Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at Harvard. Here’s what Chicago-area students there wanted to know

Chicago-area students at Harvard University peppered Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker with questions — on policy and politics — at a Monday forum.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks Monday night at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, where he took questions from undergraduates, graduate students and law school students from Illinois.

Harvard Institute of Politics video

WASHINGTON — Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who did not endorse in Chicago’s mayoral election, on Monday night told students at Harvard’s Institute of Politics that his job with Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson is “to work well with him.

“Success for Chicago means success for the state. We also need the rest of the state to succeed,” Pritzker said.

“That’s why I didn’t endorse anybody in the mayoral election. I may have opinions about things and share them privately with my family, but it was important to me that whoever wins, that I was going be their ally getting things done for the city.”

He also added a dose of nuance to being labeled a “progressive.”

“You keep drilling in on the ‘progressive’ label, and you know what, I’m OK with that. But I just want to maybe modify it and say I would describe myself as a pragmatic progressive,” Pritzker said.

Chicago-area students getting their undergraduate, graduate or law degrees at Harvard University peppered Pritzker with questions — on policy and politics.

All seven questions Pritzker took at Harvard’s Kennedy School Institute of Politics forum — which he headlined — were from students with a Chicago connection.

So many that Pritzker quipped, “Apparently everyone here at Harvard is from Illinois.”

That’s not true, of course.

Pritzker spent the day at Harvard’s campus in Cambridge, Mass., at the invitation of Quentin Fulks, his former top political advisor who is now a fellow at the IOP, coming to the program after managing the 2022 re-election campaign of Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. Fulks has been mentioned as a potential top staffer for President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign.

That the students who were asking Pritzker questions turned out to all be connected to the Chicago area was a coincidence, a Harvard IOP spokesperson told me. The questioners were not pre-selected. Students just lined up at the four microphones at the John F. Kennedy Forum and asked away.

Highland Park’s Rachel Jacoby, a second-year grad student working toward a master’s in public policy, was already tackling gun violence as an organizer for March for Our Lives when a gunman killed seven people and wounded dozens of others at Highland Park’s July 4 parade.

After that, her activism only increased, including work on the Illinois assault weapons ban that Pritzker signed. Even with Democrats controlling both chambers in the Illinois General Assembly, it was a lift.

Given that there is no support in Congress for a federal assault weapons ban — even given the latest horrors in Nashville and Louisville — Jacoby asked Pritzker about “what advice and leadership lessons you would have for other governors and states who may want to pass an assault weapons ban.”

Pritzker’s answer — in short — elect more Democrats.

“Just elect the right person, in the right position,” the governor said. “But that only happens if people are out there knocking on doors and making sure that the public understands how vitally important it is. That’s how we got that done.”

Dylan Horwitz from Buffalo Grove, a first-year law student, graduated from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, in Lake County, a top public school in Illinois. Horwitz said Stevenson was “obscenely overfunded,” compared with schools downstate and in Chicago.

“I was wondering if you think there’s any appetite in Springfield for any redistributive policies, or do you think even that might be too far afield for the current, like, state of politics?”

The phrase “redistributive policies” refers usually to programs that channel more to people with less and make those with more pay their fair share. Pritzker lamented that his drive for a graduated income tax in Illinois — changing the system so those at the very top income levels pay a more equal share — failed to win the needed 60% of the vote.

Pritzker said he fought “like heck” for it and put his own money into the campaign to pass the “Fair Tax” amendment — a drive led, as it happens, by Fulks.

“I still believe in a graduated income tax. I still believe in making sure that we have a tax system that’s fair, and that you use the word redistributive, but importantly, that every child no matter what ZIP code they live in, gets a good education, a good public education. And we’re working at that every day, but it’s not going to be as easy as it would have been had we had a graduated income tax.”

And speaking of the Fair Tax — where billionaires Pritzker and Ken Griffin, the Republican who opposed it — poured tens of millions of their own money into moves to block or pass the measure — a student followed up:

Andy Wang from Naperville asked the governor, “I’m wondering if you’re worried about the rise of money, just big money in politics in Illinois and across the U.S., especially as someone who arguably has benefited a lot from that money yourself?”

“Yes, and the answer is we need campaign finance reform both in Illinois and nationally,” Pritzker said.

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