The James R. Thompson Center, the colorful, conical building from which Gov. J.B. Pritzker and a few key aides are directing the state’s COVID-19 response, is eerily empty these days. Only the LaSalle Street entrance is open, and that is guarded by two men in masks and plastic ponchos taking the temperature of every visitor. No one running hotter than 99 degrees fahrenheit is allowed inside.
The governor’s daily press briefings, which take place in the Blue Room on the 15th floor, are attended by a smattering of reporters and photographers, sitting in widely spaced seats. (To keep attendance low, press secretary Jordan Abudayyeh reads questions submitted by e-mail.) At 2:30 precisely, the governor emerges from a side door with thick, black brylcreemed hair and a perfectly tailored gray suit. He’s on TV every afternoon, announcing the latest death toll, imploring the public to stay inside, and airing his frustration with the federal government for failing to provide states with enough masks, gloves, gowns, and ventilators.
At Monday’s briefing, Pritzker announced the creation of an Essential Equipment Task Force to produce personal protective equipment in Illinois. He introduced the head of the Illinois Manufacturer Association, who reported that liquor manufacturers are now distilling hand sanitizer and clothing manufacturers are sewing gowns. He also asked tattoo parlors and nail salons to email email@example.com to donate supplies.
“I said I’d fight like hell for you,” Pritzker said, “and I’m doing that every minute of every hour of every day.”
Nobody expected J.B. Pritzker to be a strong governor. He was a wealthy dilettante, a hotel heir who was born into an outrageously large fortune that he used to buy the Democratic nomination, which was all it took to defeat his feckless, slightly less-wealthy predecessor, Bruce Rauner. Pritzker was going to Springfield to sign whatever House Speaker Michael Madigan, the real boss of Illinois, set on his desk.
But during the COVID-19 crisis, governors have become indispensable. Pritzker has used his executive powers to make decisions shirked by leaders both below and above him.
When Mayor Lori Lightfoot hesitated to close the Chicago Public Schools, a source of meals and shelter for many children, Pritzker shut down every school in Illinois. When St. Patrick’s Day partiers ignored entreaties not to crowd into taverns, Pritzker banned sit-down meals in bars and restaurants altogether. Eventually, he shut down the entire state, telling everyone except essential workers to stay home until April 7. Only a minority of governors have taken that step — Florida's Ron DeSantis wouldn’t even close his state's beaches for spring break — and Pritzker was one of the first. No Illinois governor has ever attempted to exercise so much control over the state’s population — not even Richard Yates during the Civil War.
(Things may have been different were the state still run by Rauner, whose fatal flaw was an unwillingness to bend on his libertarian principles, and who may have been less likely to demand personal and economic sacrifices for the public good. As The Atlantic reported, “[w]ith a few prominent exceptions, especially Ohio, states with Republican governors have been slower, or less likely, than those run by Democrats to impose restrictions on their residents.”)
Recently, Pritzker’s impatience with President Trump has made him a national figure. After a shortage of customs officers caused six hour delays and dangerous crowds at O’Hare Airport, Pritzker tweeted, “The federal government needs to get its s@#t together. NOW.” Immediately afterward, the Department of Homeland Security deputized Chicago firefighters to temporarily double as customs staff.
On Sunday, Pritzker went on CNN to criticize Trump for failing to distribute masks and gowns to the states, forcing them to compete against each other on the open market for personal protective equipment. “This should have been a coordinated effort by the federal government,” he said.
Trump tweeted in response: “@JBPritzker Governor of Illinois, and a very small group of certain other Governors, together with Fake News @CNN & Concast (MSDNC), shouldn’t be blaming the Federal Government for their own shortcomings. We are there to back you up should you fail, and always will be!”
“This is a time for serious people, not the carnival barkers who are tweeting from the cheap seats,” Pritzker retorted at his Sunday afternoon briefing. “All I can say is, get to work and get out of the way.” The next day, Pritzker said he'd spoken to Trump about getting more masks and ventilators from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile.
Like so many governors, Pritzker has risen to this moment — but he may have an even more difficult moment ahead. As Politico reported, Illinois will suffer more than most states due to the loss of tax revenue during this crisis, which has cost us millions of dollars in convention business: “Not only is its rainy day fund depleted, but the state a few years ago also passed a constitutional amendment that restricts the use of motor fuel fees and taxes for road construction and repair only. So Illinois has much less flexibility than other states in funneling money to a fund to respond to the impacts of the coronavirus.”
Pritzker himself said that he has tried to replenish the Rainy Day Fund, but “[i]n this crisis, there’s no way to build up that fund.”
Over the last few weeks, Pritzker has gotten a trial by fire in governing. Let’s hope he can apply those lessons to the economic crisis that’s coming next.