Our billionaire is better than your billionaire. That may become the unofficial slogan of Illinois Democrats in the 2018 race for governor.
J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune and venture capitalist, made a favorable impression in his first appearance before Oak Park Democrats on May 13 and seems to be emerging as the early front runner in the Democratic primary race for governor.
State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park), the chairman of the Democratic Party of Oak Park (DPOP), referred to Pritzker’s wealth when introducing him to an overflow crowd of about 150 Democrats meeting in the Veterans Room of the Oak Park Public Library Saturday morning.
“I told J.B. that this crowd might be skeptical of the argument of our billionaire is better than their billionaire,” Harmon said. “But here’s the thing, our billionaire really is better than their billionaire.”
Pritzker and Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar were the third and fourth Democratic candidates to appear before DPOP. Last month, state Sen. Daniel Biss and Chris Kennedy appeared at DPOP’s monthly meeting. The fifth major Democratic candidate and only downstater in the field, Madison County Regional Schools Superintendent Bob Daiber, will appear before DPOP next month.
Both Pritzker and Pawar made strong impressions Saturday.
“I thought both were awesome in different ways,” said Hilda Schlatter. “I thought Pawar had more of a visionary idealistic approach and Pritzker more looked back at what he has done and had very specific answers about what he would do.”
Everyone seemed to like the 37-year-old Pawar and were impressed by his child-of-an-immigrant story and his steadfast progressive principles, but many seemed surprised at how impressive Pritzker was.
“J.B. probably surprised a number of people today and impressed them,” said Matt Fruth, who was recently elected to the Oak Park Public Library Board of Trustees. “I think it’s going to be hard for any one of them to kind of break through right now in a way that would be meaningful.”
Pritzker, 52, spoke of his lifelong involvement in politics, telling of “knocking on doors for progressive Democrats since I was 11 years old.”
Pritzker worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. when he was in his 20s and he touted his work chairing the Illinois State Human Rights Commission and efforts to raise money to fund breakfasts for poor school children. He also founded a group called Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century to appeal to young Democrats.
Pritzker, who did not mention his failed 1998 run for Congress, has long been a major fundraiser for Democrats and played pivotal roles in Hillary Clinton’s presidential races, serving as a national co-chairman of her 2008 campaign and as a major fundraiser for the 2016 campaign.
The wealthiest candidate in the field, Pritzker is expected to largely self-fund his campaign and is already on the air with television ads.
Pawar made an oblique reference to Pritzker’s wealth in his comments.
“I’m fine with wealth, I just don’t think we need to worship it and I think everyone in the field believes that same thing,” Pawar said as Pritzker, standing in the audience awaiting his chance to speak, clapped along with the rest of the crowd.
Pritzker was quick on his feet and rattled off pointed, and popular, attacks on President Donald Trump and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“Donald Trump is a racist and xenophobe,” Pritzker said to spirited applause.
He also lit into Rauner.
“He cares more about spreadsheets than he does about people,” Pritzker said of Rauner. “We need a governor who will fight for higher wages and better workplace safety.”
Pritzker called for a graduated state income tax, a pet issue of Harmon’s, although he admitted that the switching to one would require a constitutional amendment and likely couldn’t happen until 2020 at the earliest.
Other than his call for a graduated income tax, Pritzker was vague about what increased taxes he would support.
“We’ve got to make sure corporations and businesses are paying their fair share of taxes,” Pritzker said. “We’ve got to pay for our schools and pay for healthcare in this state and pay for rebuilding the social safety net where we need, frankly, a Marshall Plan to rebuild, because so many of these organizations have simply closed.”
Pritzker said that he opposed a property tax freeze, a favorite Rauner talking point, saying local communities should make that decision.
But Pritzker, like Pawar and other Democrats, said that the state should increase its funding of education. Pritzker also said that he opposed any new charter schools in Illinois.
Pawar, harkening back to Franklin Roosevelt, outlined his plan for a new New Deal for Illinois.
The four elements of his new New Deal included ending the reliance on using property taxes to pay for schools, universal child care, a jobs and capital bill and criminal justice reform, including legalizing and taxing marijuana.
He accused Rauner and the Republicans of using a divide-and-rule strategy just as the British used in his father’s native India.
“We have to come together as a state, rural Illinois and urban areas, and stop fighting over scraps,” Pawar said.
He called for taking on institutional racism but noted that today the economy is at the intersection of race and class and lots of people are hurting and facing job loss.
“For a long time it has been OK to make fun of poor white people,” Pawar said.
Pawar, who six years ago became the first Indian-American elected to the Chicago City Council, said he would be a strong defender of immigrants.
“People are not illegal,” Pawar said. “We have to protect our vulnerable communities: our immigrant communities, refugee communities, undocumented neighbors, brothers and sisters from our federal government. We should not be allowing people to act on their most base instincts.”
Susan Stall said she liked both candidates, saying that she loved Pawar’s vision.
“I thought [Pawar] was remarkably thoughtful, and I loved what he talked about as far as root causes on what’s going on in our state,” Stall said, adding the caveat that “I think Pritzker has the better chance of taking on Rauner.”
Longtime Democratic activist Bob Haisman, a former head of the Illinois Education Association, was inspired by Pawar.
“He said all the right things; he spoke to me,” Haisman said.
But although Haisman said that he would vote for Pawar if the primary was held this week, he said that feared Pawar couldn’t win a statewide race against Rauner.
“I don’t know if he is electable,” said Haisman, who admitted being pleasantly surprised by Pritzker.
“I was downright ready not to like Pritzker, but he impressed me,” Haisman said.
Pawar supporters said that they liked his life story and feel that Illinois needs a fresh face.
“I was more impressed with Ameya Pawar because he was kind of more, in my opinion, more of a grassroots kind of person,” said 22-year-old Cole Bergman, who recently moved to Oak Park.
Many DPOP members said they need more time to make up their minds. They liked Pawar and Pritzker as well as Biss, and to a lesser extent, Kennedy.
But, when pressed, Anna Alecci said that if she had to vote immediately she would vote for Pawar.
“He’s a fresh voice, and that’s really all I can say right now,” Alecci said. “They do seem a lot alike and have the same values.”