By CARL GREEN
It was early April of last year. The people of the Labor Movement in Illinois and their Democratic Party supporters were in serious doubt about what kind of future they might have under first-term Governor Bruce Rauner.
Up to that point, Rauner had been obstructing any attempts to do the public’s business – except in cases when it might damage unions, which seemed to be Rauner’s top priority.
Then a name surfaced that most people in Illinois had never heard – that of J.B. Pritzker, a big guy who turned out to be a friend of Labor and who had seemingly endless resources to run for governor against Rauner, who had plenty of his own.
Pritzker announced his candidacy for governor on April 6, too early in the election cycle to stir up much public interest, but in time to lay the groundwork for a successful run for office. He was an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune and an active businessman in his own right, worth an estimated $3.2 billion. People were skeptical but intrigued as well.
When they listened to what he had to say, it turned out he was a real supporter of the Labor Movement who wanted to make the government work for all of its citizens. Pritzker’s positive message helped him vanquish a roster of worthy primary opponents that included Chris Kennedy, son of RFK.
Pritzker couldn’t have been more clear about his message. “You want to know why I’m running for governor? Everything we care about is under siege by Donald Trump and Bruce Rauner,” he said early on.
“This campaign isn’t about money, it’s about values. It’s about progressive values. That’s what I’ve stood for my whole life. I grew up a progressive Democrat. I’ve fought for progressive Democratic values.”
So began Pritzker’s quest, which reached its fruition in last week’s election when he slam-dunked Rauner with 54 percent of the vote, about 2.3 million votes, to Rauner’s 39 percent, or 1.7 million.
Sam McCann of the Conservative Party had 4.3 percent, or 188,230, and Kash Jackson of the Libertarians had about 2.4 percent, or 105,000. So concerns that they might swing the race to Pritzker turned out to be unfounded.
One note, however. Rauner actually won in most of the state – in 88 counties, compared to only 14 for Pritzker. Cook County provided 1.2 million votes for Pritzker and just 411,000 for Rauner, accounting for more votes than the final margin of victory. That’s Illinois politics, though. It’s happened before.
During the campaign, Pritzker made an extra effort to become familiar in downstate and southern Illinois, turning up at seemingly every big Democratic Party event. And he kept bringing up some of the same points, which may give an indication of what he plans to do.
• INFRASTRUCTURE – Over and over, Pritzker said he wants to work with Labor to start the rebuilding of Illinois much-neglected infrastructure – highways, waterways, bridges and railroads.
• RIGHT TO HEALTH CARE – “Everyone deserves a doctor, and I mean everybody,” he said at his last Metro East campaign stop before the election.
• BARGAINING RIGHTS – “When I’m governor, the Department of Labor is actually going to protect Labor in Illinois,” he said. “When unions are strong. you know the middle class is strong.”
• EDUCATION – Pritzker laid out these goals: to provide quality public education for all, including affordable college and a return to vocational education so young people can learn trades and skills they can use to make a living.
Of course, Pritzker and the Democrat-controlled Legislature must also find a way to get a handle on the state’s financial crisis, which was truly a bipartisan “accomplishment” that was many decades in the making and may take as long to resolve. Anything else Pritzker wants to do will be affected by this issue.
We’ve seen what happens when the governor is at war with the Legislature – the financial crisis deepens, like when Rauner made it worse by delaying payments on the debt and incurring needless late fees. Now we should have a chance to see the government working together on it.
Pritzker’s story has really just begun. He has an opportunity to do great things. It will be, no doubt, an interesting four years.
Mike Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, put it this way: “It’s time to move forward. Illinois has been through a very dark time under Bruce Rauner. It’s time to get to work on policies and a functional government that works together on solutions to the issues we face.”