FBI wiretaps. Pension flubs. Toilets. A proposal to divide the state of Illinois into thirds.
Whew. It’s been a wild ride in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. But it’s almost over. The six candidates have just days to get their final messages out – and there’s no doubt voters will be inundated with television and radio ads, flyers and lawn signs until then.
Voters are most likely to see ads paid for by billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker — who has put in a whopping $69.5 million of his own money to help fuel his campaign, which actually began more than 10 months ago. Pritzker’s opponents have criticized the cash he’s thrown into the race — and the mysteries of some of his fortune. But Pritzker has repeatedly said he had to do so in order to combat the vast wealth of Gov. Bruce Rauner — and the Republican governor’s mega-donors.
Pritzker began airing ads last May, about a month after he announced he’d run. And with that came an explosive Chicago Sun-Times investigation that found Pritzker saved $230,000 in property taxes by leaving a Gold Coast mansion he owns in disrepair. That included ripping out toilets, in part to prove the second home he purchased was uninhabitable.
And last week he was forced to defend himself against a Chicago Tribune report that claimed Pritzker and his brother control several offshore companies created between 2008 and 2011 — suggesting that Pritzker may be avoiding paying taxes. The story contends one of Pritzker’s offshore companies is part of a venture that plans to buy land along the Chicago River to launch boat tours downtown.
Pritzker has repeatedly claimed “there’s nothing new.”
“I’ve said all along there were trusts created generations ago. I don’t receive any distributions from those trusts, and all the distributions go to charity,” Pritzker said during the final televised debate on Wednesday. “And on my statement of economic interest, all of the assets that are owned by the trusts and by me individually as well as our charitable foundation are listed.”
He also endured attacks from Rauner’s campaign — and other opponents — over uncovered FBI wiretaps featuring him making embarrassing comments to now imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Pritzker called the negative headlines, from opponents and outside forces, “not my favorite part of the political process.”
“What I love most is meeting voters and listening to the issues most important to them and trying to solve their most difficult challenges,” Pritzker told the Sun-Times.
Pritzker last year quickly became the favorite of Democratic Party regulars — picking up crucial endorsements from elected officials and powerful unions. And with that came criticism. He’s had to try to distance himself from Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan nearly on a weekly basis, vowing to be independent.
Pritzker took square aim at Rauner from the get-go. But in recent weeks and months, he’s shifted some advertising dollars to targeting Biss and Kennedy.
“I think the voters need someone who can defeat Bruce Rauner and get the state back on track and put it back on the side of working families,” Pritzker. “I’m really proud that I’ve been running on real plans to win in November and to put Illinois back on their side. So, it’s not speculative. We’ve been investing in building up the infrastructure so Democrats can win, up and down the ticket in the fall campaign.
For businessman Chris Kennedy — who raised more than $6 million for his campaign — there were immediate expectations. When will the Kennedy family sweep in? Why haven’t they given more money? Why isn’t he on TV? Is he really running this time?
Kennedy famously had an uncomfortable encounter with reporters after a breakfast speech before the Illinois delegation to the Democratic National Convention in 2016. And he endured a litany of headlines questioning whether he’d really run after decades of speculation about candidacies that never came to fruition. He called that early start one of the most challenging parts of the campaign.
“Early on I understood what their strategy would be, which as I think they wanted me to withdraw from the race, to drop out,” Kennedy said. “At first it was, don’t get in. And then it was to drop out and then there was the narrative of, ‘He’s not ready for prime time.’ And they just had such an enormous group of people, let’s say, working the referees, and that was a lot to deal with early on. And then we sort of hit our stride, understood what we were up against and once we understood the size of the wave or the size of the mountain, you come up with a strategy on how to conquer it.”
But Kennedy has come out in full force in the final months of the campaign, both appearing in ads, and also forcefully attempting to debunk what he’s called misrepresentations in rivals’ ads. He’s come under fire for praising Rauner for his “willingness to speak truth to power,” and for talking about “testing” a tax on retirement income, something Pritzker’s campaign pounced on.
In public comments, Kennedy has shot down that idea repeatedly. And in the final gubernatorial candidate on WTTW, Kennedy repeatedly uttered “lie, lie, lie,” to Pritzker after the billionaire spent nearly 15 minutes defending reports about off-shore accounts.
Kennedy told the Sun-Times he represents change. And he called the flurry of Pritzker ads a “saturation media buy.”
“The clash of ideas is just being stepped upon and I think that robs of us what we need in a democracy, which is a fully informed electorate,” Kennedy said.
But he said he believes there are plenty of resources for voters beyond advertising: “My belief is that they’ll see through the saturation.”
State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, is yet another test of just how many progressive voters will come out to vote in the primary. The Harvard University-educated former assistant mathematics professor and seven-year lawmaker touts himself as the middle-class alternative to Pritzker and Kennedy.
Biss said the election is a “fight for the soul of the Democratic party, and it’s a fight for the soul of our democracy.”
And Biss believes he can capture the undecided voters: “J.B. Pritzker has spent $63 million trying to persuade people to vote for him, and it hasn’t worked,” Biss said. “Chris Kennedy has spent millions of dollars and has a lot of name recognition. … I see the undecided voters as likely to move in our direction and be a key to our path to victory.”
In Biss’ TV ads with his family, voters see a middle-class home and are told that his kids go to public school — the only candidate in the race to do so. In mailers he calls himself the “middle-class governor” — with his tax return showing about $32,000 in adjusted gross income in 2016, due to the budget impasse and a halt in paychecks.
In debates, he staunchly defends himself as the voice of working families. But opponents have pounced on some of his actions in the Illinois Senate, including co-sponsoring a bill in 2013 that would have cut pension benefits for state workers. He has repeatedly called that decision a mistake.
And despite being the self-described “middle-class,” choice, Biss has shown fundraising prowess, raising more than $6 million, which has also gotten him in trouble with his opponents.
According to an analysis by the watchdog group the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, about 25 percent of contributions came from individuals; 21 percent from mega-donors; 13 percent from the unemployed or retired; 11 percent from special interests and 9 percent from elected officials, among others.
Madison Schools Supt. Bob Daiber is the only candidate from Downstate, and from Day One has shown a level of confidence about his candidacy.
During a pitch last April to the Cook County Democratic committeemen, Daiber vowed that he could “carry Downstate Illinois.”
“My challenge is to get a percentage of the vote out of Cook County, and I will carry the rest of the state,” he said.
The former high school teacher has been formidable in the debates he participated in, oftentimes, complaining of the politics that have gone into the race — and the lack of focus on the issues. Daiber told the Sun-Times he plans to focus on getting out the vote in his “home base” and he wants the state’s finances to be a top priority no matter who wins.
Tio Hardiman, the former CeaseFire director, is the only African-American candidate in the race — and he won 28 percent of the vote in 2014 in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. He wants voters to know he’s “a pure champion for the working class and middle-class.” And he wants to be an alternative choice for voters, a good chunk of whom still may be undecided.
“What I’ve learned is your money plays a role, but money cannot really buy votes. People need to hear your message on the grassroots level,” Hardiman said. “I just wish I could multiply myself a thousand times over, so I can shake hands with over a million or two million people here in the state.”
And Burr Ridge doctor Robert Marshall has argued for splitting the state into three-parts as a solution for most problems Illinoisans face. Marshall, who has just $30,000 on hand, told the Sun-Times he paid for radio ads — highlighting just how much Pritzker and the “machine” have spent to try to buy the vote — to air for the days ahead of the primary.
“Two-hundred 10 dollars per vote. What do they want to do? They want to raise your taxes. They want to raise your income taxes, property taxes, federal taxes,” Marshall said.
“I’m opposed to all the tax increase, and so please vote for me. Punch number 7,” Marshall said.