By Rick Pearson
Billionaire J.B. Pritzker cruised to victory Tuesday night in the Illinois Democratic governor primary, his record-setting $70 million campaign allowing him to build a formidable operation his underfunded rivals could not overcome.
"I'm J.B. Pritzker, and I'm going to beat Bruce Rauner," said the candidate, who took the stage in a Chicago hotel ballroom to the song "Go Big or Go Home" by the group American Authors. "And together, we're going to put Springfield back on the side of working families."
With 81 percent of the state's precincts counted, Pritzker had 46 percent of the vote compared with 26 percent for state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston and 24 percent for Kenilworth developer Chris Kennedy. Trailing far behind were anti-violence advocate Tio Hardiman of Chicago; Bob Daiber, the lone Downstate candidate in the race; and perennial candidate Robert Marshall from Burr Ridge.
Pritzker did well in Chicago and the suburbs. With nearly 90 percent of the city's precincts counted, Pritzker had 45 percent of the vote to Biss' 27 percent and Kennedy's 24 percent. But Pritzker also was holding at least 40 percent of the vote in the suburbs and racking up 60 percent of the vote or more in several smaller Downstate counties.
Pritzker, a Hyatt Hotels heir and Gold Coast investor, got into the race in April. He dipped into his fortune to pay for tens of millions of dollars' worth of TV ads across the state and put together an active get-out-the-vote operation.
Pritzker said he wanted to take a page from a rising progressive youth movement and "call BS" on the "same old playbook" that reverts a candidate to the safety of the political middle following a primary election.
"So tonight we begin a general election campaign about issues that are as bold as they are big. This campaign is not just about the failed policies of a failed governor who thinks that lifting up the people of Illinois is a government expense rather than an investment in the future.
"No, this campaign is about a fight for economic security about jobs, and wages, health care, education and human services for working families in Illinois," he said.
But Pritzker still has a few things to learn about Illinois. Citing the problems of a Quad Cities-area couple whose social service agency failed during a prolonged budget crisis, Pritzker pronounced the name of their hometown Milan like the city in Italy. The correct pronunciation, however, is "My-lan."
During a campaign filled with controversies, Pritzker acknowledged: "We should be honest about who we are as citizens and who we are as candidates. I'm not a perfect person. I'm not going to pretend to be.
"And frankly, I've had enough of people like Donald Trump and politicians like Bruce Rauner, who can never acknowledge a flaw, never offer an apology and never take responsibility for anything or anyone under their care," he said.
Then he added a mocking reference to Rauner. "I won't put on a costume and jump on a Harley and pretend to be someone I'm not," Pritzker said. "I won't blame everyone else for my inability to compromise or get anything done."
In conceding defeat, Kennedy talked at length about his family's legacy of public service and his drive to keep fighting.
"We have battled J.B. Pritzker for the heart and souls of Illinois," Kennedy told supporters. "The voters have spoken and now we must give J.B. Pritzker the support he has earned."
Biss said he had called to congratulate Pritzker and discuss the differences they had.
"We agreed on certain things and we agreed on one very important thing: the absolute essential need for the future of our state for us to come together to defeat Bruce Rauner," Biss said.
Pritzker's strength was evident throughout the state based on the early returns. Biss, appealing to a younger voter, led only in the counties of McLean and Champaign, home to two state universities. Kennedy was leading in only one county, tiny Hardin County, on the Indiana border.
Biss, who has served in the legislature since 2011, had sought to appeal to a growing progressive movement that followed the 2016 presidential election. In contrast to his more wealthy rivals, Biss sought to portray himself as middle class while looking to the left wing of a divided Democratic Party for support.
Kennedy, an heir to the iconic Massachusetts political family, was largely forced to scramble for cash and TV time to get out his message against the far wealthier Pritzker and ultimately found a lane by attacking the state's and Cook County's Democratic establishment.
Even before the final day of balloting began Tuesday, more than 441,000 early votes and votes by mail had been cast, according to the State Board of Elections. Of the total, more than 73 percent of those voters cast a Democratic primary ballot.
With his ability to write big campaign checks, Pritzker quickly became the establishment candidate. Democratic allies in organized labor quickly rallied around him, believing his deep pockets would allow them to devote their campaign cash to House and Senate races to protect Democratic majorities in the General Assembly.
Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan did not formally endorse for governor, and neither did the state Democratic Party he chairs. But last fall, Pritzker won the backing of the Madigan-influenced Cook County Democratic organization and later the state's Democratic county chairmen's association.
Pritzker also was hammered by millions of dollars in attack ads from Rauner, who sought to link him not only to Madigan, the governor's chief political nemesis, but also to imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Chicago Tribune reported that in November 2008, Pritzker was caught on federal wiretaps asking Blagojevich to appoint him state treasurer and strategizing with the soon-to-be-arrested governor on who to appoint to President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat.
In early February, Pritzker scrambled to rebuild support with African-American voters after the Tribune published recordings that showed Pritzker discussing potential black Senate candidates. Pritzker called Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White the "least objectionable" contender while speaking in blunt terms about others.
Pritzker also sought to defend offshore holdings as part of his longstanding philanthropy despite allegations from his opponents that he was using them to try to avoid taxes. And he was attacked for disconnecting toilets at a Gold Coast mansion to gain a reduction in his property assessment.
A name long known in national Democratic circles, Pritzker has given millions of dollars to politicians and was a major backer of Hillary Clinton's campaigns for president, including her 2008 campaign against the home-state Barack Obama. Pritzker was making his first statewide bid after losing a 1998 North Shore congressional race.
Despite his family lineage in Democratic politics, Kennedy sought to portray himself as a party outsider not long after entering the race in February 2017. He frequently criticized both Madigan and Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, who also holds the title of county Democratic chairman, over the issue of unfair property assessments.
Kennedy also lashed out at Mayor Rahm Emanuel, contending he was leading a "strategic gentrification plan" to move African-Americans out of Chicago, and make the city wealthier and whiter.
For Kennedy, African-American voter support was key, and he regularly sought to use his family's rich political history as a link. Both Kennedy's father, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and uncle, President John F. Kennedy, were key figures in the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s.
Both his father and uncle also were assassinated, which Kennedy discussed as he focused on the gun violence that has ravaged Chicago.
But Kennedy also stumbled at times. After an appearance before the Tribune editorial board, Kennedy told reporters he believed that Republican Gov. Rauner should be "applauded" for speaking "truth to power." The statement provided ready fodder for Democratic foes. And despite his property tax system critiques, Kennedy also had obtained assessment reductions.
Biss, a former mathematics professor educated at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sought to appeal to the party's non-establishment wing and supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' unsuccessful 2016 bid for president.
The state senator worked to gain the backing of local insurgent groups as a way to overcome establishment opposition. Biss regularly criticized Madigan's legislative and party leadership, though he voted for Madigan as speaker during a lone term in the House.
Traditional Democratic allies in organized labor shunned Biss' campaign, in part because of his previous sponsorship of a law that would have slashed retirement benefits for public employees. The Illinois Supreme Court later ruled it unconstitutional, and during the campaign Biss called the measure a mistake.
Daiber and Hardiman were never major factors in the contest and didn't raise much money.
The lone candidate from outside the Chicago area, Daiber sought to use his Downstate roots as a selling point. The regional school superintendent of Madison County near St. Louis, Daiber spoke of his efforts to try to unite a state that often finds its regional diversity a divisive political tool.
Hardiman, a community activist, was the lone African-American candidate and asked voters to make him a historic choice as the state's first black governor.
Marshall, a perennial candidate who has run as both a Democrat and a Republican, brought to debates a state highway map as he called for splitting Illinois into three states: Chicago, the suburbs and Downstate.
Chicago Tribune's Todd Lighty, Dawn Rhodes and David Heinzmann contributed.
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