Illinois Gov J.B. Pritzker on Saturday did nothing to quell speculation over a possible run for president as he delivered a self-effacing speech before New Hampshire Democrats — making light of his weight and wealth — and worked to introduce himself as a leader with his “heart on his sleeve” who is willing to fight for the party.
With rampant buzz about Pritzker’s political ambitions — coupled with the fundraising power he brings as a billionaire — the Democratic governor’s latest push for Chicago to host the Democratic National Convention is another sign there’s a trial balloon out there to see if Democrats view the governor of Illinois as a presidential contender.
Pritzker’s task for Democrats in what has historically been the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state was simple: show his deliverables.
“My friends thought I was crazy to run for governor. They told me state government couldn’t be repaired. And anyway, who would vote for someone like me? Look, I’m a Ukrainian American,” Pritzker said to applause. “I haven’t finished the list yet, and it gets worse from here. A Ukrainian American Jewish Democratic billionaire businessman. That’s not exactly the archetype that the party was looking for to run for governor. That’s okay with me. I know who I am and where I come from.”
Pritzker also made reference to his weight, saying a campaign slogan from his 2018 gubernatorial campaign was “Think Big,” which he admitted “was a pun on my size.”
He’s joked about that before — but he doesn’t often utter the b-word: billionaire.
Pritzker, the richest sitting politician in the country and heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune, has contributed to Democratic causes for decades, and most recently to Democratic governors. He has so far doled out $125 million to his reelection campaign for governor. In 2020, he chipped in $58 million to fund a graduated income tax referendum which failed. And in 2018, he spent $171.5 million to fund his campaign against Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who ultimately lost by 15 percentage points. The total is the most any candidate has spent to self-finance in U.S. history — and Pritzker is on par to beat that record in this year’s gubernatorial contest.
For their part, Pritzker and his aides have tamped down talk of any presidential aspirations, saying the trip — which also included a Washington meeting with DNC officials, a stop in Massachusetts to support Democratic governor candidate Maura Healey and a trip to Maine to support incumbent Gov. Janet Mills — was intended to help support Democrats in their fight for reproductive rights.
Pritzker ticked off his accomplishments in Illinois, with many doubling as proof of his Democratic values: legalizing cannabis, raising the minimum wage, expanding voting rights, reforming criminal justice and enshrining reproductive rights.
He accused Illinois Republicans of making it hard for working families who rely on government services to make ends meet, and for yelling about “fake” problems, instead of solving actual problems. He said he has a reputation as a “somewhat irrepressible optimist,” which he said “drives the Republican politicians in my state insane.”
He painted the national GOP as the party of fear, afraid of everything from workers’ rights, student debt forgiveness — and making high income earners, like himself, pay the highest tax rates.
Pritzker also made his feelings about former President Donald Trump known, reminding the audience that he has loudly called him a “racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic president” since his stump speeches in 2018.
The governor offered up a behind-the-scenes tale of his phone call to Trump in March 2020, as Illinois, along with most of the country in the dawn of the pandemic, struggled to obtain personal protective equipment and ventilators.
“I knew I needed to swallow my pride and lean on that man’s ego. I sat at my desk and I wrote myself a script because I generally wear my heart on my sleeve,” Pritzker said. “So there was every likelihood that I might blurt out ‘narcissist’ or ‘bigot’ while I was making my request. So I needed to write it down.”
Pritzker asked Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to help control the distribution of the needed goods, with Pritzker offering up to Trump that he’d “say nice things on Twitter” if he sent him ventilators and PPE. Pritzker frequently had been appearing on CNN, urging the president to do the same.
He said he received a phone call from Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro hours later with a promise the equipment would arrive “soon” and on “Trump time,” Pritzker said.
“Trump time, as it turns out, is kind of like infrastructure week,” Pritzker said to laughs. “It didn’t arrive until President Biden was elected.”
There were frequent standing ovations for Pritzker, who spoke more loudly and forcefully compared to his day-to-day in-state events. He tried to end his 35-minute speech with a rallying cry and a note of optimism.
“You have to use all your courage and all your kindness to keep that love alive and maintain your resolve during our darkest days,” Pritzker said. “Why? Because we fight for the things that we love.”
As the speech ended, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Raymond Buckley stood up to shake Pritzker’s hand and, on a hot mic, said, “What the hell? I never expected that.”