Democratic governor hopefuls Chris Kennedy, J.B. Pritzker, Ameya Pawar and Daniel Biss address Cook County Democratic committeemen March 27, 2017.
One by one, six men who are running for Illinois governor or thinking about it addressed Cook County Democratic committeemen Monday, seeking early support and offering a unified message aimed at removing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner from office next year.
But beneath their individual Rauner-centric attacks, support for a graduated income tax to fix Illinois’ budget woes and agreement on the need to harness the activism against President Donald Trump were clear signs of separation between some of the contenders long before county Democratic leaders consider an endorsement in August.
Northwest Side Alderman Ameya Pawar and state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston urged party leaders to help spark a campaign built off activism for social change rather than turning to more wealthy contenders. Neither candidate is deep-pocketed and both face the prospect of raising millions of dollars to be competitive next March in the Democratic primary.
There were also divisions among the wealthier contenders. Businessman Chris Kennedy, an heir to the wealthy and iconic political family who last week put $250,100 into his own campaign and as a result lifted contributions limits in the race, implored Democrats not to back billionaire investor and entrepreneur J.B. Pritzker. Kennedy did not mention Pritzker’s name but likened him to Rauner, a former private equity investor he called a "billionaire bully."
"It’s criminal what (Rauner) has done to the Republican Party. He has silenced it. There is no dissent. Don’t let that happen to our party. Don’t put somebody in charge of our state who does not need all of you, who is not dependent upon all of you for re-election. Because if you do that, you will turn the Democratic Party in this state into what the Republican Party has become," said Kennedy, who afterward told reporters he was referring to Pritzker.
"Don’t kid yourself that we can outsource that task (of taking on Rauner), that we can simply go to somebody and say — go to another billionaire and say — if you will be our protector, if you will fight our fight for us, we will make you our king," he said.
Pritzker had spoken and left the meeting before Kennedy made his remarks. During his speech, Pritzker touched on an issue of crucial concern to Democratic ward and township committeemen — the availability of local resources for next year’s campaign.
Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, acknowledged he had "landed in the lucky tub," with the resources to "pursue my dreams." He has placed $200,000 of his personal funds into his exploratory committee.
"If I run, I would intend to begin right away building up our party’s resources. And remember, we have a real challenge," Pritzker said, citing well-funded Rauner-allied groups that are expected to assist the governor’s re-election as well as other Republican candidates.
"What’s fundamental to the Democratic Party, what I’ve been doing since I was 11 years old, is field (operations). We’ve got to build that up," Pritzker said. "I believe we’ve got to build up the infrastructure in your wards, in this county, in counties all over the state of Illinois."
Pritzker, a longtime Democratic fundraiser, called himself "someone who has a record of proven results, solving big hairy problems … who has the vision to set the course for the state toward economic prosperity for all." In contrast, he said Rauner didn’t live up to his commitment to "shake up Springfield. Instead, he tore it down."
Pritzker said "it won’t be very long" before he makes a decision on whether to run and joked that since he formally began exploring the race, he found out "at least according to Bruce Rauner and the Illinois GOP, Mike Madigan is actually my biological father." Republicans have sought to link Democratic candidates to the longtime, unpopular House speaker who also chairs the state Democratic Party.
Pawar, the first candidate to get in the race and first to speak Monday, contended Rauner’s governorship operated on a theme of "divide and rule," using "chaos" to separate "natural allies" and "destroy institutions."
The two-term 47th Ward alderman acknowledged he is an "underdog" and said his name was "not very ballot-ready." But he said he was working to build support across the state. Pawar denied his effort was to keep himself in front of the public in case Mayor Rahm Emanuel opted not to seek a third term in 2019. "This is not a game to me," Pawar said.
Biss, who dropped a bid for state comptroller in last year’s special election, got into the race last week criticizing the wealthy as well as the "political machine." Speaking to top local Democrats Monday, Biss didn’t mention the "machine."
Instead, Biss contended Rauner was leading "an assault at our party in a political way and at the core values we stand for and our allies across the state of Illinois that our state relies on." He said he was working to leverage Democratic discontent with Trump "as a crucial resource."
Biss agreed with comments by state Sen. Don Harmon, a committeeman from Oak Park, that "it was entirely possible now that we’ll go another year without a budget."
"Most people seem to think that that’s likely the case and, unfortunately I can’t argue with that," said Biss, who added that if Rauner is defeated, the next governor will "have a honeymoon" but must move quickly to keep the state from going insolvent.
The lone Downstate announced candidate, Bob Daiber, the Madison County regional superintendent of schools, said he could win the statewide primary election vote outside Cook County but needed help from county Democrats. Daiber said he did not expect to get the county Democrats’ endorsement this summer, given it was the home base for his rivals.
Also appearing before the group was Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers, who is considering a bid for governor. Summers urged a unification of Democratic voters split between last year’s presidential candidacies of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Summers also said voters are looking for a Rauner challenger who has "credibility" and a narrative of "authenticity" to inspire them. Summers said the person who can demonstrate those factors in pledging to resolve the state’s budget crisis "is who they’ll vote for."
Asked about the governor’s race Monday at a separate event, Rauner labeled the Democratic candidates as "a continuation of the status quo."
"They’re not proposing any new ideas to grow jobs. They’re not proposing any new ideas to protect taxpayers. But they’re proposing tax hikes, income tax hikes. And they’re proposing to continue to work for the political machine that’s dominated Illinois for decades," he said. "That’s not going to make things better."
With the Cook County Democratic organization scheduled to meet in August to consider an endorsement, Kennedy told reporters afterward that he didn’t think slate-making was as "meaningful as it was 50 or 60 years ago when people in the backroom could control the outcome of an election."
Still, he stopped short of saying whether he would seek their endorsement.