For JB Pritzker, A Governor On War Footing, ‘There’s No End Of The Day’

Before becoming governor, Pritzker never bargained on a pandemic or foresaw the state’s well-being hinging on “Trump time.”

Gov. JB Pritzker and staff
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker talking with his staff, including (from left) Sol Flores, deputy governor for health and human services; Sean Rapelyea, deputy chief of staff for external affairs; and Lizzy Whitehorn, first assistant deputy governor for health and human services. Provided by the governor’s office
Gov. JB Pritzker and staff
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker talking with his staff, including (from left) Sol Flores, deputy governor for health and human services; Sean Rapelyea, deputy chief of staff for external affairs; and Lizzy Whitehorn, first assistant deputy governor for health and human services. Provided by the governor’s office

For JB Pritzker, A Governor On War Footing, ‘There’s No End Of The Day’

Before becoming governor, Pritzker never bargained on a pandemic or foresaw the state’s well-being hinging on “Trump time.”

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has gotten accustomed to not knowing what day of the week it is.

He’s become accustomed to 12- to 16-hour work days, every day since March 5. That’s when he told Illinois about the fifth confirmed case of coronavirus, a briefing he held in the governor’s statehouse office, his staff standing shoulder-to-shoulder behind him before social distancing was a thing.

Since then, for nearly 40 straight days through an election, weekends and rafts of executive orders, Pritzker has led afternoon briefings that have elevated his profile as he maps out the state’s COVID-19 containment strategy and displays empathy for the growing tally of deaths.

The crisis has become about the only thing on the governor’s mind from when his day starts around 5 a.m. until after the 10 p.m. newscasts.

“Not a single one of my staff members has had a day off — including me, but more importantly them — for, I think, I’m counting 32 days,” the governor said during a lengthy interview with WBEZ by telephone from his 15th floor office suite in the James R. Thompson Center, which has become the state’s COVID-19 nerve center.

“It’s not like you turn it off when you get home,” Pritzker said. “There’s no end of the day, really. It’s just kind of one [day] melds into another. … Literally, I don’t know what day it is unless I look at my phone, and I see what day of the week it is.”

Crises can bring out the best and worst in the people that America and Illinois vote into public office, and this could be Pritzker’s legacy-defining moment.

The death toll from COVID-19 stood at 528 Illinoisans when he agreed to a phone interview with WBEZ Thursday, a number that would grow to 720 by Sunday. That total represented more than a five-fold jump just since the start of April, with an alarming number of the fatalities being African American.

What emerged from the interview with Pritzker was a look inside some of the most dramatic and radical decision-making of any Illinois governor, as he chose to shut down huge swaths of the state’s economy and dictated that residents stay at home for all but essential reasons.

The governor was candid about the heavy emotional toll the battle has taken on him and his staff and outlined in greater depth his frustrating interactions with President Donald Trump and the White House in trying to secure lifesaving ventilators for the sick and personal protective equipment for Illinois health care workers.

Those bouts with federal bureaucracy catapulted the first-term-of-anything governor to the national stage, noted in the New Yorker, The New York Times and on cable news networks. It’s not the attention anyone would have expected two years ago.

“I wasn’t expecting to run into a pandemic”

This moment is not what Pritzker bargained for when he invested more than $171 million of his own wealth to defeat an unpopular Republican incumbent in 2018.

He was singularly focused on passing a sweeping, progressive agenda through Springfield, which he did without appearing to break much of a sweat. The series of major victories he secured at the Capitol last spring marked one of the most successful legislative sessions in memory.

Until about a month ago, his focus in 2020 was a continuation of that streak, pivoting toward November when Illinois voters are going to be asked to sign off on the governor’s single biggest campaign plank: scrapping Illinois’ flat income tax and replacing it with a sliding scale of rates designed to make the wealthy pay more.

But his pursuit of a graduated income tax is now on the backburner, swamped by an all-out press to spare hundreds, possibly thousands, of Illinoisans from dying from the lethal, new coronavirus.

“I want to balance the budget of the state. I want to make sure more kids are able to go to college. I want to make sure the teachers get paid properly and all the things that I ran for office to do,” Pritzker said. “You know, I wasn’t expecting to run into a pandemic. But it focuses the mind when every day, you know that everything you do has the potential to save somebody’s life.”

Gov. JB Pritzker
Gov. JB Pritkzer at work during the COVID-19 crisis. Provided by Governor's Office

So far, Pritzker has exerted his authority by bypassing the Democratic-led majorities in the Illinois House and Senate, which haven’t been able to convene. Pritzker has instead run state government through the power of his pen. His 21 executive orders arising from an original COVID-19 disaster declaration have closed Illinois schools and bars and restaurants and required Illinoisans to shelter in their homes, all to slow the virus’ spread within a defenseless population of nearly 12.7 million people.

While staying largely silent publicly, some Republicans have grumbled behind the scenes about the governor’s continued use of that executive authority without any check and for his frequent criticism of Trump’s handling of the national COVID-19 response.

Pritkzer has taken public hits, too, first from some for going through with the state’s primary amid the outbreak, and later for the state’s failure to process unemployment claims in the crisis, as the state’s websites repeatedly have crashed because of gargantuan volumes of traffic. House Republicans have scheduled a press conference Monday to complain about the unemployment claims problem. Questions have been raised, too, about the state’s response to outbreaks in the state’s prisons.

But to break down any of the 16-hour days the governor has been working, of late, typical partisan sniping doesn’t seem to appear anywhere on his calendar.

“All the easy decisions have been made”

The governor arrives at the Thompson Center at 8 or 8:30 every morning and typically meets first with his chief of staff, Anne Caprara, and his communications team. Two or three times a week, there are calls with the White House or Vice President Mike Pence, head of the president’s coronavirus task force. Pritzker also is on calls arranged by the National Governors Association, strategizing with other governors about how to deal with the White House.

He or his staff also are burning up the phones daily to try to secure equipment needed in the COVID-19 fight from manufacturing sources in China, an endeavor that Pritzker said has “occupied lots and lots and lots of staff time.”

And every second or third day, he said, has involved time with his legal staff poring through the records of Illinois inmates to thin out populations in the state’s prisons, which have emerged as COVID-19 hotspots. At least two Stateville Correctional Center inmates have died from COVID-19 and dozens of others have been sickened there.

So far, through executive clemency and other measures, about 500 prisoners systemwide have been released.

“All the easy decisions have been made or are in the process of being made: people who committed nonviolent crime, people who are near the end of their sentence … things like that,” he said. “The harder ones are the ones that I spend time on with my legal staff, where we’re reviewing people who may have been involved as an accessory in a violent crime but were sentenced to the same sentence that the person who perpetrated directly the violence.”

But every day, at around 12:30, Pritzker, a select group of aides and state Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike set up in his office to go over the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths from the previous 24 hours.

“That meeting is perhaps the most depressing part of the day,” the governor said.

Pritzker recounted how it has been difficult to keep emotions in check at that meeting. The numbers being talked about are human lives. Last week, for example, just when things appeared to be looking up, the unpredictable nature of the virus reasserted itself with a vengeance.

“We had a series of numbers [for] five days in a row that were relatively stable in terms of case numbers and deaths, and it gave me hope. Each day, I would kind of brace myself for the numbers, and the third day, the fourth day, and the fifth day. I was pleased to see that,” Pritzker said.

“And then, the sixth day came, and we had a big increase of deaths and a big increase of cases. And that was the day where we reported 73 deaths. … I have to say, it took a little bit of wind out of me,” the governor said.

He now recognizes that moment as the most memorable of the pandemic — and not in a good way. But he credited Ezike and other staff he described as his “A-people” for helping keeping this difficult time in perspective.

“In the middle of all of this, you have to have empathy and a little bit of humor every once in a while and just recognizing sometimes how awful things are,” he said. “And also, when somebody is overwhelmed by it, giving them a little bit of your strength. I mean, those are all things that are hugely important, and I’ve seen it now in action at all hours of the day and evening with my staff.”

With so many lives lost to the virus, Pritzker said he can’t reach out to every family but has talked to perhaps a dozen who lost a loved one.

“That is the most anguish-filled part of my job. It’s not something you can prepare yourself for when you become governor,” he said. “I don’t relish it. I don’t enjoy it in any way, whatsoever.”

“Trump Time”

The governor prides himself on being an even-keeled kind of guy, not a yeller.

But he acknowledges he has lost his temper multiple times during the past month because of what he said was the White House’s inability or unwillingness to deliver on its promises to aid Illinois’ COVID-19 response, starting first with a failure to provide an adequate number of tests.

The president is said to be enamored with Illinois’ billionaire governor but last week called Pritzker out for seeming to be “happy” with the White House response during private conversations but bluntly critical of it in front of television cameras.

But to hear Pritzker’s side, the one direct person-to-person call he’s had with Trump was pure frustration.

“On the phone with him, I am respectful of the office of the president. But I’m also very direct about what we need and what I hope for and what I expect,” he said.

Such was the case when in mid-March, Pritzker said he urged Trump to utilize the federal Defense Production Act to compel manufacturers to convert their factory lines to aid in the production of ventilators and personal protective equipment.

“I appealed to him as a businessman and said to him, ‘Mr. President, I was a businessman before I got elected office, too, just like you. … I’m not trying to deny that they deserve to get paid a normal price,” Pritzker recalled. “But what’s happened is, we’re paying four or five times, and the result is that we’re competing against each other and the federal government. You can put order into the market and let people get a normal profit while also making sure the states get what they need.”

Trump ignored the idea, Pritzker recalled.

The president instead asked Pritzker what Illinois needed, to which the governor rattled off more N95 masks, goggles and the like. Trump ended the call by promising to help.

“An hour later, I got a call from one of his advisers who said, ‘I talked to President Trump and we’re going to help you,’ Pritzker recalled. “And he said, ‘We’re going to do it in ‘Trump time,’ and he said those words a few times during the conversation: ‘Trump time.’ And then he said, ‘We’re going to deliver 300,000 N95 masks and 300 ventilators, and we’ll get it to you in ‘Trump time.’ So I thought, wow, that’s fantastic. Not regular time, ‘Trump time.’”

One day passed. Then another. Then another.

“When the goods finally arrived, they were not what was promised,” Pritzker said.

The state did get 300 ventilators for which Pritzker expressed his gratitude. But Illinois received 300,000 surgical masks, not the higher quality N95 masks that had been promised.

“I called the White House adviser and said, You know, we got 300,000 of the wrong kind of masks. ‘Oh, well, let me look into that.’ I never heard back.”

Other calls from the adviser with offers of medical gowns and suits came, Pritzker said, but the promised goods never arrived.

Asked if he ever came to understand what the term “Trump Time” meant, Pritzker didn’t hold back.

“I think it means never or very late and not what was promised,” he said.

On a scale of A to F, Pritzker said he would assess a D for the president’s performance managing the crisis, though the governor stressed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Federal Emergency Management Agency have performed exceptionally in Illinois.

Asked to rate his own performance, Pritzker demurred. He pointed to Illinois being the second state to impose a stay-at-home order, one of the first handful of states to close bars and restaurants and among the first to close schools, hard decisions that he admits he would sometimes take an “extra day” to decide, but he says because he wanted to talk with others and get their perspectives first.

“I am not going to grade myself. I think that’s for other people to do later when we’re all done here,” he said. “It’s very hard to grade yourself in the middle of something where people are dying. You know, it feels every day like there must be something more I can do.”

Getting through

The emotional grind to all of this is real, the governor said, and he now gets about five hours of sleep on any given night. The only respite for him comes at the very end of the day.

“When I’m just about to go to bed, I flip on something like ‘Tiger King.’ I’ve managed to actually watch all of the episodes of ‘Tiger King’ or at least fall asleep during every one of them. So that’s how I can take my mind off of it.

“From pretty much the moment I wake up and I look at my inbox and read the newspaper to the moment after I watch the news at night after I get home, I’m thinking nonstop about this,” he said. “It’s hard. You ask my staff. They’ll tell you the same thing. It’s very hard to turn this off.

“This is not normal, and it’s very difficult,” Pritzker said, “and all of us are looking for ways to distract ourselves.”

Dave McKinney covers Illinois state government and politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.

WBEZ Illinois state political reporter Tony Arnold contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter @tonyjarnold.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of executive orders issued by Gov. JB Pritzker related to the coronavirus crisis.