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Monday, February 26, 2024

The Billionaire Hotel Heir—and Progressive Hero?

The Billionaire Hotel Heir—and Progressive Hero?

Last fall, on a sunny day in the Chicago exurbs, J. B. Pritzker, well on his way to reëlection as the Democratic governor of Illinois, was knocking on a few doors and talking up his candidacy. A Republican had won every gubernatorial election in DuPage County since 1932, until Pritzker came along. He high-fived a kid on a bicycle and shouted “I love Star Wars!” to a boy wearing a Luke Skywalker shirt, smiling and joking as he went from house to house.

On Election Day, Pritzker won DuPage by fifteen points, and Deb Conroy became the first Democrat in seventy-five years to be elected chair of the county board. What had changed? A strong Democratic ground game, unpalatable G.O.P. candidates, and assertive approaches to abortion and assault weapons—two issues that once powered Republican turnout. “When the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights, it really got everyone’s attention,” Conroy told me, explaining that Republican moderates moved strongly to the Democrats. “What was left was the far-right and the Donald Trump ride-or-die folks,” she said. Then, there was Pritzker himself, who telegraphed a brisk, progressive, conspicuously well-funded message that he believes can carry Democrats to victory across the country in November, 2024.

Pritzker, a billionaire once known to many voters as the Democratic rich guy running against the Republican rich guy in a dysfunctional state, has pursued a robust activism defined by the kind of Democratic social policies that marked the nineteen-thirties and sixties. That means more funds for schools, child care, health care, college tuition, and roads. But he also brings a reputation for fiscal acumen, and business connections, from his career as an investor and leader of a tech incubator—Pritzker is the richest elected politician in the United States—plus an aptitude for pugilism, especially around reproductive rights. “To anyone who thinks that they can come into this state and try to force some right-wing MAGA war on a woman’s body,” he told a cheering crowd last November, “you will never get an inch of Illinois.”

Money has long opened political doors for Pritzker. He inherited $1.3 billion and roughly tripled it, then poured a hundred and seventy-one million dollars into his first gubernatorial campaign, in 2018, and at least a hundred and forty million more into his reëlection. When he flies on state business, he charters a jet and pays for it himself. He tops up the salaries of senior aides and maintains a paid political staff on the side. These days, he is showering contributions on Democratic candidates and, especially, organizations that seek to advance abortion rights. Next year, he will host the Democratic National Convention, which he helped lure to Chicago with assurances that the event, which is expected to cost ninety million dollars, wouldn’t take on any debt, and that Illinois would provide a complimentary backdrop for the Party’s message. At fifty-eight, Pritzker has left little doubt that he will spend whatever it takes to achieve his political ends. A Democratic strategist told me, “I think everyone in the political world in Illinois is thinking about the fact that he has Presidential ambitions.”

Pritzker’s first foray into politics was a disaster. In 1998, he spent a million dollars in a campaign for Congress, only to finish third in the Democratic primary. The winner, Jan Schakowsky, a eight-year veteran of the Illinois statehouse, built her campaign around an enthusiastic team of grassroots volunteers and a vow to be a “woman’s voice” in the overwhelmingly male Congress. Afterward, Pritzker told Rick Kogan, of the Chicago Tribune, “Could I live a happy life without ever running for public office again? I suppose that I can imagine not running, but I feel I have something important that I can do.” Still, for twenty years, he spent millions on other campaigns without launching one of his own. In 2008, he backed Hillary Clinton against Barack Obama and, eight years later, against Donald Trump, when he and his wife contributed at least fourteen million dollars to two super PACs supporting Clinton’s candidacy.

In 2017, Bruce Rauner, the unpopular Republican governor of Illinois, was faltering. For two years, the state had operated without a budget, thanks to a bitter stalemate between Rauner and the Democratic majority in the legislature. (He once vetoed nineteen budget bills in a single day.) By the time a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers overrode Rauner’s veto and the money finally began flowing, the state faced nearly fifteen billion dollars in overdue bills—which had harmed schools, social-service agencies, arts groups, public universities, and contractors. Politico headlined one story “How Illinois became America’s failed state.”

Pritzker sensed an opening. Given Rauner’s troubles and voter anger with Trump, he decided to try again at electoral politics. But could a wealthy Jewish investor from Chicago win statewide against the deep-pocketed Rauner, who had made his own fortune in private equity and beat a Democratic primary field that included Christopher Kennedy, a son of Robert F. Kennedy? At one early focus group, Pritzker watched from behind a two-way mirror as nine of ten participants said that they preferred Kennedy. “When I walked in the door, I thought it was going to be hard,” he recalled. “When I walked out, I thought it was going to be harder.” But Pritzker had virtually unlimited resources, and he concluded that running was “not a ridiculous endeavor.”

The 2018 gubernatorial contest would become the most expensive in U.S. history, starting with the nearly seventy million dollars that Pritzker spent to dispatch Kennedy in the primary. Pritzker hired a staff of two hundred and opened more than thirty campaign offices, including some in communities where Democrats tended to be scarce. He laid out an ambitious platform: raising minimum wage, expanding preschool education, banning assault weapons. He aimed to invest in infrastructure and increase the percentage of contracts going to businesses owned by women and minorities. He vowed to end cash bail, which penalizes low-income defendants. (His campaign slogan was “Think Big,” a double entendre that referred to his size—Pritzker is overweight—as well as to his ideas.) On Election Day, the Democratic rich guy won by a double-digit percentage of the vote.

It was barely a year into Pritzker’s first term when the COVID crisis struck. In the early weeks, he led newsy briefings that were direct, down-to-earth, widely watched, and curiously compelling. He shared what was known, conceded what wasn’t, and became one of the first governors to issue a stay-at-home order for nonessential workers. It was a controversial move, considering that only five hundred and eighty-five people in Illinois had tested positive, and it prompted lawsuits and invective from Republicans, who accused him of acting “like a dictator.” At a press conference, Pritzker said, “I fully recognize in some cases I’m choosing between saving people’s lives and saving people’s livelihoods. But, ultimately, you can’t have a livelihood if you don’t have your life.”

I spoke with Pritzker around this time. It was a Sunday morning in March, 2020, and he had been up since 4:30 A.M., studying new information about masks. He seemed oddly calm for a first-time politician who had been thrust into a generational crisis. “I don’t get flustered,” he told me. “I am a logical thinker in these moments.” He said that the state could not adapt without help from the Trump Administration. But he had grown frustrated with the White House. “They weren’t delivering, and these are things that are a matter of life and death.”

Pritzker has an abiding faith in what government can accomplish, especially for those who need it most. He traces this to his parents, Donald and Sue, who were dynamic and, as it turned out, doomed. Donald Pritzker, along with his brother, Jay, turned a single hotel near the Los Angeles airport into the prosperous Hyatt chain. Donald was gregarious, “somebody people loved being around,” Penny Pritzker, J.B.’s sister, a former U.S. Commerce Secretary, told me. He was the finance chairman of Edmund Muskie’s Presidential campaign and likely would have run for office one day. But, in 1972, visiting Hawaii to open a new Hyatt, he died of a heart attack while playing tennis. He was thirty-nine.

For his three children—Penny was thirteen, J.B. was seven, and a brother, Anthony, was eleven—the next decade was tumultuous. Their mother suffered from alcoholism, and her addiction deepened after Donald died. She was frequently in and out of treatment. In the mid-seventies, she served as the Northern California women’s chair for the state Democratic Party. (Penny recalled Nancy Pelosi coming by the house to help Sue stuff envelopes for a Senate candidate.) During the worst stretches of Sue’s illness, Pritzker told me, he would sometimes bike to the house of one of her friends to spend the night, just to get away. More frequently, he stayed awake at home, constantly checking to see if his mother had again fallen asleep in bed while smoking. Several times, he called 911 because she had passed out. In May, 1982, Sue was driving drunk when her Cadillac broke down. She called a tow truck. As she and the driver were hauling her car to a garage, she jumped from the truck’s front seat, hit her head, was run over, and died. Pritzker, away at boarding school in Massachusetts, was on his own. He later said that life as an orphan means carrying “a sense of being robbed. Grief ebbs over time, but it never stops stealing a piece of your joy in the moments when you deserve to be happiest.”

The experience showed the young Pritzkers that even the loftiest financial privilege couldn’t protect someone from tragedy. “You grow up faster,” J.B. said. As the siblings built their careers, growing ever more successful in business and philanthropy, the family ethos stayed with them. He put it this way: “You’re among the luckiest people in the world. You have obligations to do more than just care for yourself—being selfless in some fashion, being kind to people, expressing gratitude when it’s due.” The hotel business had made the family wealthy enough that Pritzker and his siblings would never have to have real jobs, but Sue had gone out of her way to instill in them the value of work. When Pritzker was a teen-ager, he had been a busboy at Rickey’s Hyatt House, the hotel that launched the family fortune. “Not the most glamorous job in the world, but I loved that I was earning money,” he said. On his first day, his mother told him, “You have to work twice as hard as the guy next to you, because you didn’t earn this.”

Since Pritzker became governor five years ago, he and the Democratic majority in Springfield have ticked through a liberal wish list in a state that had grown sclerotic with corruption. They raised the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. They banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. They abolished cash bail, the first state in the country to do so. They denied state funds to any libraries and schools that ban books, also the first state in the country to do that. They legalized marijuana and expunged eight-hundred thousand convictions for cannabis-related crimes. They strengthened Illinois’ commitment to abortion rights, including protections for the thousands of patients arriving from states that have largely banned the procedure. They successfully courted a two-billion-dollar electric-battery factory and passed climate legislation designed to phase out fossil fuels and increase renewables. And they did all this while seeing the state’s credit rating increase eight times after a decade of declines.

As the climate bill came together, in 2021, with labor unions, utilities, and environmentalists pulling in various directions, Pritzker, a self-described policy wonk who sleeps only five or six hours a night, immersed himself in the minutiae. Kady McFadden, who lobbies on climate issues, was once skeptical, but she became a believer while watching him prod and placate the competing camps in Springfield. He risked alienating some downstate unions that were fighting for jobs at climate-unfriendly coal plants while pleasing others that favored renewable-energy projects and preserving two nuclear power plants. According to McFadden, “His collaborative leadership style—it was very new to us. He consistently showed that he was going to be driven by the right policy choices for the state, and not who comes in with the most political muscle.” When the bill passed, Pritzker called it the most important thing he had ever done.

Rich Miller, the editor of Capitol Fax, a widely respected political newsletter, has covered the past seven Illinois governors. (Two of them went to prison.) For more than a decade before Pritzker, he told me, the state always seemed to be in crisis. “A lot of our problems were manufactured simply because one person hated another person and couldn’t find a way to get along.” In contrast, he said, Pritzker set out early to line up allies, make compromises, and pass legislation. “Part of it was his personality. Part of it was the mandate he got. He was not a finger-wagging populist. He was more, ‘Let’s try to get things done.’ ”

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