With more than $123 million in state grants over the past 11 years—about one-fifth of its annual budget—a nonprofit group headed by the wife of GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner has a lot riding on this year’s election.
Diana Rauner is the unpaid president of Ounce of Prevention Fund Inc., one of Chicago’s leading providers of early childhood education. In the past, she has praised Gov. Pat Quinn’s increased support for preschool funding while criticizing proposed cuts to education when budgets were especially tight. She even endorsed his proposal for an income tax surcharge in 2010.
Now she’s making campaign ads for her husband (watch on YouTube) and has removed her name from the group’s continued public advocacy of Mr. Quinn’s proposed budget, which would boost preschool funding and extend a temporary tax hike that Mr. Rauner wants to end.
Mr. Rauner’s election would create potential conflicts of interest for him and the state-funded group. But her stepped-up role in his campaign is raising the question of whether Ounce of Prevention’s leadership on education issues and strong bipartisan support could erode.
“It poses a sticky wicket of questions for them. I don’t think you can ignore it,” says Ryan Blitstein, president and CEO of Change Illinois, a Chicago-based government reform nonprofit. “The key for her is toeing the line between support for her spouse as a potential state leader and specific policy positions that may cut against the interests of her organization.”
In addition to advocacy, Ounce funds and provides early childhood education for low- income children. It secured nearly $13 million in state grants in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2012, according to an Illinois comptroller database. That was a record high, but state grants consistently ranged from $10.3 million to $11.8 million annually over the previous decade. In fiscal 2012, government grants of all kinds totaled $30.1 million and private contributions reached nearly $19.8 million, according to the group’s most recent Internal Revenue Service return.
Ms. Rauner declines to comment, a campaign spokesman says. She joined Ounce’s board in 2002, becoming executive director in 2007 and president in 2011. A Stanford University MBA, she got her Ph.D. in developmental psychology at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children after working as an investment banker and private-equity investor, including a stint at Mr. Rauner’s firm, GTCR LLC.
Ounce of Prevention has used lobbyists in the state capital and Washington, spending more than $1.3 million on lobbying over the four most recent years reported. John Lowder is one of two new Springfield lobbyists hired by Ounce this year. He was House Speaker Michael Madigan’s director of research and appropriations from 1995 to 2013. Mr. Rauner has made “career politicians” in general and Mr. Madigan in particular a punching bag for all the state’s ills.
Yet Ms. Rauner’s nonprofit isn’t likely to pay a price for her support of her husband, says Mr. Lowder, of Springfield-based Lowder Governmental Solutions LLC.
About a year ago, Ounce also hired Jasculca/Terman & Associates Inc., one of Chicago’s most politically savvy public relations firms, to sharpen its image as a leader in early childhood education, an Ounce spokeswoman says in a statement.
“We have also tapped their issues management expertise to help us maintain this focus as political issues have arisen the past few months,” she says.
Ms. Rauner, a champion fencer at Yale University, has parried concerns about her role in the campaign while keeping apprised her well-connected board, which includes the daughter of billionaire investor Warren Buffett and the wife of Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell.
Ms. Rauner “is a nationally recognized expert in early childhood education. She has spent the majority of her professional career in this field and has played a leadership role at the Ounce for 12 years,” board Chairman Anne Leah Tuohy says. “That is the dynamic that matters most to us.”
“There was discussion,” says board member J.M. “Jim” Schultz, founder and managing partner of Open Prairie Ventures Inc., a venture-capital firm based in downstate Effingham. While declining to go into details, he says, “the most important thing is for Ounce to be an advocate of early childhood education and not make it a political organization.” More…