Gov. J.B. Pritzker relies on record in bid for second term
In late August, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, billionaire scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, sat at a folding table at City Hall in Christopher, a town of fewer than 3,000 people 300 miles south of his Gold Coast mansion.
The first term Democratic governor was meeting with a group of area mayors in a spare room whose white cinder block walls were adorned with photos from the town’s past, including one documenting a visit from Republican Gov. Frank Lowden a century earlier.
Unlike a Democratic rally the previous day at the University of Illinois, this meeting featured no talk of abortion or assault weapons, political extremism or election denial. It was all dollars and cents, roads and sewers.
“I really felt from the moment that I became governor that it was my obligation to prove to all of you that I was a governor for the entire state, that just because you come from one part of the state doesn’t mean that you only serve that part of the state,” Pritzker told the mayors, calling attention to the money his administration has spent to upgrade roads, bridges, ports and recreational facilities in the region.
The governor is all but assured to lose the Nov. 8 balloting in surrounding Franklin County. In the June Democratic primary, he garnered just 777 votes, compared with the 3,230 ballots cast for the Republican primary winner, conservative southern Illinois state Sen. Darren Bailey. No Democratic candidate for governor has won the county in the general election since Rod Blagojevich in 2006, a trend that holds across much of southern Illinois.
But as he seeks a second term, Pritzker, who’s spent much of his adult life nursing political ambitions, is casting a wide net for support, an effort aided by a personal fortune that can underwrite months’ worth of TV ads and a robust campaign operation.
Four years ago, in a campaign that ended with a historic 16-point victory over one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Pritzker encouraged voters to “think big” about the many challenges facing Illinois.
This time, his mantra could well be “play it safe and leave nothing to chance.”
Pritzker has poured $152 million of his own money into his reelection campaign, and millions more in an effort to influence the Republican primary on behalf of his preferred general election opponent, Bailey.
Rather than laying out the specifics of a second-term agenda for opponents to pick apart, Pritzker has largely promoted his first-term record — leading the state through a deadly pandemic, raising the minimum wage, balancing budgets, legalizing recreational marijuana, and approving the largest infrastructure program in state history.
He’s also issued dire warnings about the potential consequences if a Republican retakes the governor’s office, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning federal protections for abortion rights.
Before getting back on the campaign bus in Christopher to go cut the ribbon at the opening of the nearby Du Quoin State Fair, Pritzker said he has no intention of writing off the region.
“A county that looks red because a majority of people in the county voted Republican doesn’t mean we ought to ignore the county,” he said. “In fact, we want every vote in that county that’s available to us, and we’re going to go knock on every door to make sure that happens.”
Pritzker’s victory in 2018, the first time he was elected to public office, was the culmination of a lifetime of political striving.
When he entered the race for the Democratic nomination to take on Rauner, his surname was well-known, gracing institutions including the medical school at the University of Chicago, the law school at Northwestern University and the Frank Gehry-designed amphitheater in Millennium Park.
J.B. Pritzker himself, 57, was lesser known, though he’d made something of a name for himself as tech investor, philanthropist and Democratic Party donor.
Pritzker formed a group in the early 1990s called Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century, which sought to give a new generation a stronger voice in the party.
In 1998, he made his first run for public office, seeing an opportunity when longtime Democratic U.S. Rep. Sidney Yates decided to retire. But running against two veteran state lawmakers, including eventual winner Jan Schakowsky, Pritzker finished third.
“Could I live a happy life without ever running for public office again?” Pritzker said in Tribune profile after losing the race. “I suppose that I can imagine not running, but I feel I have something important that I can do. And my skin is far thicker now.”
Pritzker’s political ambitions were evident in a 2008 phone call secretly recorded by federal agents investigating Blagojevich, who was weighing an appointment to fill Barack Obama’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
In the call, revealed by the Tribune during Pritzker’s first run for governor, Pritzker suggested Blagojevich might appoint him state treasurer. The tapes also recorded Blagojevich and Pritzker discussing various Black officials who were potential Senate appointees.
Pritzker suggested Secretary of State Jesse White was the “least offensive” candidate, while also labeling then-Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. as “crass” and then-U. S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. “a nightmare.”
After the tapes were revealed, Pritzker issued an apology, and White and other Black leaders stood by him as he went on to win the Democratic primary and the general election.
Pritzker’s arrival in Springfield in January 2019 offered a chance for a reset after four years of bruising partisan battles under Rauner.
Even some Republicans welcomed a new beginning, but for Democrats it was a return to one-party rule and the chance to push through priorities that Rauner had blocked.
Within weeks, Pritzker signed a measure increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. Rauner had vetoed a bill that would have raised the wage to that level by 2022. The move was panned by the Republicans and businesses interests Pritzker had vowed to work with at his inauguration.
“It looks like we’re going to take a few beatings,” Illinois Chamber of Commerce President Todd Maisch said that spring after lawmakers approved a number of other proposals business leaders opposed.
By the end of Pritzker’s first legislative session, he had racked up a series of victories, several with bipartisan support, that have been central to his case for reelection.
He signed into law a measure legalizing recreational marijuana that included provisions aimed a diversifying the predominantly white cannabis industry and expunging the criminal records of people previously convicted of low-level offenses. Legalization generated $445 million in tax revenue last year, but the program has struggled to meet its goal of diversifying the industry, with licensing for new pot businesses tangled in legal battles and delays.
To help fund a six-year, $45 billion infrastructure plan dubbed “Rebuild Illinois,” Pritzker signed a massive expansion of gambling that included legalizing sports betting and creating licenses for long-sought casinos in Chicago and five suburban and downstate communities. The package also doubled the gas tax and increased a cigarette tax.
Pritzker capped it off with a $40 billion state operating budget that received Republican support and passing grades from independent observers for its fiscal prudence, though structural issues and ballooning pension costs remained.
The pace was a dramatic shift from the gridlock of the previous four years but also outstripped what the Democratic-controlled legislature was able to get done under Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, former Senate President John Cullerton said.
Democrats used their supermajorities to push through party priorities including a measure enshrining abortion as a “fundamental right” under state law and a referendum asking voters to amend the state constitution to create a graduated-rate income tax, Pritzker’s top agenda item.
Despite fundamental disagreements on those and other issues, Pritzker displayed a willingness to work with GOP leaders.
“Where we could agree, it was worthwhile working together,” said former Senate Republican leader Bill Brady, the 2010 GOP nominee for governor who retired in late 2020 amid an attempt to oust him from leadership.
“I found him to be a man of integrity and ethics, and I admired that.”
Looming in the background of Pritzker’s early successes were ongoing problems within the government and political operations of Michael Madigan, the longtime House speaker and state Democratic Party chairman.
Madigan, who had been battered by a series of sexual harassment and bullying allegations among top lieutenants, had remained neutral in the primary, but other party stalwarts embraced Pritzker, in part because his wealth meant he could fund his own race against the ultrawealthy Rauner, allowing the party to use its money for down-ballot races.
It would be another two years before Madigan was ousted as speaker and three before he was charged in a 22-count federal bribery and racketeering indictment, but an investigation targeting Democrats in Springfield burst into public view in fall 2019 when federal agents raided the Capitol office of state Sen. Martin Sandoval.
Throughout the 2018 campaign and his first year in office, Pritzker was repeatedly forced to address controversies involving Madigan and other Democrats ensnared in corruption allegations, and his cautious and at-times oblique responses often left critics wanting. For the governor, though, it was an effort to avoid picking fights that could lead to the kind of unproductive relationship his three predecessors had with the speaker.
Lawmakers in 2019, and again in 2021, passed ethics legislation that received tepid reviews from good-government advocates. In his 2020 State of the State address, Pritzker called on the General Assembly to “root out the purveyors of greed and corruption — in both parties — whose presence infects the bloodstream of government.”
But within a matter of weeks, a deadly virus that had just been detected in Illinois for the first time put all other priorities on hold.
On March 9, 2020, two days before the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, Pritzker issued the first in an ongoing series of statewide disaster proclamations.
The next three months would define Pritzker in the minds of Illinoisans, for good or ill, as state government became tangible in a way most had never previously experienced.
“I know that this is a difficult time for people as we try to understand and respond to something this new,” Pritzker said at the first of months’ worth of daily press briefings. “It’s reasonable to feel apprehension. I want folks to understand: This is going to affect your daily life.”
Within 12 days, the governor banned large gatherings, closed schools, shut down restaurants and bars, and finally closed all “nonessential” businesses through a statewide stay-at-home order that would remain in effect for more than two months.
After an early show of bipartisan support, goodwill gave way to politics as Republicans chafed at the governor’s use of executive fiat to address the pandemic.
The issue became increasingly polarized as businesses struggled amid the shutdown and President Donald Trump pushed for a rapid reopening.
By late April, protests calling for Pritzker to end the shutdown had begun popping up, and Bailey, a freshman state representative, had sued the governor, challenging his emergency powers.
After an initial ruling in favor of Bailey, Pritzker decried the case as “a cheap political stunt designed so that the representative can see his name in headlines.”
“Unfortunately, he has briefly been successful in that,” Pritzker said.
Though ultimately unsuccessful, the lawsuit launched Bailey on a trajectory from backbencher to GOP standard-bearer.
The Bailey lawsuit and others that followed were early signs of vitriol that would grow more intense as many schools began the 2020-21 academic year with remote learning and Pritzker shut down indoor dining amid a second wave of COVID-19 that fall.
In addition to testing the leadership of a neophyte politician, the pandemic exposed many of the long-running problems of state government that one sweeping legislative session couldn’t solve.
One of the Pritzker administration’s biggest failures was the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s inability to handle the unprecedented deluge of unemployment claims when Pritzker shut down wide swaths of the state’s economy.
It took months for the administration to stabilize the situation, and lawmakers from both parties, inundated with calls and emails from frustrated constituents, were critical of the response.
On top of legitimate claims, the agency, like counterparts nationwide, was flooded with fraudulent claims, and ended up paying out nearly $2 billion in federal money to people who did not qualify, according to a state audit.
More isolated but more devastating was a COVID-19 outbreak in fall 2020 at a state-run veterans home in LaSalle that left 36 residents dead.
Pritzker excoriated Rauner over his administration’s response to a series of Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a state-run home in Quincy connected to 14 deaths.
Faced with his own veterans home disaster, which Pritzker accurately noted came during a massive surge in the surrounding community, the governor fired the home’s director. About a month later, his Department of Veterans’ Affairs director, former Democratic state Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, resigned in what was described as a “mutual decision.”
An audit requested by the legislature blasted the state’s Department of Public Health for failing to “identify and respond to the seriousness of the outbreak.”
The governor has sought to assign some responsibility for the outbreak to “Republican elected officials who told people to defy mitigation efforts.”
“They told people that COVID wasn’t serious. Those lies put people’s lives at risk, especially the most vulnerable,” Pritzker said in May.
Beyond the pandemic, social service agencies, including the beleaguered Department of Children and Family Services, have continued to struggle on Pritzker’s watch.
Among other problems, his hand-selected DCFS director, Marc Smith, has been held in contempt of court a dozen times this year when the agency failed to find proper placements for children in its care, leading to a chorus of calls for his ouster.
And employees at a Department of Human Services home in southern Illinois for people with development disabilities and mental illness have been charged with crimes 14 times since Pritzker took office for allegations including abuse of residents and obstructing investigations.
In both cases, the Pritzker administration has pointed to long-running problems within state agencies that it says the governor working to address.
Bailey has accused Pritzker of simply throwing money at problems.
“You have to roll up your sleeves and do the work of ensuring that the job actually gets done,” Bailey said at a July news conference during which he called for Smith to be fired but offered no plan of his own to fix DCFS.
Pritzker in a recent interview again defended his handling of DCFS, noting improvements in training and in the management of a hotline for reports of abuse and neglect.
In defense of his decision to retain Smith, Pritzker noted the revolving door in DCFS leadership. Under previous administrations, the agency had cycled through 15 leaders in 16 years.
“That’s just a way of scapegoating somebody for problems that actually needed to be fixed within the agency,” Pritzker said.
The state has boosted the budget of DCFS by at least $100 million each year since Pritzker took office, including a $250 million increase this year to hire more staff, raise pay for the private agencies that do much of the front-line work and increase residential capacity.
“It isn’t like you can flip a light switch and say, ‘OK, everything’s fixed now,’ ” Pritzker said. “It takes time, and they’re succeeding at it.”
Pritzker suffered his greatest political defeat in 2020.
The governor had built his plans for stabilizing the state’s chronically shaky finances around his proposal for a state constitutional amendment to ditch the mandated flat-rate income tax in favor of a graduated rate structure.
But business interests, Republican leaders and some of the state’s wealthiest residents argued that a state with a history of corruption and mismanagement couldn’t be trusted to use additional revenue effectively or to hold the line on income taxes for the middle class.
Their case got a boost in July 2020 when federal prosecutors revealed that Commonwealth Edison had agreed to pay a $200 million fine for engaging in a yearslong bribery scheme aimed at influencing Madigan.
Voters resoundingly rejected the amendment that November, and Pritzker and other top Democrats publicly began turning on Madigan.
A small group of House Democrats united to deny the speaker another term, but not before Madigan helped the House Black Caucus push through a sweeping criminal justice reform proposal that includes the elimination of cash bail on Jan. 1 and has become the most heated issue of this year’s race for governor.
Pritzker made the elimination of cash bail a top priority before the pandemic hit and was an ardent supporter of the Black Caucus’ efforts. After being hammered on crime during the campaign, he’s recently said he supports changes “to make it very explicit that violent criminals who are in jail awaiting trial, that Jan. 1 is not some deadline to let people out.”
After being dethroned in early 2021, Madigan quickly gave up the House seat he’d held for a half-century and resigned as party chairman.
That set up another political defeat for Pritzker, whose preferred candidate to lead the party was turned back by a group of Democratic leaders who chose U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly to fill out the term.
The defeat was short lasting, as Pritzker and his allies succeeded in ousting Kelly this summer, handing the job to his chosen candidate, state Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez.
Heading into the home stretch of his reelection effort, Pritzker had solidified his control of the state party.
While Pritzker can “make the case he deserves a second term as well as anybody,” his successes are tempered by persistent problems in state government that include issues at several state agencies, said Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Redfield gives Pritzker high marks for his fiscal management, which with the help of an economy boosted by several rounds of federal stimulus has led to credit upgrades from Wall Street, though Illinois’ ratings remain lower than any other state.
As Pritzker touts the state’s financial improvement to voters, his outspoken stances on abortion and gun control have raised his national profile and contributed to speculation that he’s eyeing a 2024 White House bid.
Pritzker has said he supports President Joe Biden for reelection and intends to serve another four years as governor — a carefully worded response that leaves him room to run should Biden bow out.
He also did little to quiet such talk by giving speeches to Democrats this summer in the key presidential voting states of New Hampshire and Florida, where he made a lighthearted reference to his girth and introduced himself as “Ukrainian American, Jewish, Democratic, billionaire businessman.”
“J.B.’s not from central casting” when it comes to a presidential candidate, said David Axelrod, a top Obama adviser who’s known Pritzker since his failed congressional bid in 1998.
But Pritzker has “clearly forged a relationship with progressives,” Axelrod said, and should Biden decide not to run, he has the built-in advantage of his enormous wealth, which Forbes pegs at $3.6 billion.
“Running for president is a really, really hard and unpredictable thing, and whether there’s a market for a guy with his profile in the race is a very open question,” Axelrod said.
Back in Christopher, Pritzker listened and took notes as the group of southern Illinois mayors discussed their needs, from road improvements to sewer upgrades.
After Pritzker departed, Christopher Mayor Gary Bartolotti, a Democrat, said some of the fellow mayors in attendance came in skeptical.
Afterward “when we got up and all the mayors got together, they really felt a positive vibe from this meeting,” Bartolotti said.
The meeting was one of numerous stops for Pritzker on Bailey’s hometurf in southern Illinois.
“If people are committed to voting in the other party because that’s where they feel like they belong, maybe I won’t change their minds, but I’m going to keep investing in southern Illinois,” he said. “And I think that’s the best way to convince people that we’re doing the right things for them.”