Ken Griffin’s exit from Illinois leaves his gubernatorial candidate behind

Griffin backed Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, whose support is tanking, polls show. But the billionaire’s aide says his departure is “unrelated.”

Ken Griffin
Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin at a recent launch of the University of Chicago Crime Lab's Community Safety Leadership Academies. Griffin announced Thursday he's moving his family and his hedge fund's headquarters to Florida. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo
Ken Griffin
Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin at a recent launch of the University of Chicago Crime Lab's Community Safety Leadership Academies. Griffin announced Thursday he's moving his family and his hedge fund's headquarters to Florida. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times, File Photo

Ken Griffin’s exit from Illinois leaves his gubernatorial candidate behind

Griffin backed Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, whose support is tanking, polls show. But the billionaire’s aide says his departure is “unrelated.”

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Chicago hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin made a big business decision Thursday by announcing plans to pull up stakes in Illinois, but his move is also being read in some circles as a political slap in the face to his favored gubernatorial candidate.

Having hinted at the possibility of leaving Illinois for years, Griffin is moving his Citadel hedge fund and its market-making sibling, Citadel Securities, to Miami and relocating his family to Florida.

But the announcement — just five days ahead of the Republican primary next Tuesday — also was being viewed as a waving of the white flag for the GOP gubernatorial hopeful whom Griffin gave a staggering $50 million this year: Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin.

That money established Irvin as an early frontrunner in the GOP race to take on Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker this fall. But recent polls, including one earlier this month by WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times, have Irvin now trailing state Sen. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, by double digits.

The tanking support for Irvin comes after a continuing barrage of primary election attack ads aimed at Irvin from Pritzker, the Democratic Governors’ Association, Bailey and others on the far right — all seemingly neutralizing whatever financial advantages Irvin once had in the six-way race.

For the lead benefactor of a trailing gubernatorial candidate to declare Illinois a lost cause and pull up stakes on the eve of an election is a difficult set of facts to portray as harmless or, arguably, even coincidental.

But Citadel spokesman Zia Ahmed denied that Griffin’s announcement was tied to any inevitability of Irvin losing next Tuesday.

“Nope, this was in the works for a while,” Ahmed said in an email to WBEZ. “Unrelated.”

Ahmed said Citadel and Citadel Securities have had problems “recruiting top talent from across the world to Chicago given the rising and senseless violence in the city.”

In a statement, Irvin didn’t respond to whether Griffin’s announcement regarding Citadel amounted to a show of no confidence. Instead, the Aurora mayor’s campaign cited two other big corporate relocations as a symbol of the state’s financial decay under Pritzker.

“In the last month alone, Illinois lost Boeing, Caterpillar and now Citadel,” Irvin said. “It’s a clear pattern that shows no signs of ending unless we beat Pritzker in November, and I’m the only person in this race with a proven record of success to take Illinois back.”

However, former two-term Republican Gov. Jim Edgar said the effects of Griffin’s announcement carry undeniable harm for Irvin’s struggling gubernatorial effort and likely is a sign of Illinois’ wealthiest person calling a strike a strike.

“I guess he believes the polls,” Edgar said of Griffin. “It’s not a good endorsement for Irvin.”

Some involved with Irvin’s campaign didn’t learn of Griffin’s announcement until seeing news alerts.

Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, who is a co-chairman of Irvin’s campaign, downplayed the effect of Griffin’s move on the mayor’s political fortunes Tuesday.

“I don’t think it’s going to change anything one way or the other. I think this is separate. As a matter of fact, it is separate from the campaign,” Durkin said. “Ken Griffin is making a business decision on behalf of his investors and his employees.

“I still stand by my statements that he is still the strongest candidate to challenge JB Pritzker in November,” Durkin said. “But JB Pritzker’s done a hell of a job interfering in the Republican primary, and it looks like he’s going to accomplish what he set out to get: the weakest of the bunch.”

Griffin has been a major philanthropic force in Chicago, donating more than $600 million to various causes. Crain’s Chicago Business reported Thursday that Griffin will step down from his role on several nonprofit boards as well.

But he also has spent part of his fortune on Illinois elections to the tune of $179 million.

That includes $36 million to Republican Bruce Rauner’s winning 2014 gubernatorial campaign and his losing 2018 reelection bid against Pritzker. Griffin poured nearly $54 million into the defeat of Pritzker’s graduated income tax amendment in 2020 and another nearly $11 million toward the ouster of former Democratic Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride that year.

Before throwing $50 million more at Irvin, Griffin publicly called Pritzker’s response to crime a “disgrace” and seemed to bask in the defeat of the tax amendment, knowing the political capital the governor expended in trying to pass it. Griffin vowed last fall to be “all in” on depriving Pritzker of a second term.

As personal as Griffin seemed to make his disdain for Pritzker, the governor offered no public signs of gloating Thursday in seeing his political enemy pack up his bags and move out of state. A statement in response to Griffin’s announcement didn’t mention Griffin by name nor did it name Citadel.

“Countless companies are choosing Illinois as their home, as we continue to lead the nation in corporate relocations and had a record number of business start-ups in the past year,” Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner said in a statement. “We will continue to welcome those businesses -– including Kellogg, which just this week announced it is moving its largest headquarters to Illinois — and support emerging industries that are already creating good jobs and investing billions in Illinois, like data centers, electric vehicles and quantum computing.”

When Griffin announced his support for Irvin last January, he described the Aurora mayor as someone who “embodies the American dream.”

Whether deliberate or not, Griffin used the exact same language to describe the city where he’s moving the headquarters of his $51 billion financial empire.

“I am excited to share with you that Citadel is moving its global headquarters to Miami,” Griffin wrote in a letter to his employees Thursday, announcing the move. “Miami is a vibrant, growing metropolis that embodies the American Dream — embracing the possibilities of what can be achieved by a community working to build a future together.”

For Irvin, the dream of climbing to the state’s top political rung could wind up being instead an electoral nightmare come Wednesday, something he’ll be left to experience on his own now that his biggest financial supporter has skipped town.

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