Rauner his wealth.
On Halloween 2014, Quinn’s team also showed off their photoshop skills with a fake costume package promising to transform anyone from a rich guy to a “Workin’ Joe,” which included a “non-billionaire jacket,” a nod to Rauner’s preferred outerwear fashion brand, Carhartt, and a “normal person watch,” which made fun of Rauner’s frequent bragging about wearing an $18 watch.
Even third-party groups got in on the stunts in 2014. A few weeks before Election Day, conservative group Americans for Prosperity disguised a semi-truck as the "Pat Quinn Moving Company" to underscore the population Illinois loss had suffered up to that point.
Rauner - Pritzker 2018
One of the trademarks of Rauner’s 2018 campaign against Democrat JB Pritzker has been an investment in original and attention-grabbing TV and digital ads. One from early last month that features Muppet-esque puppets who call Pritzker a puppet for Madigan. Two from July and September include parody narration that urges voters to ask Democrats Madigan and Pritzker for help with lowering their taxes, either through a property tax reassessment or hiding money away offshore.
The September “JBahamas Bank” digital ad tells voters, “Just think what your budget could be if you avoided paying taxes!”
Rauner also spent $3,750 on a small-engine plane to troll Democrats during their annual County Chairs Breakfast in Springfield in August. The banner behind the plane was emblazoned with “Pritzker ♥ Madigan” and flew above of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, where thousands of Illinois Democrats were inside listening to speeches from the party’s top brass.
Related: Quarterly curiosities: headlines and quirks from top campaigns’ third quarter reports
The Blagojevich character made his return for the 2018 race between Rauner and Pritzker, which proved prescient after the Tribune released wiretapped phone conversations between Pritzker and the imprisoned governor, in which the two discussed possible political appointments for others and Pritzker himself.
But Blagojevich was not alone at the 2018 State Fair in August; he was accompanied by the “Porcelain Prince,” a character the Rauner campaign had made up earlier in the summer when it had released a new ad of the same name. The ad highlighted the hefty property tax break Pritzker had received on his second Gold Coast mansion in 2015 after having disconnecting the toilets in the house and having the property reassessed as “uninhabitable.”
The Rauner campaign also printed a large sticker and adhered it to the side of a plain white van, driving it around Chicago on a rainy June day promoting fake business “Pritzker Plumbing.” That business also had a novelty URL and telephone number — 833-TAX-SCAM — which if called aired as a pre-recorded message including a jingle for the company and a summary of Pritkzer’s alleged scam. The campaign also put up real billboards and printed actual T-shirts for the business, which were available to those who gave $25 or more to the governor’s campaign.
The campaign also purchased actual toilets to take to events, which made their way from Chicago down to Springfield for the fair and back again. In early October, they were present when former state Republican Party chairman Pat Brady led a press conference outside of Pritzker’s side-by-side homes on Astor Street in the Gold Coast neighborhood, speaking with reporters about a Cook County Inspector General report released the previous afternoon that found Pritzker had engaged in a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers.
Related: GOP looks to launch comeback in governor’s race by capitalizing on Pritzker’s Cook County property tax break mess
But a few weeks later on WGN Radio’s Sunday Spin program, Brady acknowledged to Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson that appearing with the toilet props may have taken away from the seriousness of the issue.
“That’s my fault,” Brady said. “In hindsight, I should’ve just put those three affidavits up there and pointed out and maybe put the federal criminal statutes that were in the criminal report.”
There isn’t a ton of research into this specific subset of political communications strategy, but Professor Michael Serazio of Boston College is one of the academics who have given the trend attention in recent years.
In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Serazio wrote that the “infotainment” strategies like the ones Illinois campaigns have employed is a sign of what political consultants and strategists actually think of the electorate.
“Ultimately, a portrait emerges of a professional ideology that takes a rather dim view of the attentiveness of citizens,” Serazio wrote in his paper.
Serazio last week told The Daily Line that stunts and characters don’t do much to actually inform voters, but said they might have their place.
“I guess as stunts and side shows go, if you’re using them in the service of attacking the corruption or some sort of scandal, that’s maybe the most understandable version of these types of political entertainment tactics,” Serazio said.
Are journalists committing malpractice by paying attention to stunts and characters? Serazio said no, and blamed the “infinite” amount of content out there in the wider media landscape for demanding everyone’s attention.
“Audiences are suckers first, journalists are suckers second,” Serazio said. “I don’t begrudge…journalism for necessarily paying attention because I think they’re taking cues from what audiences tend to gravitate toward.”
Though Pritzker has not used very many humorous or lighthearted ads in his campaign — other than the August “puppy” commercial — the Democrat’s campaign did try at least two characters.
“Wreck-It Rauner” showed up to Republican Day at the 2017 Illinois State Fair, wearing a homemade Rauner mask and carrying a “wrecking ball,” to symbolize the damage Pritzker and Democrats accuse Rauner of bringing upon the state by refusing to acquiesce to budget compromises in the two years Illinois went without a full budget from 2015 to 2017.
Earlier in 2017, the Pritzker campaign had dressed up a worker up as "Tick Tock the Budget Clock” costume to represent that time was ticking away on the time Illinois went without a budget, which turned out to be 736 days by the time a compromise was reached last summer.
The clock wasn’t the first time a character was used to try to get Rauner to compromise on a budget. “Buddy the Budget Bill” showed up to events in 2016 and 2017.
Stunts aren’t exclusively limited to campaign activity. In the waning days of May legislative session, State Rep. Rob Martwick bought calculators for dozens of his Republican colleagues in the House, along with a letter urging them to do the simple math that would allow them to see a graduated income tax is the right step forward for Illinois.
One totally organic political costume movement is the “Illinois Handmaids,” who have taken cues from the Hulu original show “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the dystopian novel of the same name by Margaret Atwood. The Handmaids, who first showed up last summer urging Rauner to sign abortion expansion bill HB 40, have stuck around to quietly protest anything they deem as threats to women’s rights. They recently protested outside of an event attended by Erika Harold in Chicago.
After Rauner’s chicken stunt in 2014, a parody Twitter account mocking the incident appeared on Twitter. Parody accounts will often spring up in the aftermath of a political event or gaffe, but usually they die away in a matter of weeks or months. @RaunerChicken, however, is still going strong even after four and a half years, tweeting daily snark about Rauner.
Asked last week why the account was started, @RaunerChicken (who asked to remain behind his or her Twitter handle) told The Daily Line that “the silliness” of having chickens at a press event was “too comical to ignore.”
“Mr. Rauner is a wealthy man, with a ranch in Montana so the thinking was, ‘what would it be like if those chickens were kept at his ranch, but kept up with what’s going on with a daily memo?,’” @RaunerChicken explained. “It took off from there.”
@RaunerChicken said the person behind the account is disappointed in the lack of sophistication offered by characters and stunts in a campaign context, and said the political process “has now gone to a lower denominator and taken things from crafty comedic points to often a farce.”
Will @RaunerChicken continue to tweet if Rauner is not reelected on Tuesday?
“The chickens will decide how this ends, or it might end with someone hungry at the ranch for three chicken dinners,” @RaunerChicken said. “We’ll see.”