October 01, 2022


Jim Nowlan: What does Ken Griffin want from politics?

What does Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin want from politics? To take over the Republican Party in Illinois? To be governor? A reporter called with these questions. As a retired politico and professor of politics, I get these inquiries from time to time.

I don’t know Griffin personally. In 2020, I chaired a campaign committee that received $4.5 million from Griffin. With this indispensable help, we knocked off the Illinois Supreme Court (first time in our state’s history) a judge whom we felt sullied his robes with decisions that blatantly protected Mike Madigan, indicted ex-speaker of the Illinois House. The contribution allowed us to compete on a par with the money that Madigan, unions and trial lawyers spent to support the judge.

Here is what I have learned about Griffin and his political objectives. First, he doesn’t care for politics or politicians. Griffin is not a people person, at least not a hail fellow, well met political sort. He has no interest in mucking it up personally in politics. He would be a terrible political candidate, and he knows it. After all, Griffin doesn’t suffer fools lightly, which is exactly what you have to do, every day, to be successful in politics.

Griffin has a very small staff at his office that works with outside political operatives who represent campaigns. In other words, “our guys talk to his guys” to achieve mutual objectives.

So, what are his objectives? With a net worth of $27 billion and change (which he earned all by himself, starting as a trader from his college dorm room), Griffin has more money than Croesus ever dreamed of. So, he can spend scores of millions in campaigns in Illinois and beyond, and consider it a rounding error to his wealth. What could politics do for him personally, anyway?

From all I can tell, Griffin finds his adopted state of Illinois poorly led, and this offends his buttoned-down business sense of what can and should be. Isn’t it enough that he just wants safe streets, good schools, and an attractive business climate?

Illinois should be a powerhouse. In each of the six Rs critical to economic development – roads, rails, runways, rivers, routers, research – Illinois is arguably among the top three states. And it’s smack dab in the middle of the world’s largest economy. Yet, Illinois has for decades been slipping relative to the nation in per capita income. In 1950, our state’s per capita income was 122% of the national average; today it is 105%. My well-to-do Prairie State friends are leaving for Florida, generally replaced by working class sorts plus some bright young professionals coming to Chicago.

Unfortunately, because of widely televised violence and mayhem on Chicago’s main thoroughfares, many of my fellow Downstaters are now afraid to go to the city – which they used to love, for the Cubs and Bears games, and for its breathtaking museums.

Why is Griffin’s money needed to achieve his objectives?

When I was a young elected legislator and statewide candidate in Illinois in the 1960s and 1970s, a Republican Party existed. The party helped guide its chosen, generally moderate candidates through the primary elections and to frequent success in November. Today, the party has no money, almost no precinct workers, and avoids trying to play a role in endorsing good candidates. So, it is irrelevant in politics.

Big money has, unfortunately, replaced party workers in American politics. I don’t like it, but I haven’t figured out an alternative. It’s our billionaires against theirs.

But can money buy good outcomes? Griffin backed Republican Bruce Rauner for governor (2015-2018; now of Florida). Rauner turned out to be one of the worst chief executives in Illinois history; for example, he deprived Illinois of a state budget for more than two years. This may sound appealing, yet its harmful effects are still being felt.

In 2020, Griffin spent $54 million in a successful effort to defeat a state tax increase referendum, which Gov. JB Pritzker touted. The governor now says that revenue apparently isn’t needed, as he is offering voters tiny tax cuts during his campaign for reelection.

This year Griffin’s guys have put his money ($45 million thus far) on Richard Irvin, the mayor of suburban Aurora. They think he has the best chance of beating Pritzker in the fall. But Irvin, a novice to state politics, has stumbled over heavily scripted talking (or non-talking) points in his few public appearances. The mayor may not be ready for prime time, as they say.

So, Mabel, money can’t buy happiness, and maybe not good government, either. Yet that doesn’t change Griffin’s objectives: safe streets, good schools, an attractive business climate. Is that too much to ask?

• Jim Nowlan has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors. A former state representative, Nowlan was the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1972, running with Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie. He lives in Princeton, Illinois.

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor and former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.