The Search For IL Gov. Pritzker In Florida’s Equestrian Capital

The Florida scrub jay, for instance, populates a handful of forests. The rare wood stork, recently downgraded from "endangered" to "threatened," stalks swamps and shallow waters for fish.

And, of course, the rarest birds of all — past and present Illinois billionaire governors.

On a storytelling journey around America, I hoped to spot all of them.

Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, swapped my home state for a Siesta Key ZIP code after being voted out of office. We made tentative plans to meet in South Florida to discuss, among other things, how Chicago Democrats haven’t changed much since former House Speaker Michael Madigan "retired" while the feds’ massive public corruption probe indicted his closest allies.

Rauner flew the coop upon my arrival to his new voting address. He migrated north to Idaho for a few weeks to go fly-fishing with his college pals and — smartly, I suppose — to avoid the intense summer heat and maybe the questions of a pesky reporter.

I nearly gave up on spotting Illinois governors until a gadfly, known as Florida Man, demanded that the search continue. "Your governor has gone missing in a time of tragedy," he said.

Florida Man was referring to Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, who last week responded to tornadoes leveling nearly 50 homes, damaging hundreds more and ending one life in the Chicago suburbs by checking in on the situation by phone, according to NBC 5 in Chicago while vacationing at an undisclosed location.

Meanwhile, Florida Man bragged, his governor — Republican Ron DeSantis — showed up in person to survey the damage of a collapsed building that killed at least nine people and left more than 150 people missing in Surfside, Florida.

"Seems like your out-of-touch billionaire governor doesn’t care about the little people enough to cut short his vacation," Florida Man said while adjusting his DeSantis 2024 "Make America Florida" ball cap. "Just like you’d expect from a Democrat."

Normally, I don’t respond to such partisan jabs. I generally balk at defending Pritzker, a well-known purveyor of "fakequity" and a proven puppet of public-employee unions.

But everybody, even Pritzker, deserves a chance to defend themselves from Florida Man.

I decided to head south from the Treasure Coast to see if he might be relaxing with the family at his $12 million equestrian estate — and Illinois first lady M.K. Pritzker’s coronavirus refuge — in Wellington, Florida, to ask my governor why the deadly tornado didn’t warrant a shortened vacation.

When I pulled up to the guarded entrance to the Grand Prix Village — the equestrian neighborhood the Pritzkers share with Bill Gates and The Boss, Bruce Springsteen — a suave security guard in golf shorts greeted me with a shrug.

The Grand Prix Village neighborhood is home to the Floridian equestrian estates of Bill Gates, Bruce Springsteen and Gov. J.B. Pritzker. (Mark Konkol/ Patch)

Even if popping by to ring Pritzker’s doorbell unannounced was allowed, which it’s not, billionaires know better than to spend the summer in Florida.

"The season is over; chances are they probably all go back up north," he said.

That seemed to explain why I had seen exactly one horse in the equestrian Mecca.

The loneliest horse in Wellington, Florida after the equestrian season ends. (Mark Konkol/ Patch)

After the long, fruitless drive to find Pritzker, my trusty navigator started to get hungry. So we stopped at what we thought was a taco shop with a cute, equestrian-themed name, The Tackeria.

A friendly sales associate informed me that I wasn’t the first out-of-towner to mistake the horse supply store for a Mexican restaurant. Sometimes she gets a call for order of tacos — another name for polo mallets — only to inform the customer the shop doesn’t carry them in "chicken and beef."

I asked if the Pritzkers were frequent customers at the 12,000-square-foot shop, where you can get fancy socks for yourself and your horse.

"Their people are good customers," the sales lady told me.

The Tackeria in Wellington, Florida, sells tacos (also known as polo mallets). (Mark Konkol/ Patch)

Malls, Mangos And Birds, Oh My!

The Illinois governor’s spokeswoman on Friday didn’t reply to questions from a Patch reporter about his whereabouts.

Maybe Pritzker was visiting the Bahamas, where he has an estate and, according to the Tribune, an off-shore bank account that allows him to dodge paying taxes on part of his inherited fortune.

Since we were in Wellington, I decided to take in the Miami suburb of 65,000 people on the edge of the Everglades that Money Magazine named one of the top 100 places to live in 2019.

Pritzker’s horse-friendly village is home to the Winter Equestrian Festival and U.S. Polo Open, and an abundance of horse shows. Wellington also boasts plenty of opportunities for "retail therapy," including The Mall at Wellington Green — which is surrounded by satellite strip malls and puts River Oaks and Orland Square in the Chicago suburbs to shame.

During our tour around town, we stopped by the Patriot Memorial near the village hall, which features a sculpture of twisted steel beams from the World Trade Center salvaged after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Ultimately, Nelson the Dog made it known that he had, er, his own business that needed our attention. So we went searching for a suitable place in one of Wellington’s nearly 40 parks.

We made a wrong turn into the Aero Club neighborhood — where many mansion owners have airplane hangars instead of garages and share a community runway.

Every few blocks was marked with a sign that warned all "suspicious" activity would be immediately reported to police.

Nelson wasn’t happy that I didn’t pull over for fear that a mixed-breed hound dog pooping on a perfectly manicured lawn next to a truck with Illinois plates might be the kind of thing that warrants a 911 call. You never know what can happen in a stand-your-ground state.

In Wellington, Florida’s Aero Club neighborhood all "suspicious" activity will be reported to police.(Mark Konkol/ Patch)

Finally, we found a massive dog park, where Nelson found relief and made pals with dogs of a horse-jumping Realtor, who told us if we were looking to have non-equestrian fun, it’s best to head out of town.

Writers Trish MacGregor and her husband, Rob MacGregor, the guy who adapted Indiana Jones stories into novels for George Lucas, were there with a trio of dogs.

Chatting with the MacGregors made the trip to Wellington worth it, despite failing to spot Illinois’ governor in his family’s tropical Florida habitat.

Trish MacGregor, a novelist who writes under the pen name T.J. MacGregor, shared her charming encounter with one of Gov. Pritzker’s neighbors.

"I once ran into Bruce Springsteen at the gym. I asked him if I could take a picture with him, and he said, ‘Sure, let me put on my shirt.’" she said. "I said, ‘Don’t.’"

We had a good laugh, and the MacGregors even gave us a bag of mangos from their yard to make the journey ahead a little sweeter.

But it was on the road out of town that we witnessed the true beauty of Wellington.

A rare, formerly endangered wood stork stalking fish in Wellington, Florida. (Mark Konkol/ Patch)

A heavy-billed, long-legged wood stork stalked a drainage ditch near an empty horse trail not far from the Pritzkers’ equestrian estate.

When we got too close, the rare bird flew away.

"Governor," we called him.

Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series, "Time: The Kalief Browder Story." He was a producer, writer and narrator for the "Chicagoland" docu-series on CNN, and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, "16 Shots."

This summer, follow KONKOL ON THE ROAD:

via Across Florida, FL Patch

June 28, 2021 at 10:47AM

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