Rauner’s top political aide jumps ship amid office chaos

CHICAGO — Gov. Bruce Rauner’s chief campaign strategist jumped ship Friday, the most significant departure yet from his office following a string of administration firings by the Republican governor earlier this week.

The departure of Mike Zolnierowicz, who headed the transition team after Rauner’s 2014 election and served as the governor’s first chief of staff, is a serious blow to Rauner as the governor prepares for the costliest reelection campaign the Midwest has seen.

Former Rauner staffers say the recent staffing decisions — not just clearing out key, loyal personnel, but hiring several members of the Illinois Policy Institute, a lightning-rod conservative think tank, in their place — are an attempt to lay the groundwork for more upheaval up ahead.

The hardline IPI has advocated for a cuts-only budget, no taxes and a significant reduction of the state’s Medicaid rolls.

Several former staffers tell POLITICO they fundamentally disagree with the direction Rauner is heading, which they believe is handing over significant power to the think tank.

A Rauner spokesperson did not immediately comment.

Zolnierowicz was the behind-the-scenes architect of Rauner’s 2014 victory and a key to the governor’s 2016 election gains in the General Assembly.

Also on Friday, three key policy officials with the Rauner administration were fired while two members of Rauner’s communications team announced their resignations.

Sources say that members of the team were told they would have to be “reevaluated” before they could know if they would keep their jobs.

Zolnierowicz announced Friday he was moving to Xpress Professional Services, Inc., to head up its political operation beginning Monday.

Rauner on Monday fired his chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff, his chief spokesperson among other aides. That was on the heels of a two-and-a-half year budget crisis brought on by a long-running political fight between Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. The governor suffered a stinging rebuke last week when legislators — including nearly a dozen Republicans — voted to override his veto of a Democratic budget and put a permanent income tax increase into law.

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