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Griffin's millions flag a 'do or die' governor's race for GOP

For all the talk about Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner’s exorbitant wealth, his nine homes, his self-proclaimed spot among the “.01 percent,” there are those in Illinois who are far wealthier.

At the top of the list is billionaire Ken Griffin, the CEO and founder of Citadel who already was Rauner’s top campaign contributor (outside of Rauner’s own donations) when he grabbed front-page headlines two weeks ago with his record-breaking $2.5 million contribution to Rauner’s gubernatorial campaign.

That was on top of $1 million Griffin already had given and in addition to letting Rauner use Griffin’s $50 million private jet to campaign around the state.

The question is: Why? What’s Griffin’s interest?

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A Republican operative who has had conversations with Griffin but was not authorized to talk publicly about them said, “This is do or die for the state of Illinois, that’s how he feels,” and insisted Griffin had no interest “other than the solvency of the state.”

A Citadel spokeswoman had a simple reason for Griffin’s support:

“This contribution was given in the hopes that it would help Rauner get his message out to the people of Illinois,” Citadel spokeswoman Katie Spring said.

Griffin has in the past urged CEOs to get more involved in the political process and has shunned those who privately complained about Illinois’ bad business climate but kept quiet after taking taxpayer money in order to stay.

“You see, if Illinois is not hospitable to my business, we’re just going to move,” Griffin said, quoting what other CEOs had told him. He made the remarks in a 2013 speech before the Economic Club of Chicago. “And then I learned what the world hospitable meant, for a few weeks later, it was announced that [a CEO’s] company received tens of millions of dollars of tax incentives, and his silence was bought and paid for.”

Griffin and Rauner are close, having met through their work in education. Their families have spent holidays together. To some extent, they’re cut from the same cloth. They’re successful in business. They’re hyper-competitive. They have given millions to education in the state. They think unions are part of the problem.

“What is politically hard is that the Democratic Party is captive to the unions and not captive to the children,” Griffin said in that 2013 speech.

Sound familiar?

In a radio interview last week, Rauner defended taking the huge donation from Griffin, saying it did not mean Griffin would hold sway over Rauner if elected governor.

“This is the reason I’m comfortable taking donations from Ken. He does no business with the state whatsoever … completely financially independent guy. He just deeply cares about good government and good government reform,” Rauner told radio station WJBC-AM in Bloomington. “Needs no favors, needs no special deals. That’s why I love working with guys like Ken. He’s a self-made entrepreneurial guy. Built his own business, wildly successful, and a great patriot and a great reformer. And he wants good government in Illinois. This is where he’s built his business.

“He’s a perfect guy to be able to get support from ’cause all he cares about is major government reform,” Rauner said.

Griffin’s Citadel doesn’t do business with Chicago or with the state of Illinois.

Citadel was the subject of some headlines after the government bailout of AIG in 2009 when AIG disclosed how it had paid out taxpayer money it received. Citadel received $200 million from AIG’s securities lending program.

So now that Griffin has given so much to Rauner, does that buy him access?

Well, Illinois law dictates that if Rauner is elected, Griffin can’t do business with the state even if he wants to.

“Under the pay to play, if you’re a contributor then you can’t have these relationships where the public official is making decisions about contracts, leases, that sort of thing,” says Kent Redfield, political science professor emeritus with the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“In a larger sense, Griffin wants a certain kind of politics, a certain kind of role of government,” Redfield said. “He believes government ought to be involved in certain things more than others. The more laissez-faire the state is with regard to business, the more it benefits Griffin.”

There’s no question Griffin is interested in schools and that has value in itself. He’s heavily invested in northeastern Illinois and Chicago being a viable economic entity.

“You can’t keep a middle class in a city without good public schools,” Redfield said. “Good Chicago public schools are also good for business.”

Griffin once supported Barack Obama, but in the 2012 presidential campaign, he poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Mitt Romney’s campaign for president and anti-Obama political action committees. The Griffins have given more than $1 million to American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s GOP-allied super PAC. They have given to the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity group.

The $2.5 million is the largest investment in a candidate that’s public. Keep in mind though, that while it seems like a lot to you and me, it’s a drop in the bucket for Griffin, who has laid down $42 million in philanthropic donations in recent years as well as $150 million gift to Harvard University — all to go toward financial aid.

In 2012, Griffin told the Chicago Tribune that the nation’s wealthiest people didn’t have enough of a say in politics.

“I think they actually have an insufficient influence,” he said then. “Those who have enjoyed the benefits of our system more than ever now owe a duty to protect the system that has created the greatest nation on this planet.”

Taking it all together, there’s one conclusion: $2.5 million isn’t the last check Griffin writes in this governor’s race.