Illinois Gubernatorial Primary Might Pit a Millionaire Against a Billionaire

  • Democratic gubernatorial primary invites two top party names
  • Republican Rauner gave $50 million to his governor campaign

Chris Kennedy

Photographer: Jose M. Osorio/TNS via Getty Images

One candidate is the multimillionaire son of slain Democratic icon Robert F. Kennedy. His potential top rival is the billionaire brother of recently resigned U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

The Democratic primary race for Illinois governor that may be shaping up between Chris Kennedy and Jay Robert “J.B.” Pritzker has the potential to pit two of the nation’s top political and fundraising families against each other while also placing leading Democrats in the awkward spot of picking between them.

J.B. Pritzker

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The potential contest -– Kennedy declared his intention to run last week, and Pritzker stopped just a bit shy of doing so in a Bloomberg interview Tuesday -- would be for the right to challenge another very rich man, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.

“If I ran, I would self-fund,” said Pritzker, an investor, philanthropist and heir to the Hyatt hotel empire, who has an estimated net worth of $3.5 billion in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Pressed on how much of his own fortune he’d be willing to spend, he said: “Whatever it will take to run a winning campaign.”

If it comes together later this year, the race could become an extreme example of how escalating campaign spending means only the rich can afford to run for statewide office in costly advertising markets, said Nick Carnes, a Duke University professor of political science who studies the wealth and occupations of elected officials.

Personal Fortunes

The contest could be one of the most expensive governor’s races in history, with Kennedy, Pritzker and Rauner all pledging to spend from their personal fortunes in a state where campaign contributions are virtually unlimited in instances where candidates self-fund.

Chris Kennedy

Photographer: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

In an apparent attempt to intimidate potential rivals, Rauner placed $50 million of his fortune into his re-election campaign bank account late last year. Political aides to the former private-equity investor have told reporters additional deposits could follow.

One Democrat who could find himself picking between a Kennedy and a Pritzker would be former President Barack Obama, who has close ties to both families.

Besides serving in Obama’s Cabinet, Penny Pritzker was the national finance chairwoman for his first White House bid. Kennedy family members were important early supporters ahead of his 2008 primary victory against Hillary Clinton, and Caroline Kennedy served as his ambassador to Japan. A representative from Obama’s personal office didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

‘Political Dynasty’

Pritzker, 52, downplayed his own family’s status in the party, while offering what could be viewed as a subtle jab at a likely future primary opponent.

“I don’t consider my family name to be a super high-profile Democratic name,” said Pritzker, who is a major Democratic donor nationally and one of the top supporters to groups backing Clinton in 2016. “I don’t come from a political dynasty.”

Pritzker declined to discuss timing for a possible announcement, but said he’s bullish about his prospects if he enters the race. “I’m going to work to elect the most viable candidate running, and if I’m running, I think I’ll be the most viable candidate,” he said.

Kennedy, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, announced his candidacy last week -- more than a year before the March 2018 primary. Either man would give Democrats a candidate who, through national fundraising or personal wealth, could help equalize Rauner’s deep pockets. Two other Democrats, Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar and regional schools superintendent Bob Daiber, also have declared their candidacies.

Wealthy Trend

Carnes, the Duke professor, called the brewing Illinois race an “extreme example” in a trend toward wealthier candidates.

“You almost never see middle- or working-class people running,” he said. “It’s often the case that, in a primary election for a state or federal office, you won’t see anyone run without significant personal wealth.”

Rich politicians “have a head start when it comes to fundraising, but it’s not entirely advantageous,” Carnes said. “Candidates often try to run away from their wealth, but if you are a Pritzker or a Kennedy, there is no hiding that.”

Pritzker, who failed in a 1998 race for Congress, said he didn’t think his wealth would become a major issue if he ran. “The question of whether somebody has money is less important than the question of whether somebody will deliver results and can win,” he said.

Kennedy, 53, a developer and leader of nonprofits in Chicago whose family previously owned and operated the city’s massive Merchandise Mart building, had in the past contemplated bids for statewide office that he’d never acted upon. A spokeswoman for the first-time candidate said he was unavailable Tuesday for an interview.

California’s Record

The 2010 California governor’s race drew the most money among non-federal, statewide contests, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics that goes back as far as 2000.

That race between now-Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman, a Republican, attracted $244 million in contributions, according to the center’s data. Included in that was about $144 million in contributions Whitman gave her campaign.

The Illinois governors’ race in 2014 set a state record when Rauner and then-incumbent Democratic Governor Pat Quinn spent a combined total of about $100 million. Since taking office in 2015, Rauner has pushed a pro-business, anti-union agenda that he argues is needed to pull the state out of its budget crisis and decades of financial mismanagement.

The state is the only one in the U.S. to go 19 months without a completed annual budget, following nearly constant bickering between Rauner and leaders in the Democratic-controlled legislature. The impasse has meant cuts to social services, higher education and other programs, as well as a multibillion-dollar budget deficit and more than $11 billion in unpaid bills.

In his annual budget address Wednesday, Rauner said he was open to expanding the state’s sales tax to reach a budget deal.

“We’re open to a broader sales tax base to mirror neighboring states like Wisconsin, but let’s make sure it’s best for the people of Illinois, not for the lobbyists in Springfield,” he said in remarks prepared for delivery.

(Updates with detail from Illinois governor’s budget address in last paragraph. A previous version of this story was corrected to reflect the amount that Republican Meg Whitman gave her campaign in the 2010 California governor’s race.)
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