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The Democratic Machine’s New Monarch

How J.B. Pritzker’s bottomless pockets could spell business as usual in state politics

Illustration: Nicholas Little

In the early 1960s, a businessman named Arnold Maremont decided he wanted to run for U.S. Senate. So he made the pilgrimage all aspiring Democratic politicians were required to make in those days: to meet with Mayor Richard J. Daley. Daley wasn’t sure whether the Baptists of Little Egypt would vote for a Jewish candidate, so he told Maremont to go downstate and find out. Maremont reported they would, and so Daley slated such a candidate: Rep. Sidney Yates, a machine Democrat.

Maremont felt used, but, as Mike Royko points out in his biography of Daley, “he wouldn’t have even tried had he ever heard Daley explain why he is so dedicated a party man: ‘… The rich guys can get elected on their money, but somebody like me, an ordinary person, needs the party. Without the party, only the rich would be elected to office.’ ”

Back then, millionaires needed the party. Today, the party needs millionaires—or even billionaires. In his bid for the governor’s seat, J.B. Pritzker, a Hyatt hotel chain heir born with not just a silver spoon but an entire cutlery set in his mouth, has positioned himself as a political outsider who, because of his money, is immune to the influence of special interests and political bosses. Nonetheless, the Democratic candidate has been embraced by House speaker Michael Madigan, Illinois’s most powerful machine boss, in no small part because a win for Pritzker would allow Madigan to thrive.

Madigan never formally endorsed Pritzker. But as the News-Gazette of Champaign-Urbana wrote in an opinion piece during the primary: “It’s common knowledge—as well as a source of considerable resentment—that Madigan is backing Pritzker. Madigan is depending on the billionaire to use his family fortune to win an overwhelming victory that will return Illinois to one-party rule and ensure that he will again be able to gerrymander state legislative districts after the 2020 Census.” Pritzker, whose political philosophy is, shall we say, not fully developed, is also seen by political professionals as easier to influence than the experienced politicians he defeated in the primary. They saw Pritzker as the best-organized candidate, but his money helped him build that impression by allowing him to devote all his energies to town halls and campaign rallies, while his rivals were dialing for dollars and reporting to their day jobs.

Pritzker spent nearly $70 million of his $3.5 billion fortune just to win the Democratic nomination, and he will pony up even more in an attempt to defeat Madigan’s archnemesis, half-a-billionaire incumbent Bruce Rauner, in what is expected to be the most expensive statewide election in U.S. history. Because it’s self-funded, Pritzker’s candidacy will also allow Madigan’s state Democratic Party to devote more resources to legislative races, which could help the speaker regain his House supermajority.

For regular Democrats, allying with a plutocrat is simply a matter of survival in this era of superwealthy politicians. “The early success of billionaire candidates was on the Republican side,” says Brookings Institution scholar Darrell M. West, author of Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust, citing President Trump and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “But Democrats have taken notice of the fact that billionaires have been successful, and each party has adopted a policy of adopting a billionaire.”

Now that Madigan’s got his own billionaire, he’s going to ensure the system stays intact, even as people such as state senator Daniel Biss try to make politics in Illinois more equitable. Last year, Biss, who finished second to Pritzker in the Democratic primary, introduced a bill to establish a small-donor matching grant program that would provide public funding for state elections—a candidate for governor could receive up to $5 million. It’s modeled on the system in New York City, where liberal populist Bill de Blasio used matching grants to fund his successful campaign for mayor.

During his campaign, Biss raised $5.5 million, which, combined with what he already had in his campaign fund, brought him to $7 million—only a tenth of what Pritzker invested in his own coffers. Matching grants would have still put Biss’s total at only a fraction of Pritzker’s pool, but proponents of the bill say that could have been enough. “You don’t need tens of millions of dollars; you do need to break through,” says Colin Williams of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonprofit involved in drafting the bill.

Biss’s bill passed the Senate but has little chance in the House because it would weaken Madigan’s iron control over campaign funds for House elections—another point where the machine’s interests align with those of the superwealthy. And the legislation has no hope with the current governor. “[The bill] creates a grant program that could funnel hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to political campaigns,” says Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold. “Most people probably wouldn’t think that was a responsible use of taxpayer dollars.” (Pritzker evaded the question of whether he’d support the bill. According to his communications director, Galia Slayen, “J.B. supports overturning Citizens United and bringing comprehensive campaign finance reform to Illinois, including corporate and PAC contribution limits”—none of which would affect self-financed candidates.)

And so the machine, an organization that once boasted of itself as a vehicle for the humbly born to work their way up, evolves—making it harder for a so-called ordinary guy to take the highest office in the state in order to preserve its status quo. Madigan and the Illinois Democrats needed a champion who could outspend Rauner, and Pritzker is the only politician in Illinois with enough money to do it. If he succeeds, Pritzker will get the title “governor” in front of his name, Madigan will get control of Springfield back, and both money and the machine will be served.

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