A few days before the election, a Chicago radio host introduced Bruce Rauner and
wife Diana, telling listeners “behind every great man is a great woman.”
“In front sometimes too,” replied Bruce Rauner, laughing.
Diana Rauner is accustomed to being out front. She has got a collection of degrees
from the nation’s top universities. She runs one of the state’s leading early education
nonprofits. And she helped her husband become Illinois’ next governor by appearing in
a TV ad at a crucial point in the race.
In two weeks, she’ll assume the unofficial title of first lady, the state’s first one in six
years. Despite the rigors of a hard-fought campaign, she’s still getting used to opening
her life up for public examination.
“It’s very weird. I have to tell you. I’ve lived this private life for 53 years and I’m
perfectly happy,” she said during a recent interview. “This is part of the choice that we
made. We made a really clear decision that this was something we were going to do.
We did it for one reason only, which was to try to make a difference and help. That’s the
price you pay, I guess.”
Until the campaign for governor, she was best known in public life as the face and the
voice for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, which helps more than 4,000 low-income kids
and families in Chicago each year with birth-to-5 programs and advocates for early
After the inauguration, Rauner plans to continue in her role there
— she takes no salary — and focus on the issue. It’s a more policy-oriented approach
than some of her predecessors. Illinois’ previous first lady, Patti Blagojevich, planted
wildflowers and trees along roadways. During the 1990s, Brenda Edgar sent teddy
bears to abused and neglected children taken into state custody.
Friends describe Rauner as confident, genuine and family oriented — with a knack for
the social and the academic.
She’s not going to skirt an issue that comes up, said longtime friend Robin Steans.
“She’s going to be straight with you, and that can be intimidating,” said Steans,
executive director of Advance Illinois, an education reform group that helped pass a state
law opposed by teachers unions to lengthen the school day in Chicago and make it
easier to fire bad teachers.
New York upbringing
It was a confidence bred in suburban New York City, where Diana Elizabeth Mendley
grew up the youngest of three in a Reform Jewish home where her parents still live. Her
father was a sales rep for a printing company, and her mother was the copy chief at an ad
agency in Yonkers.
She went to a tony Ivy League prep school, where a friend remembers her being a
popular tennis star. “She was very confident in herself in a way a lot of teenagers were
not,” said Lynn Novick, now an accomplished filmmaker who said she still sees Diana once
or twice a year.
Rauner graduated magna cum laude from Yale, winning All-American honors in fencing.
The way she tells it, she was a “young dirtbag” who went to work at Lehman Brothers, a
24-year-old given an office and offered a partnership track before a change of heart led
her out of the private sector.
Living in Manhattan on a Wall Street salary, she started volunteering at a halfway house
tutoring illiterate ex-convicts. Her parents taught her that “grown-ups volunteer.”
“I would sit across the table from young men my age who couldn’t read. It was just
actually devastating,” she said. “It set me on the path of thinking about educational
inequities. It wasn’t hard to figure out the connections between not being able to read and
being an ex-con.”
It wouldn’t be until about 10 years later that Rauner would pursue those interests. In the
meantime, she earned an MBA at Stanford University and moved to Illinois with her first
husband, Lewis Ingall, a Highland Park native who works at a Chicago real estate
The two were married in Rye Brook, N.Y., in 1989; their engagement announcement ran
in The New York Times.
The previous year, she got a job as an associate at a Chicago private equity firm, then
known as GTC, where she met Bruce Rauner, whose name was not yet on the door.
Diana Rauner and Ingall divorced in 1991. Bruce Rauner and first wife Elizabeth were
divorced in 1993. Shortly after, Diana and Bruce Rauner wed at what was then the
“We have a lot of the same kind of energy,” she said when asked what drew her to Bruce.
“We’re both very strong-willed and strong and independent thinkers. We have a lot of
energy, we’re both — we love being outdoors. We’re outdoors people.”
She said she prefers riding horses and canoeing to hunting and fishing — her husband’s
hobbies that were highlighted during the campaign to underscore his regular-guy qualities
as a way to combat Democratic class-warfare attacks.
“I walk with him sometimes when he hunts birds, and I’m always cheering for the ones
that got away,” she said, laughing.
Finding her calling
Rauner spent more than a decade at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall education
research center. She was a researcher, project manager and got her doctorate in
development psychology. Her dissertation was titled “The Language Environments of
Child Care Homes and Their Relation To Language Development In the Second and
Third Years of Life.”
During this time, she had two girls and a boy and wrote a book on the importance of
caring relationships in teens’ lives. In the acknowledgments, she thanked her children’s
She joked that she went back to school in part to avoid being labeled a “dilettante” by a
mentor at the school as she contributed to its research center.
“I went back to grad school in part because school is the easiest way for me to access —
it’s easy for me. And I’m intellectually really deeply interested in the development of human
potential. So that was the easiest entree for me to make what was a radical shift,” she said.
“I went from being in venture capital, private equity, having a fancy job and a fancy car and
a fancy life to being a grad student. That was a little bit of a rough transition.”
In the early childhood education world, “she’s in her own right. … I doubt if people even
know who Bruce is,” said Chapin Hall senior research fellow Deborah Daro, who has known
Rauner for 16 years.
Daro recalls a conference in Boston this fall where Diana Rauner’s name came up and
“nobody made the connection” that her husband had recently been elected Illinois governor.
“She’s done the research. She’s read it, and she can explain it to you,” Daro said.
The work led Rauner to Ounce of Prevention, where she served as executive director for
more than three years before becoming president in 2011. Harriet Horwitz Meyer handpicked
Rauner as her successor.
“Diana doesn’t suffer fools well, and she is extremely efficient and she makes decisions and
follows through,” said Horwitz Meyer, who acknowledged a bumpy transition.
“By outside standards and markers, I think people would agree the Ounce is doing very, very
well. That’s due to the leadership,” Horwitz Meyer said of Rauner.
With Bruce Rauner a couple of weeks away from taking control of Illinois’ purse strings, Ounce
of Prevention could face questions about state funding. It has received tens of millions of
dollars in state contracts and grants the past five years, according to recent state comptroller
Asked about the potential conflict of interest, Diana Rauner noted that the organization has
received state money since its inception more than 30 years ago.
“We have competed openly and fairly for grants as recently as the summer, and certainly our
goal would be that there should be transparency and independence in the review process for
any grants going forward. You know, the work speaks for itself,” she said.
At home, she put a premium on family dinners, friends said, often cooking and, when
possible, using vegetables from a garden in her Winnetka backyard.
Calling herself a “nutrition nazi,” Rauner said she likes to cook so she’s not “disassociated with”
her food, a problem she foresees after a move to the Springfield governor’s mansion, where
staff will prepare many meals. Rauner said she’s accustomed to making her own salad dressing
each night but anticipates having to give that up at the Executive Mansion, where she said the
private apartments have only a microwave and refrigerator.
“I’m actually a little freaked about that,” she said.
The Rauners celebrated Yom Kippur and Hanukkah with the neighbors. After marrying Bruce,
Diana was thrilled to be able to put up Christmas lights on their home, recalled neighbor Gerri
The Rauners are now empty nesters, and the family keeps in touch with group text chats and
sometimes via Skype, Diana Rauner said.
The six children — Bruce had three in his first marriage — largely stayed out of the public
eye during the campaign, which she calls a deliberate choice to keep them focused on their own
lives and out of the political mud pit.
TV ad looms large
But Diana Rauner was not kept above the fray.
She often talked about how Bruce Rauner and Pat Quinn were alike on social issues in a
recruiting pitch to moderate voters. She called herself a “lifelong Democrat,” though the
Tribune reported that her history of campaign donations skewed heavily Republican.
During the heat of the campaign in October, a government employee union-funded political
action committee allied with Quinn aired a TV ad aimed at convincing voters Rauner was
The spot focused on a lawsuit filed by former executives of LeapSource, a failed
GTCRbacked outsourcing startup firm that filed for bankruptcy in 2001. The lawsuit alleged
that Rauner told former LeapSource CEO Christine Kirk, “if you go legal on us, we’ll hurt you
and your family.” A federal judge threw out much of the lawsuit, which was settled in 2008.
The Rauner camp put up an ad featuring Diana. In a calm fashion, with uplifting music
underneath, she told voters that machine politicians were using “false, vicious attacks” to try
to stay in power. “Bruce doesn’t owe anybody anything, and that scares special interests,”
she said. “But he’s smart, honest, successful — everything our state government isn’t.”
Throughout the race, Democrats lambasted Bruce Rauner as being too wealthy and out of
touch. With more than $60 million in reported income last year and nine properties in places
including Chicago, New York, Florida and Montana, the Rauners can’t identify with most
Illinoisans, the argument went.
Diana Rauner soundly rejects that notion.
“I have never really understood this idea … that the size of one’s wallet indicates their
empathy. The reality is, this is the world that I spend my time in and I spend all of my day
thinking about the education and well-being of young children in poverty and their families.
I’m thinking about this all the time,” she said. “I’m incredibly lucky to be able to live a great life
and live exactly the way I want to. And the way I want to work, the way I want to live, is to
work 65 hours a week on the service of poor children and their families, so that’s what I do.”
The Rauner campaign tried to highlight Bruce’s $18 watch and beaten-up van in introducing
him to voters. The Rauners’ made-for-TV prudence is no joke, friends say.
“If you’ve met Diana on the street, she’s not wearing a bunch of jewelry, she’s not wearing
flashy clothes,” said Steans, the friend who runs Advance Illinois.
As she prepares to move to Springfield, Diana Rauner said she’s ready to help fix up the
Executive Mansion, which has been long neglected. Bruce Rauner has said they’ll use
personal money for the repairs.
“The piano is a disaster in the mansion. It’s actually criminal what’s happened. They have
a beautiful Steinway that is completely destroyed and needs to be rebuilt,” said Diana Rauner,
who plays piano.
As Illinois’ first lady, she also plans to keep working, staying focused on the issue of early
childhood education and working alongside the new governor.
“I think the best thing I can do is just be partners with Bruce and help him in spending time
with people and getting to know people and getting to know what their concerns are,” she
How much influence she’ll have in the Rauner administration will play out in the coming
years. One prominent Democrat, former Federal Communications Commission Chairman
Newton Mi-now, offered Bruce Rauner some advice in a recent Tribune opinion piece.
“Your wife, Diana, has superb judgment and can be your best adviser. Listen to her.” email@example.com
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423