When JB Pritzker first announced his run for governor in a packed South Side gymnasium in 2017, he told reporters he’d be a “progressive governor for everyone.”
Since then, the Gold Coast Democrat has signed four budgets, touted improvements in the state’s shoddy financial ratings, and signed legislation that raised the minimum wage, legalized marijuana and enshrined the right to get an abortion in Illinois at a historic time.
And he led the state through a devastating pandemic.
He also angered Republicans with his progressive policies, including a criminal justice bill that has come under attack by some state’s attorneys from both parties.
And he ousted the chair of the state’s Democratic party — the first woman and first African American in the post — spent millions of his personal fortune to avoid a more difficult general election by boosting the candidacy of a conservative downstate Republican, and raised eyebrows by making national speeches this year that suggest White House ambitions.
Pritzker is a hero to some — and a villain to others. Although he doesn’t see it that way, then or now.
“I am who I am. I’m genuine. I’m going to go talk to everybody in this state about the things I believe in,” Pritzker said in 2017. “I’m going to be a progressive governor for everyone.”
Five years later, as his reelection campaign puts his record up for closer examination, he makes no apologies.
“I have had to manage through a lot of crises over the course of my life, and I’m not suggesting they’re all like a global pandemic,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview a little over a week ago.
“I’m just saying that in a difficult circumstance, when tensions are high, and it’s an emergency, that reacting quickly, being decisive, listening to experts, those are all things that I had learned through the course of my personal life and my business life.”
‘Much better fiscal shape’
With this year’s sale of the James R. Thompson Center — the state building with holes in the ceilings, stains on the carpets and indoor temperatures no one liked — Pritzker and many of his state employees have comfortably moved to more modern, spacious, functioning digs in the West Loop.
The governor’s 16th-floor conference room at 555 W. Monroe features snapshots of his life before taking office — a letter from Hillary Clinton with the handwritten words, “Love you!”; a sign for 1871, the nonprofit high-tech incubator he founded; a plaque commemorating the Illinois Holocaust Museum, which he helped build, and a book about poker.
Looking back, Pritzker says his most important accomplishment has been improving the state’s finances, which were decimated during former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s impasse with Democratic lawmakers. In Illinois, four years of consecutive budgets — a mundane annual function of state government — is now considered an achievement.
“What have we done? Four years of balanced budgets, paid off all the overdue bills for the state, improved our credit rating, six credit upgrades and provided because of that with a budget surplus, we not only provided tax relief for families, $1.8 billion, but we also paid more into the pension system, put a billion dollars into our Rainy Day Fund, which had never had much of anything really in it,” Pritzker said in an interview with the Sun-Times.
“And we’re in much better fiscal shape than we have been in quite some time.”
Financial experts say the state is indeed in a better fiscal position, but Illinois still has the lowest bond rating among the states, due in part to low reserves and high unfunded pension liabilities. Republicans credit Pritzker’s fiscal improvements to federal handouts and inflation.
“The real test will be when the economy slows down and the federal COVID-19 funds are no longer available,” said Beverly Bunch, a professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield’s School of Public Management and Policy. She credited part of the growth of the state’s revenue sources to federal COVID-19 funds “sloshing” around the economy.
“Illinois is headed in the right direction, but still has a significant way to go to be fiscally sound,” Bunch said.
‘Major political loss’
Pritzker’s first year in office was a productive one. He signed into law Rebuild Illinois, a massive $45 billion infrastructure plan, legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, an expansion of gambling and a consequential abortion bill that ensured Illinois would be a safe haven among several red Midwestern states.
But after his first-year wins — all passed by a Democratic supermajority — the governor in 2020 endured a major loss: the graduated income tax constitutional amendment he championed with $58 million of his own fortune. Voters nixed taxing high-earners more in the state. The tax proposal was among Pritzker’s top priorities during his 2018 campaign, and he called it a solution to most of the state’s financial headaches.
Instead, it was an early and major political loss for Pritzker, with former Rauner aides — and conservative megadonor Ken Griffin — claiming victory for squashing the ballot initiative.
The sad trombone didn’t echo for too long, though, as the pandemic soon drowned out everything else.
‘Put on your crisis management hat’
It’s mentioned among a nine-page list of executive and legislative accomplishments provided by the governor’s office simply as “keeping people safe from the virus.”
“A deadly global pandemic is not something I expected. And so, when it came, you immediately have to put on your crisis management hat. And that’s something that I have, I think, some skill at. And I have to make tough decisions every day in office, but particularly in a pandemic,” Pritzker said.
“Popularity is not something you think about when you’re thinking about every day, looking at a dashboard as I did. How many people died the previous day? And so, I learned a lot going through that.”
The pandemic created political superheroes and villains. In Illinois, Pritzker was both — lauded for stepping up to former President Donald Trump and fighting for COVID-19 resources, and lambasted by those who viewed him as an authoritarian for enacting long-standing executive orders that shut down much of the state. His actions also served as a rallying cry for Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey and his supporters — and the crux of the downstate farmer’s GOP gubernatorial campaign.
The pandemic also fueled presidential ambitions among many governors across the nation, including Pritzker.
The billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune is viewed as a low-key but decisive leader. Having led a large state, his ability to self-fund his campaigns, his “charisma” and his relationship with national leaders are all reasons some see him as a potential candidate, according to a Democratic strategist who worked with Pritzker on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“There is national buzz about him,” said the strategist, requesting anonymity. “If [President] Biden doesn’t run for some reason, I think JB would be in a good position to be a formidable candidate in a primary.”
‘He picks his battles’
But for all nine pages of Pritzker’s “accomplishments,” Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said he can’t list anything the governor has done well. The Western Springs Republican said his relationship with the Democratic governor soured after the graduated income tax failed.
Among Republicans’ chief criticisms of Pritzker’s leadership are his COVID-19 business closures, the coronavirus deaths of 36 veterans at the LaSalle Veterans’ Home, a rise in unemployment benefits fraud cases, continued failures in the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the embattled criminal justice reform package known as the SAFE-T Act, a repeal of parental notification for abortions — and a lack of ethics reforms in the face of more Illinois lawmakers facing indictments or prison terms.
“Everything that he’s got over the past year and a half has been part of a checklist for his presidential ambitions,” Durkin said. “The only thing that he hasn’t been able to accomplish is a change in the tax code.”
“He has been more ruled by Potomac fever than maintaining his position and serving as governor of the state. Everything that he’s done is playing to the far-left progressive voter in a national Democratic primary.”
Critiques aren’t just limited to Republicans. There’s also a sense of frustration from some progressive lawmakers about Pritzker’s cannabis bill — which was intended to provide social equity for applicants — but has been plagued with problems.
There’s also consternation over his calls for a special session after the Highland Park massacre, and after Roe v. Wade was overturned, (neither special session happened) but not when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis.
He also chose his words very carefully when former Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan was implicated in a federal corruption investigation, but he didn’t hesitate this year — an election year — to call for the resignations of state Sen. Michael Hastings over personal allegations of abuse and state Sen. Emil Jones III over federal bribery charges.
“He picks his battles with folks, and it’s a very timely thing,” one progressive lawmaker said.
Pritzker told the Sun-Times he wholeheartedly disagrees that he has alienated people who aren’t on board with his progressive agenda.
“I reach out to people all the time. I reach out across the aisle,” Pritzker said. “I think we’re a better state when we have many voices at the table with different perspectives to help us evolve legislation, for example, or policy.”
As for the “mean tweets” about everything from Pritzker’s weight, to his family, the governor says he’s accustomed to the criticism that comes with leading a state.
“I know there are people who doom scroll,” he said. “I am not one of those. I think I am somebody who listens to criticism, valid criticism, constructive criticism, but people who say things that are just false or just on the attack, I can’t listen to.”
“I think I have a sense of humor enough to be able to laugh off some of the things. I think when people have ill intent and particularly when it’s an attack on my family, I don’t take that well.”
Tina Sfondeles is chief political reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow @tinasfon.