Marching in mother’s footsteps — Pritzker eyes family legacy as he seeks national leadership role in abortion rights battle
A California kid in the 1970s, he accompanied his mother to demonstrations, including marches for abortion rights. The governor says it inspired his fight for women’s and LGBTQ rights: “Those are all things that I think my mother would want me to do.”
The sadness still shows in J.B. Pritzker’s eyes when he talks about his mother Sue — the woman the governor credits with instilling his early interest in abortion rights and progressive activism.
It’s been 40 years since his mother, who suffered from alcoholism, was killed in a gruesome car accident when Pritzker was just 17 — only 10 years after his father clutched his chest and died suddenly of a heart attack at age 39.
But Pritzker’s memories of his mother remain vivid even now, especially as he works to elevate his fight for abortion rights to the national stage.
“I view all of what I do to fight for women’s rights and for reproductive rights, and frankly LGBTQ rights, just taking those sets of issues and equity, those are all things that I think my mother would want me to do,” Pritzker told the Chicago Sun-Times during a flight to an event at a southern Illinois Planned Parenthood clinic. “That’s what she was doing. That’s what I want to do and accomplish.”
‘She wanted me to learn’
A California kid in the 1970s, Pritzker frequently attended protest marches with his mother, including demonstrations supporting abortion rights for women.
“She wanted me to learn,” Pritzker said, joking that he was often paraded around to meetings with politicians and activists because he was too young to be left alone. “The result was I was in rooms and in marches and protests that I don’t think a lot of nine-year-olds got to participate in.”
Pritzker is an heir to the Hyatt hotel empire.
His mother was also an activist, a finance chair for Democratic senators running for reelection in 1976 and the northern California women’s chair for the Democratic party. That meant people such as Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, David Goodstein and Gloria Steinem were in his childhood.
“I was exposed to this because my mother exposed me to it. And I saw her. I got to witness her belief system, enthusiasm for fighting these fights,” Pritzker recalled.
“Equity was not a word that was used back then. But that’s what she was doing for people of color. … It just feels a little bit like it’s part of my DNA. I know it’s nurture, not nature. But I cannot imagine another set of views.”
‘Literally like a disease befell her’
Politicians frequently mention their origin stories. President Joe Biden talks about his father frequently, touting the middle class values he was taught. Pritzker himself is now airing a TV ad about his mother that first ran during his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. Called “Honor,” it features the governor talking about his mother’s battle with alcoholism, which he said taught him “empathy” and “understanding.”
In past interviews, he’s described in detail his mother’s rapid decline after his father’s death — how he as a child would go into his mother’s bedroom to make sure she didn’t accidentally set her sheets on fire as she drank and smoked in bed.
He’s discussed how he, along with his siblings Penny and Tony, were forced to become caregivers at a tender age. But the governor continues to talk about his mother’s struggle with alcoholism with deep empathy.
“She was an amazing person. Really, it’s literally like a disease befell her. If you took the word alcoholism. That’s the way I think of her,” Pritzker said. “This person who is doing all these amazing things, loses her husband and becomes afflicted with a disease that’s debilitating.”
‘It’s a scary day for women’
When you think of a face to represent the struggles women who support abortion rights might face with a Roe v. Wade reversal, you’re probably not thinking of a 57-year-old billionaire from Chicago. But Pritzker is making it clear he wants to be a leader in this battle.
Under Pritzker, Illinois in 2019 established in state law the right to reproductive health care, including abortion — a measure put in place just in case the landmark case was overturned. And in December, Pritzker signed a measure that repealed the last state law on the books that restricted abortion rights — a law that stopped minors from having to give parental notification before having an abortion.
Within an hour of Politico’s reporting of a U.S. Supreme Court draft that could signify the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Pritzker quickly appeared on CNN.
“Well, if this leak is true, this is a terrible day for our nation, and it’s a disgraceful decision. It’s a scary day for women,” he said on CNN.
A day later, the governor stood next to dozens of Democratic lawmakers in Chicago, vowing that Illinois will remain a “beacon of hope” and a place for women to feel safe should the landmark case be overturned. That same week, he appeared in more national interviews on CNN and MSNBC.
Of course, the Democratic governor is also in the middle of a reelection battle, and Democrats know that the issue will help bolster turnout during a heated midterm year. Pritzker is also trying to capitalize on GOP gubernatorial primary candidate Richard Irvin’s silence on the leaked draft opinion, as the other Republican candidates stake out strong anti-abortion stances.
And the issue also makes long-range sense for Pritzker, given the speculation about his political ambitions, including a potential future run for president.
Helping carve out his national image, Pritzker is also using his financial might to help bolster the reelection campaigns of fellow Democratic governors, including Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz. Michigan and Wisconsin have Republican majorities in their state legislatures. Minnesota has Republicans in control of the state Senate and Democrats in control of the state House.
‘You’re going to see a tsunami of activism’
On Wednesday, hours before the U.S. Senate shot down Democrats’ efforts to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law, Pritzker visited a downstate Planned Parenthood clinic in Fairview Heights in the Metro East area, just 11 miles from the Missouri state border.
Since January, the clinic has navigated nearly 1,000 patients from seven states to southern Illinois, with clinics and support groups helping to arrange for travel, lodging and financial aid for patients seeking reproductive care. The number of out-of-state patients coming to Illinois to seek abortions has tripled since 2015.
“Let me make this clear: Illinois is a pro-choice state, and as long as I’m governor and we retain a pro-choice Legislature, we will support every woman’s right to reproductive freedom,” Pritzker said at a news conference in the clinic’s recovery room.
“When women come here to this state, you are welcomed. You are supported. You are safe. You won’t need to suffer additional trauma; you will be treated with dignity, empathy, and compassion.”
The Democratic governor later told the Sun-Times he’s aware the issue is deeply personal and affects all women, including his own 19-year-old daughter. He said he has spoken to her about abortion rights, having introduced her to the Equal Rights Amendment as he made calls to coral support for it to be ratified in Illinois in 2018.
“That was my first moment talking to her about something that’s about women’s rights and protecting women’s rights. And she now is shocked at the possibility that we can move backwards,” Pritzker said.
“That never entered her mind, really. Since she’s been an adult, in this rage, she’s 19. It’s always been a given. And that’s why you’re going to see a tsunami of activism through the elections and maybe beyond. Because people are waking up and saying, ‘What?’ I don’t think anybody thought we could move back.”