Having a billionaire governor has, on balance, been good for Illinois.
Gov. JB Pritzker has been willing and able to use his personal resources to attract a high level of talent to public service at the state level, to all of our benefit. And his level of personal wealth has made it easier for him to stay out of the swamp that has tripped up so many other Illinois pols. When you can finance your own campaigns, and have plenty left over, you’re less motivated to make ethical compromises to please potential big donors.
With Pritzker, it’s inconceivable we’ll ever see a replay of the Rod Blagojevich pay-to-play affair in which the disgraced and corrupt former governor sought to obtain personal gain from his authority to appoint a replacement for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president.
Nor will we see anything like the allegations against Alderman Ed Burke, who the feds allege sometimes forced those wanting his aldermanic seal of approval to hire his private law firm in a gross distortion of what public service should mean.
In Pritzker-land, that stuff is not only unethical but small potatoes and we can all be grateful for that.
Pritzker is a very smart man. He’s not about to endanger his own career for the kind of tawdry escapades that might appeal to a Blago or, allegedly, a Burke.
That said, we’ve been noticing a clear and present danger too.
Pritzker has shown himself willing and able to meddle in other people’s primaries, and he has a level of resources that mean that his interference has an outsize impact. He needs to rein in this tendency and direct those around him to stick to governing Illinois as well as they can.
The most egregious example is Pritzker’s shadowy boosting of the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Darren Bailey. The motivation there, of course, was that the Pritzker campaign preferred the idea of running against the far-right Bailey to his chief, well-funded rival, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, whom they saw as likely tougher to beat on Election Day. We didn’t endorse either of those two candidates in the primary, but Pritzker’s bankrolling of the Bailey campaign on TV was at least one factor in his victory.
This action was wrong for more reasons than one.
For starters, it’s unseemly (if legal) for the top elected official in the state to use his resources to try to influence the Republican primary for purely tactical reasons. It encourages voter cynicism and there is enough of that around already. Taking the civic high ground – as Americans have the right to expect from a possible presidential candidate – means saying to Republicans, go ahead and make your best choice for the most qualified person to lead the state. Not my business.
Secondly, the tactic inherently empowers extremist candidates, squashing the kind of moderate, centrist thinking and governance that this riven nation badly needs. It’s an easily duplicable maneuver, too, meaning that pragmatic Democrats like Pritzker may well find those fiscal barrels aimed in their own direction down the road. If so, he won’t be able to justify a complaint.
Yet worse is the risky nature of the act. Extremist candidates supported in this self-serving way can end up winning, to the detriment of the country. History has plenty of examples across the globe, including the obvious one of Donald Trump, who surprised everyone, only for chaos and tumult to ensue.
Now comes word that the Pritzker camp also is involved in the matter of party chairman for Illinois Democrats, making calls to boost the campaign of state Rep. Lisa Hernandez. Hernandez has emerged as a challenger for the chairmanship to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly.
Why? Politico has reported it’s because Kelly’s day job, a federal position, limits her ability to raise money statewide, meaning that the Democrats have had to form a separate committee to get around those ethics rules. If Hernandez gets the job, that makes it easier for the Democrats to raise cash. And if it is easier to raise cash and defeat Republicans, the Pritzker agenda is better supported.
Granted, making calls is not the same as bankrolling ads, but it’s still gross.
The governor should govern. He shouldn’t be getting involved in this kind of politically expedient manipulation, especially since it’s unlikely that he thinks Kelly, who has the backing of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, to be an otherwise weak candidate.
Think about it for a moment. Should an officeholder of party chairman be cast aside because of ethical constraints that are no fault of her own and that the governor himself surely believes are valid? Absolutely not. Those issues should be kept out of the process, especially when we’re talking the holder of the highest office in the state exacting his influence.
Pritzker’s own fortunes, which clearly are on the rise nationally, will be buoyed yet more if he takes public stands against this kind of thing, if he shifts away from jumping on the phone for a better political outcome for Illinois Democrats, and for himself, and speaks to all Americans about their civic duty.
So far, he has given Illinois ethical and pragmatic governance, at least as far as we can see. He should now make clear that he is not dinging Kelly for following the rules. And since, as a leading citizen of Illinois, he surely would prefer a moderate Republican over an extremist, he should not be afraid of saying so, loud and clear and damn any political consequences.
That’s his way forward.