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Down to the wire: Counting the days, pennies, patches, problems in gov race

Gov. Bruce Rauner (right) and Democrat J.B. Pritzker | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner (right) and Democrat J.B. Pritzker | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

One is a billionaire who carries a hand-knit wool pouch holding a dime, a nickel and three pennies for good luck.

The other is a former venture capitalist who rides his Harley across the state wearing a leather vest covered with patches, some he sewed on himself.

They are the two richest men who have ever run for Illinois governor.

Both take pains to look more blue-collar than blue-blood.

Both insist they know how to solve the problems of the state’s middle class. And both have weathered their share of scandals.

But aside from the Carthartt jackets and fleece pull overs, toilets and TV ads, real differences separate Democrat J.B. Pritzker and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Pritzker wants to try to enact a graduated income tax structure in the state, which the incumbent governor vehemently opposes. Pritzker, too, favors the legalization of recreational marijuana to bring the state more revenue, which Rauner opposes. And Pritzker says he’d shut down a private school scholarship program heralded by the Republican governor as a way to give parents school choice.


Pritzker has been campaigning since April 2017 to try to unseat the embattled governor. And that doesn’t include the weeks before, when heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune traveled the state to build a big wall of support.

Rauner’s clock has been ticking for arguably longer, as he had hoped to create big changes that would not only help the state’s financial disasters but help bolster his chances for a second-term.

The grueling, scandalous, expensive, expansive, record-breaking gubernatorial campaign is nearly over. And with it will come either Democratic reign for the state once again — and big, sometimes elusive, plans to save it from itself, or a continuation of a war with the party majority over how the state should change its ways.

‘Finish the job we started’

Rauner officially announced his re-election plans in October 2017, several months after a whirlwind of events — including a purge of his trusted high-level staffers and the signing of HB40, a measure that expanded taxpayer funding of abortions by allowing women with Medicaid and state-employee health insurance to use their coverage for the procedure.

Rauner’s views on abortion were not a surprise, but the signing of the measure was. The former private equity investor is a social moderate, and the Republican governor knew the signing would create a divide within his own party. And of course it did. It prompted state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, to put up a strong challenge in the March primary. Rauner won by just 4 points. It also, in part, led conservative challenger state Sen. Sam McCann, R-Plainview, to jump into the general election race.

The combination of a rough staff re-organization — many were replaced by members of conservative think tank the Illinois Policy Institute — and the signing of the abortion measure were a jolt to the system. Rauner endured embarrassing headlines for months, including the firing of his body man on day one for racist and homophobic tweets. Or a first-person statement drafted by a Rauner aide in which the governor’s opted not to take a position on a controversial cartoon “as a white male.” Meanwhile, Democratic forces were working hard to try to paint Rauner as a President Donald Trump supporter, and a divisive conservative as they sought to push a blue wave throughout the state.

Amid the controversies, Rauner was left blamed for a budget impasse that nearly decimated state universities and created an unfathomable bill backlog. He became an easy target — despite some rhyme and reason to the reforms he was fighting for.

Rauner ran in 2014 as an outsider, and he never really lost that brand. He became an outsider to his party’s most conservative constituents, and even to his staff. He has been criticized for a lack of loyalty — painted as a shrewd businessman — but remains driven by his goals. He jokes about losing his hair, and it is his appearance that has changed the most. The rail thin governor talks frequently about the stressors of the job. And the concerns he has for the state and its problems are evident and very real.

Rauner has repeatedly contended he worked hard for his wealth, and understands the struggles of the middle class. He calls himself a champion of education and jobs. He rides his Harley across the state wearing a vest full of more than 400 patches and pins he’s collected across the state. Occasionally he re-arranges the patches, either sewing them himself, or delivering them to a dry cleaner to do the work.

In September, Rauner took a hotel stage in front of supporters to try to hit a reset button, as several polls showed him behind by double digits. The governor called a victory by Pritzker a “return to the status quo: a government controlled by insiders, hell-bent on hiking taxes, with little regard for the consequences felt by ordinary citizens.”

And he asked for another chance: “I humbly ask for another four years to finish the job we started, to save our state,” Rauner said. “I hope you’ll join me in our fight.”

Of his difficult first-term, Rauner said he’s a “better governor now than when he took office” because he’s learned some lessons.

“The disruption, the arguments, the negotiations of the past four years have laid the groundwork for real and necessary change,” Rauner said. “We can continue to move, albeit more slowly than I’d proposed, towards the change that Illinois needs.”

Besides trying to spread his message in $25 million worth of TV ads, Rauner’s campaign says the governor has had more than 400 campaign stops during his re-election bid, which they included as retail and business visits, interviews, rallies, parades and festivals. Besides trying to emphasize some of the major controversies of the campaign cycle, Rauner for weeks has visited small businesses and factories, pitching himself as the only choice to be a voice for them.

‘I’ve had enough of people like Donald Trump, people like Bruce Rauner’

To date, Pritzker has visited counties across Illinois 1,619 times, his campaign said late last month.

The adjustment from private life to a full blown campaign was swift, and the candidate has barely a second to himself. He keeps track of the days left until the election on an app on his phone. While traveling, his only moments of solace are check-ins at hotels and the sleep he gets there. Pritzker reads the news and prepares himself for events while en route to campaign stops — all the while trying to keep in touch with his children and wife.

He carries a blue and white hand knitted pouch with 18 cents — a dime, nickel and three pennies — in it on important days. It’s the number of “Chai,” meaning life in Hebrew and is a lucky number in the Jewish faith. A Holocaust survivor gave Pritzker the pouch.

Democrats were likely thinking dollars rather than cents when they looked at Pritzker.

He became a dream-come-true candidate for Democratic party heads, who watched Rauner dole out $28 million in 2014 and not only help bolster his campaign but legislative races throughout the state. How about a self-funder with an endless supply of money who doesn’t actually talk or act like a billionaire?

The billionaire Democrat surrounds himself with hundreds of staffers. Including health insurance, Pritzker has spent $12.2 million to pay his campaign staff, campaign finance reports show. So far, he’s put in a record-breaking $171.5 million into his campaign.

Pritzker is worth an estimated $3.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Rauner’s net worth is unknown, but it is apparently somewhere below $2.1 billion, the minimum to crack the Forbes “exclusive club” of the 400 richest Americans.

Amid the boundless supply of money, Pritzker has worked hard to seem like he understands the plight of the state’s residents who don’t share his vast wealth. And that is most of the state. He is trained and prepared to talk to the every man. But he’s also plagued with a frustrating lack of specifics when it comes to the graduated income tax plan he prefers. It’s politically unpopular to name a bracket in which some might have to pay more, so he avoids it entirely.

There are, of course, oodles of mystery to Pritzker’s wealth. Both Pritzker and Rauner released the first few pages of their tax returns and the extent of all their wealth may never be known.

And Pritzker has been dogged by controversy linked to one of the state’s most pressing problems, property taxes. The Sun-Times last year reported that Pritzker received a six-figure tax break after removing toilets from his second Gold Coast mansion. The Sun-Times in October obtained a Cook County Inspector General’s report that called the tax break, which ultimately rang up to $331,000 in tax savings for Pritzker, a “scheme to defraud.” Pritzker has since returned the money to the county.

He’s also been hit with allegations of racial discrimination within his campaign, brought forth in a federal lawsuit by 10 staffers. Pritzker has said those allegations are “untrue,” but his campaign was forced to fire two staffers last month for “poor judgment” amid an Instagram video showing a campaign worker wearing a charcoal face mask that resembled blackface.

Besides the baggage — aired for all to see in TV ads — Pritzker has kept his head low. Perhaps a precursor to an onslaught of negative headlines, after a decisive primary win, Pritzker told his supporters, “I’m not a perfect person.”

“I’m not going to pretend to be,” Pritzker said at his victory party. “And frankly I’ve had enough of people like Donald Trump, people like Bruce Rauner who can never acknowledge a flaw, never offer an apology and never take responsibility for anything or anyone under their care.”