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Cook County Democratic Party Hears From Field Of Governor Hopefuls

Committeemen for the powerful Cook County Democratic Party spent their Monday morning hearing from a small but ever-growing group of potential contenders who are hoping to oust Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in the 2018 election. 

The morning event, which was open to the media, was a chance for the candidates to not only get face time with Democratic power brokers, but also (in one instance) introduce themselves to the party leaders in the most populous Democratic county in Illinois.

Cook County Democratic committeemen piled into the backroom of a River North restaurant, where the walls are lined with taxidermy. While the party won’t announce its endorsement until later in 2017, it was a chance for party leaders to question the candidates. 

The Democratic primary isn’t until March 2018, and the field so far includes four declared candidates and two people who are giving a gubernatorial run a hard look. Here’s what they had to say: 

Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th Ward)

Pawar compared Rauner to English colonials, someone who divides his enemies so he can conquer them. Pawar, like every other candidate who spoke, was asked whether he would step aside if the Cook County Democratic Party did not endorse him -- a nod to avoiding a competitive, costly and potentially bitter primary battle. Pawar said if he’s not the best candidate, he’d step aside. 

Ald. David Moore, who also serves as the committeeman of his 17th Ward, asked Pawar if he is running for governor to gain name recognition in anticipation of a campaign for Chicago mayor in 2019. 

“This isn’t a game to me,” Pawar said. “If this isn’t it, I’m out.”

J.B. Pritzker

A venture capitalist and longtime financial supporter of Illinois Democrats, Pritzker needed little introduction to the Democratic Party bosses. 

Pritzker, whose net worth Forbes recently estimated at $3.4 billion, opened his speech with a nod to the criticism he’s already received from state Republicans for his connections to the longtime chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan. 

“Turns out, at least according to Bruce Rauner and the Illinois GOP, Mike Madigan is actually my biological father,” Pritzker said to laughter. 

Pritzker compared Rauner’s agenda to that of the conservative Koch Brothers’. He also said that if Democrats want to be competitive against Rauner, they should be prepared to go up against Rauner’s powerful communications infrastructure, which Pritzker dismissed as “fake news.” 

Pritzker said he offers Democrats the ability to strengthen their own electoral infrastructure to help turn out voters. Pritzker has not formally declared he is running for governor, but he recently contributed $200,000 of his own money to an exploratory committee.

Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers

Summers asked party leaders to consider courting primary voters who supported Bernie Sanders, who lost the state to Hillary Clinton by two percentage points. 

Summers said the party look past the policy differences between the candidates and consider a nominee resonates with voters. 

“The question is about authenticity. The Democratic Party needs a narrative,” Summers said, reiterating that he’s still considering whether to run.

State Sen. Daniel Biss

Biss, a state senator from Evanston, advised his fellow Democrats to remember how Rauner won election in 2014. Biss said Rauner’s campaign promise to “shake up Springfield” won him the election, even though he said Rauner wasn’t specific about how he’d carry out that plan. 

Biss last week launched his campaign in a Facebook Live video criticizing disconnected “billionaires and machine politicians,” but he didn’t pursue that line of criticism when he stood before the party leaders on Monday. 

Instead, Biss encouraged Democrats to tap into the energy of the thousands of people who have showed up to recent marches against President Donald Trump. 

“These activists are excited to fight these battles, and the Democratic Party is the best home for these activists,” Biss said. “I think the most crucial question facing our party is how do we build a campaign for governor that is inclusive of all of these new communities.”

Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools Bob Daiber

Daiber faces perhaps the biggest hurdle of any candidate seeking the Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsement, considering he’s the only one not from Cook County. 

“You don’t really know me,” Daiber said. “Honestly, I don’t intend to get Cook County’s endorsement. I don’t even know how you could endorse me. I’m here today to introduce myself to you so you know who I am.” 

Daiber said he could deliver downstate votes to the Democrats, a region that has consistently voted Republican. He was peppered with questions by committeemen about how he would help Chicago Public Schools if elected governor, and how he could help the Cook County Democratic Party. 

Daiber said he would only drop his campaign for governor if he doesn’t win the endorsements of other organizations that he’s counting on.

Chris Kennedy

Kennedy, the former president of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart and the son of Robert F. Kennedy, was perhaps the most critical of both Rauner and his Democratic competition. 

Kennedy said he believes Rauner ultimately wants to run for president on a campaign of busting unions, a charge a GOP spokesman called “laughable.” When asked how he’d help Cook County Democrats, Kennedy’s response was a not-so-veiled criticism of the billionaire Pritzker.

Kennedy cited Rauner’s massive personal contributions to the Illinois Republican Party and the lack of dissent within the GOP as a cautionary tale for the Democrats. 

“Don’t put somebody in charge of our state who does not need all of you, who is not dependent on all of you for re-election,” Kennedy said. “Because if you do that, you will turn the Democratic Party in this state into what the Republican Party has become.” 

To close out the day, Kennedy was asked whether he’d drop out of the race if Cook County Democrats chose not to endorse him. 

Kennedy poked fun at the slating process itself, suggesting most voters don’t care about the endorsement of party bosses who meet in the backroom of a River North steak house.

"Is this like the Town and Country restaurant with video?" he said, referring to the late night deal among Democratic power brokers outside of a Chicago restaurant that decided Mayor Harold Washington's successor. 

"I mean, what are we talking about here? We’re in the back room of a restaurant. You think the people of the United States are gonna put up with that? Isn’t gonna happen. Isn’t gonna happen. I love you all. I mean no disrespect. But the last thing you wanna do is that."

Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. You can follow him at @tonyjarnold

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Chris Kennedy's reference to the Town and Country Restaurant.

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