CHICAGO — A lifelong Democrat, Bruce Rauner's wife Diana campaigned enthusiastically for the Republican multimillionaire businessman during his 2014 bid for Illinois governor.
Now the child-advocacy group she leads is among 82 social service providers suing her husband's administration for payment of over $130 million locked up in Illinois' unprecedented budget fight with Democratic legislative leaders.
The awkward situation has raised eyebrows and drawn some jabs about her twin roles as first lady to Illinois' first Republican governor in over a decade and as a longtime social services advocate in Democratic-leaning Illinois.
The Pay Now Illinois coalition says its lawsuit is about honoring legally binding contracts. Chairwoman Andrea Durbin said Diana Rauner's involvement — as president of the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund — increases the awareness of their plight as Illinois has operated for nearly a year without a budget and there's little sign of change. Attorneys this week set a July hearing for the lawsuit, which Diana Rauner's group joined weeks after it was first filed.
"Certainly we recognize that she's in an extraordinary position," Durbin said. "We were serious in this effort before the Ounce joined us and we continue to be serious about it. It wasn't a stunt."
The move prompted criticism from Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He and Gov. Rauner, onetime vacation pals, have been locked in an escalating war of words over state help for Chicago and its schools.
"Is it any accident that his wife's own organization sued him?" Emanuel told Chicago's WLS-AM after Rauner vetoed a pension relief measure last month. "Part of being a leader is people being able to work with you and trust you."
Emanuel later walked back his comments, but didn't apologize outright.
Diana Rauner declined interviews through her chief of staff in the Rauner administration. The Ounce — which offers early child development programs — released a statement on her behalf, which didn't directly address the lawsuit or state budget.
"In my work life, not much has changed since my husband was elected governor. I still work very much full time in my role at the Ounce, and our pace hasn't slowed a bit!" it read. "Outside of Illinois, my other role as first lady is not as well known; and my colleagues in the field here in Illinois have worked with me long enough that I think they see me first and foremost as a partner and a leader in our field."
The organization hasn't shied away from budget advocacy. In a June statement the group accused elected leaders of lacking "political courage." Joining the lawsuit was a logical next step.
"We made a business decision, it was under Diana Rauner's leadership," said Chief Operating Officer Sarah Bradley, adding the group serves families "regardless of what the governor's positions may or may not be."
Gov. Rauner has noted the situation, saying his wife is angry about the impasse and she lets him know. But he's sure to add she's also mad at Democrats, who control the House and Senate. When the lawsuit was first filed, Rauner said he shared the frustrations. A Wednesday statement from his office said the frustration was driving "worthwhile organizations to seek solutions" and budget measures pushed by him would help.
Providers in the lawsuit, which names Rauner and state agencies, claim the governor created an "unconstitutional" situation by vetoing appropriations for services while enforcing contracts. While the impasse threatens to stretch into a second year, most state spending continues because of court orders and statutes. Still, groups contracted to provide social services await payment. Some have closed their doors.
The Ounce, founded in 1982, has cut back. But because of its public-private model, less than one-third of its approximately $60 million budget comes from Illinois. Roughly $7 million is tied up in the impasse. The organization helps 600 fewer families — from about 2,000 total — for home visiting services for new and expectant mothers, including low-income teenagers.
Diana Rauner, a Yale graduate with a doctoral degree in developmental psychology, was a memorable part of the gubernatorial campaign ousting Democrat Pat Quinn. That included an ad featuring playful spousal banter on the differences between her and her husband where she said she'd vote for him anyway because he'd "take on both parties to fix Illinois."
Her presence offered Democrats cover in voting for Rauner, who's pushed for union weakening reforms since taking office. The couple met while she worked for his investment firm.
Diana Rauner called becoming Ounce president in 2011 a "dream job."
"To the extent that I can use my role as first lady to better our state," she said, "it's in raising awareness of the importance of supports for vulnerable children and families."