Democratic gubernatorial candidates J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss get ready for their candidates forum at WTTW studios in Chicago on March 14, 2018(Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)
CHICAGO – Billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker — the front-runner in Tuesday’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Illinois — has been called a fraud, accused of trying to buy his way to office, and dismissed as being cut from the same cloth as President Trump.
And that’s just what some of his fellow Democrats are saying about him.
Polls show Pritzker, who has poured $63 million of his own fortune into his campaign, has a double-digit percentage-point lead over his closest rivals, state Sen. Daniel Biss and developer Chris Kennedy (a member of the politically famed Massachusetts Kennedy family).
The three are at the top of the polls in a six-way race to represent Democrats in their push to oust Gov. Bruce Rauner, a former private equity executive turned politician who political analysts regard as one of the most vulnerable GOP governors up for re-election in 2018. (Like Pritzker, Rauner has thrown a substantial amount of his own money into his campaign — $50 million so far.)
Democrats nationally are hoping they can surf a wave of growing voter fatigue with Trump and cut into Republican strangleholds of governors’ seats as well as chip into GOP majorities in the U.S. Senate and House.
But here in a deep blue state, the establishment and the more liberal wings of the party are having a contentious debate on how having a self-funded, megawealthy candidate at the top of the Illinois Democratic Party ticket meshes with the party’s larger effort to appeal to middle-class voters.
“I am critical of my opponents trying to buy an election,” Biss said Wednesday at the candidates’ final debate. “I am critical of a vision of democracy that says, ‘Whoa. Bruce Rauner has so much money, so the only thing we can do as Democrats to succeed is to find an even wealthier person to spend even more money.’ We should have elections, not auctions.”
If Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel chain who Forbes estimates has a net worth of $3.5 billion, emerges as his party’s nominee on Tuesday, his win will not come without being bloodied.
He has faced scrutiny from fellow Democrats — not to mention Rauner— over his considerable fortune and questionable comments he made in the past about African Americans from his perch as influential Democratic megadonor.
Last month, a recording from an FBI wiretap of him and then-governor Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted in 2010 on public corruption charges, emerged in which Pritzker can be heard speaking disparagingly of black politicians.
In the 2008 call picked up by feds, Pritzker can be heard advising Blagojevich that Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is the “least offensive” of potential black candidates he should consider to replace then President-elect Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. He referred to another prominent black politician as “crass.”
Pritzker also has taken heat for a comment he made during a 2012 cable television interview in which he described Obama, along with Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, as a “mediocre set of choices.”
Even before Pritzker found himself apologizing to his black supporters over the comments, Rauner aired a campaign ad that used audio from another snippet of the wiretapped conversations in which Blagojevich and Pritzker discuss the possibility of appointing Pritzker as attorney general — something that never came to fruition.
And this week, the Chicago Tribune reported Pritzker used offshore bank accounts in recent business dealings. Pritzker insists that he has no control of the trusts that he says his grandfather started decades ago. He also says any money derived from them are used to contribute to his charitable foundation.
His primary opponents have suggested Pritzker’s defense of his offshore accounts is not credible.
“I’ve hired a lot of people, and I can tell you just one piece of advice to the voters of this state: You should never hire someone who lies to you during a job interview,” Kennedy said. “If they’ll lie to you to get the job, they’ll lie to you to keep the job. And you do not want a liar as the governor of the state of Illinois.”
His character is one of lying, cheating and using his money to try to buy an election. After all we’ve learned, today we find out he lied to the voters about moving his billions offshore to dodge taxes. We cannot trust him to fix our tax structure in Illinois. #twill#ilgovhttps://t.co/uTQAy8tCYb
— Chris Kennedy (@KennedyforIL) March 14, 2018
Pritzker has also punched back at Biss and Kennedy.
He’s labeled Biss a hypocrite for presenting himself as a middle-class warrior while co-sponsoring 2013 legislation intended to reduce Illinois teachers’ pension debt. That law was struck down in 2015 by the Illinois Supreme Court as unconstitutional, and Biss has said he regrets the approach he took with the legislation.
Similarly, Pritzker has charged that Kennedy, who previously led the University of Illinois board of trustees, hurt black students by voting five times during his time on the board to raise tuition. During that time, the university saw black enrollment slip by 16%.
Kennedy counters that Pritzker has used his deep pockets to “blot out” the message of his rivals for the nomination. Kennedy has donated $1 million to his own campaign and raised about another $5 million, while Biss has raised about $5 million.
Pritzker has defended the spending as a necessary evil to stay competitive with Rauner. In addition to his own money, billionaire hedge fund founder Ken Griffin has donated $20 million to the Rauner campaign, and other conservative groups have signaled a willingness to spend money on the Republican’s re-election effort.
“Let’s look back to December 2016 when Bruce Rauner wrote a check for $50 million into his own campaign account,” Pritzker said. “Just like Senator Paul Simon once said, ‘We need campaign finance reform, but we can’t unilaterally disarm in the process of it.’”
Rauner, who is the only Republican to hold statewide office in Illinois, faces a difficult road in his bid to hang on to his seat in a state Hillary Clinton won by 16 percentage points in her failed 2016 White House bid. He is also facing a challenger, state Sen. Jeanne Ives, in Tuesday’s Republican primary. Ives has lashed out at him as being an ineffective governor.
The former private equity executive centered his 2014 campaign on promising to turn around Illinois, which had been mired by a laggard economy, ballooning public worker pension debt and a dwindling population.
But as he seeks re-election, Rauner’s term has been marked by gridlock, and he has made little progress is stemming the state’s financial crisis.
The state was without a budget for more than two years before state lawmakers in July managed to override Rauner’s veto of a budget plan that included a 30% tax hike.
Ahead of the passage of the budget, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global ratings downgraded Illinois’ bond rating to one step above junk, the lowest ranking on record for a U.S. state. The bleeding of Illinois residents continues — the state lost about 33,000 residents last year, marking the fourth consecutive year of population decline.
Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said while Pritzker has been battered by a brutal primary fight, he doesn’t think the Democratic infighting did irreparable damage to the front-runner.
“Pritzker has gotten beaten up,” Redfield said. “That said, I’d rather be in J.B. Pritzker’s situation going into to the general (election) than in Rauner’s.”
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