What J.B. Pritzker’s Election Means for Illinois

Of all the new governors, few will change the culture of their states as much as him.
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J.B. Pritzker
Democratic Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker speaks at his victory party after beating Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
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Twenty states elected new governors last month. Few will change the tone in their state capitols as quickly as Illinois Democrat J.B. Pritzker.

In large part, that has to do with the man Pritzker unseated. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner spent his four years in office feuding with the Democrats who run the legislature, notably state House Speaker Michael Madigan. Most notoriously, their disagreements led to a two-year period during which the state could not enact a budget.

Like Rauner, Pritzker is a millionaire hundreds of times over for whom the governorship will be his first elected office. Corporate kings who enter politics are often frustrated to find that their word is not fiat. But where Rauner had been a takeover artist, accustomed to telling people and corporations to do things his way, Pritzker is inclined toward congeniality. He grew up in the hospitality business: His family made its fortune owning the Hyatt hotel chain.

Pritzker has been around politics a long time. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress 20 years ago and has been a major Democratic donor, leading a tech initiative for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and funding a school breakfast program for the state. He won’t be challenging the legislature, as Rauner routinely did, over issues such as establishing term limits or taking away the General Assembly’s authority over redistricting. “He will certainly work closely with the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate,” says Democratic state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie. But, she adds, “he won’t be Mike Madigan’s right-hand man.”

Madigan has ruled the state House for all but two years since 1983. He hasn’t always gotten along with Democratic governors. But the potential coziness between Pritzker and legislative Democrats was a central theme of the Republican campaign. A couple of weeks before the election, Rauner released an ad dramatizing a same-sex “unholy union” between Pritzker and Madigan, with the speaker vowing to be an “unlawful partner in destruction” and Pritzker pledging obedience “always” to the speaker.

Rauner’s complaint all along has been that Illinois’ finances are in disorder and in need of a severe shock. It’s hard to argue with him, even though legislative Democrats rejected his prescribed medicine. This year’s budget as passed was nominally balanced, but the state almost immediately warned bond buyers that it was actually $1.2 billion in the red. That shortfall is expected to grow in the new year. “What we know with Madigan is that, for one reason or another, digging out of the fiscal hole isn’t his priority,” says Brian Gaines, a political scientist at the University of Illinois.

Pritzker said during the campaign that he’d like to create a graduated income tax, moving the state away from the current flat rate and calling on higher-income individuals to pay more. That can’t happen right away. Even if it’s approved by the legislature, the question would have to be put to voters, which wouldn’t occur until 2020. In the meantime, Pritzker might try to raise the personal income tax rate, perhaps offsetting some of the bump with deductions. He also favors legalizing marijuana, which could bring in some new revenue.

In general, though, his victory over Rauner was such a foregone conclusion that he wasn’t pressed to offer many specifics about what he’d do in office. “Pritzker has not had to go out on a limb with too many promises,” Gaines says. “He hasn’t given us much clue as to what he has in mind.”

What’s indisputable is that the new governor will inherit the same pension and budget problems Rauner was unable to solve. “There are at least two more years of a strained financial situation in Illinois,” predicts GOP Rep. David Harris. “I don’t think there’s any way of getting around that.”

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