Capping a week of turmoil in his government and political operation, Gov. Bruce Rauner today lost to an outside firm one of his oldest and closest aides, one who had been expected to be chief strategist in Rauner’s re-election campaign.
Joining Xpress Professional Services as the new head of its political operation, the firm announced this evening, is Mike Zolnierowicz, who is widely known in Springfield as “Mike Z.”
In a press statement, the firm said Zolnierowicz “will focus on building the firm’s strategic political service.” The announcement says nothing about him continuing to work on the Rauner re-election. But my sources say that, after an initial transition period, Zolnierowicz’s involvement with the 2018 campaign likely will be minimal.
Zolnierowicz was deputy campaign manager in Rauner’s 2014 election race and served as director of Rauner’s transition term and chief of staff until June 2016, when he announced he could go into political consulting with Rauner and the Illinois Republican Party as top clients. He played a central role in helping Illinois Republicans pick up six state House seats in last November’s Zolnierowicz also was a Crain’s 40 Under 40 two years ago.
Zolnierowicz did not return messages seeking comment, but sources close to him say he was disturbed at a series of high-level Rauner staff changes this week, ending up this afternoon with the termination or resignation of most of the governor’s policy staff. Most of those positions reportedly will be filled with personnel from the Illinois Policy Institute, a liberatarian Chicago think tank which strongly opposes tax hikes and says the state’s budget woes can be solved via spending cuts and slashed benefits for state and local government workers.
Quoted in the Xpress news release was the head of its parent firm, Greg Baise, whose Illinois Manuacturers’ Assn. operates Xpress as a wholly owned subsidiary. “His understanding of the political environment extends beyond Illinois’ border, and his list of accomplishments is second to none,” said Baise, whose group is a major player in Illinois politics, usually on behalf of Republicans.
Already working for the the firm is Eric Elk, who like Zolnierowicz helped get his start in politics working as a staffer for former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk.