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Battle of the Plutocrats

Why are Democrats backing a billionaire venture capitalist in one of 2018's most critical races?

Max Herman/Sun Times/AP

For Democrats, one of the most important races for governor next year is taking shape in Illinois. Bruce Rauner, the state’s venture-capitalist-turned-governor, is a union-busting, Scott Walker wannabe whose approval ratings have been wrecked by his obsession with spending cuts and his failure to pass a budget for more than two years. Rauner is perhaps the most vulnerable Republican governor running for reelection in 2018—in one of the biggest and bluest states. If Democrats can win the governorship in Illinois and maintain control in the state legislature, they could create a truly liberal stronghold in the Midwest.

But Rauner isn’t the only thing standing in the way of a liberal victory in Illinois. Six months before Democrats have even held their primary, party leaders have already lined up behind a venture capitalist of their own: J.B. Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune who, along with his wife, contributed nearly $20 million to support Hillary Clinton last year. With a net worth of $3.5 billion, Pritzker will certainly be able to compete with Rauner’s own war chest. But by backing one of the wealthiest candidates ever to run for governor, the Democratic establishment is ignoring the rising tide of populism that has upended American politics, setting up a battle between two private-equity plutocrats. “Voters need to know there is a clear distinction between what they have and what they need,” says Stacy Davis Gates, political and legislative director for the Chicago Teachers Union. “I don’t know how that happens with Pritzker and Rauner. They’re both billionaires and white guys.”

Pritzker is portraying himself as a liberal firebrand who will stand up to Trump. “I’m proud to be part of the resistance,” he announced in front of Chicago’s Trump Tower. “Illinois will be a firewall against Donald Trump’s destructive and bigoted agenda.” But while Pritzker’s platform hits many of the right notes—creating jobs, protecting health care, supporting public schools—he’s a staunch defender of his wealthy friends, opposing state legislation to close the carried-interest loophole for hedge-fund investors that costs the state $1.7 billion a year in tax revenues. “When it comes to the really tough fights, Pritzker is nowhere to be found,” says Amisha Patel, executive director of a coalition of unions and community groups called the Grassroots Collaborative.

Like Trump, Pritzker has also used the tax code to his own advantage, buying a historic Gold Coast mansion next door to his own, letting it fall into disrepair, then arguing that it was “uninhabitable”—a move that saved him $230,000 in property taxes. And like Trump, he is trailed by scandal. In 2008, at a time when then–Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was under federal investigation for soliciting bribes, Pritzker was caught on tape urging Blagojevich to appoint him to political office. Four days after Pritzker and his wife donated $100,000 to Blagojevich’s 2006 reelection bid, the governor announced a $1 million grant for a Holocaust museum that Pritzker was raising money to build.

But it’s the size of Pritzker’s wallet, not the strength of his ideas, that has endeared him to party leaders. Since formally announcing in April, he has already pumped more than $14 million into his own campaign—and says he’s willing to spend “whatever it will take,” all of it out of his own pocket. His campaign web site doesn’t even give supporters a “donate” option. That’s no small matter in an election where total spending is on pace to surpass $300 million, making it the most expensive gubernatorial race in U.S. history. Rauner and his GOP allies, including Chicago hedge-fund magnate Ken Griffin, have already pumped more than $70 million into his reelection effort.

The party establishment was quick to back the wealthiest candidate. Pritzker cemented his front-runner status in June, just two months after announcing his candidacy, when he clinched the earliest-ever gubernatorial endorsement from the state AFL-CIO. He also won the backing of the powerful Cook County Democratic Party, home to the largest bloc of party voters in the state.

But his personal wealth aside, it’s hard to see how putting forward a billionaire investor who made his bones in private equity will do anything other than reinforce the Democratic Party’s elitist image, while undercutting several viable contenders who have genuine track records of public service and progressive reform. Ameya Pawar, a Chicago alderman, is carving out a position as a grassroots-powered underdog with his calls for aggressive tax reform, Medicare for All, and a $15 minimum wage. As is Daniel Biss, a state senator from Evanston, who has raised $1.3 million by building an impressive base of small donors. “We have to decide if we want to have an election or if we want to have an auction,” says Biss. “The state’s problems won’t be fixed by a knight in shining armor coming in and saving us. We have to build our own system to build progressive power.”

But now that Pritzker has won the support of the party elite, it will be tough for grassroots candidates like Biss and Pawar to win the nomination. With a clear shot at retaking Illinois from an unpopular businessman-turned-politician, at a moment when the White House is occupied by an unpopular businessman-turned-politician, the Democratic Party has decided to back … an unpopular businessman-turned-politician. As a result, one of the most consequential elections of 2018 may have ended before it ever really had a chance to begin.