CHICAGO -- The race for governor has not been a contest of ideas—it’s been a contest filled with insults and attacks.
WGN’s political reporter Tahman Bradley tried to get some answers from Democrat J.B. Pritzker, who invited him to ride with him on the Dan Ryan Expressway and then join him on a stroll through the Back of the Yards.
Billionaire venture capitalist Pritzker outmuscled five opponents in the primary to win the Democratic nomination for governor.
Heir to the Hyatt fortune, Pritzker and his brother founded the Pritzker Group after the larger Pritzker family empire broke up.
Pritzker’s net worth is $3.2 billion. When asked why a man with his amount of wealth wants to be governor, Pritzker said it's because there are many challenges facing the state.
"...this is my home. I’ve raised my kids here. My family’s here. My businesses have been here. And we have working families who have been forgotten for too long under Bruce Rauner and I think they need somebody who’s going to fight for them," he said.
Pritzker said people across Illinois know he shares the same values.
“…that’s fighting for working families, trying to raise up the most at-risk kids by fighting for early childhood education, as I have for so many years. You know I created thousands of jobs for people in Illinois both at 1871, the small business incubator that’s now considered the best in the world that I founded, but also thousands of jobs, he said.
Pritzker’s father, Donald, grew Hyatt Hotel from a small chain to one of the world’s largest. He died when Pritzker was 7. Pritzker’s mother, Sue, died when he was 17. The candidate said he thinks his parents would be proud.
“I think they’d be proud of the way that we’ve run, of the organization that we’ve put together. I know you’re from here in Chicago and I live here in Chicago. There are 96 counties outside Chicago and the collar counties. I’ve paid a lot of attention to them to make sure that I was listening to the challenges they’re facing in central and southern Illinois.
It has been a brutal campaign. Pritzker’s toilets have made headlines. A leaked inspector general report details how the candidate removed toilet from his Gold Coast mansion to score tax breaks. Even though he said he was just following the law, Pritzker repaid the money. He spins questions about the breaks into a crusade against high property taxes.
Tahman Bradley: What specific laws should be changed and is that just how wealthy people do business?
Pritzker: Well, look more than 50,000 people seek to have their property taxes reassessed every single year. So upgrading the formula across the state that determine what property taxes are paid by whom, that’s one big thing. But a really big thing that I want to do is alleviate the pressure on property taxes by changing the way we fund schools.
Republicans have made House Speaker Michael Madigan to be the boogeyman, and mentioned him in a recent ad targeting him and Pritzker and called them "partners in destruction." They said Pritzker won’t stand up to the powerful house speaker and party chairman.
But Pritzker said Madigan doesn’t get to tell the governor who’s in charge.
“The governor is in fact in charge of the executive branch of the government of the State of Illinois. One thing I won’t do is walk out of the room when we’ve got to get a budget done and that’s something that Bruce Rauner has done," Pritzker said.
When asked if Madigan recruited him to run for governor, Pritzker said it's the "biggest lie" he's heard.
"The truth is, I've been an independent leader my whole life," he said.
To shore up Illinois’ finances, Pritzker proposed moving from a flat income tax system to a graduated one. He’s been asked dozens of times to reveal his rates, but he hasn't. WGN asked him about California’s top tax bracket of 13.3 percent.
TB: Is that too high for Illinois do you think?
Pritzker: Look, we’re a Midwestern state.
TB: That’s yes?
Pritzker: We’re a midwestern state where we have to be competitive with the other midwestern states here. Remember most state in the Midwest have a progressive income tax.
TB: In the meantime, will you assure voters that you won’t raise the state’s income tax from the level that we already have it at – the flat tax?
Pritzker: Yeah, look, I think people are overtaxed – the middle class and people striving to get there.
TB: So you’re holding the line at 4.95 percent for the flat income tax rate?
Pritzker: Well, if have a flat tax system in the state, which is a very unfair system. To remind you, we have the most unfair tax system in the entire nation.
Pritzker also promised to prioritize gun violence by treating it as an epidemic.
“Treating it like an epidemic means interrupting the violence where it’s occurring – the way you would if it’s a disease. That means funding the violence interruption programs that have been around in Illinois for a longtime but Bruce Rauner decimated them,” he said.
Staffers who’ve worked for the Pritzker campaign filed a federal lawsuit alleging racial discrimination. He said it’s not true.
“The fact is that I’m very proud of the campaign that we’ve put together. You know that a majority of our senior staff are African American or are women,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker has political ties. His sister, Penny, served as Commerce Secretary in the Obama administration. Pritzker has worked for elected officials, but he himself has never held political office.
TB: Gov. Rauner is a wealthy man with no government experience. President Trump, wealthy man, no government experience. You’re a wealthy man, no government experience. How are you different?
Pritzker: Well, that’s not true. I do have government experience. In fact, I think people should take note that if I was some sort of political person that was running for everything, I might not have chosen this year to run just for the point you made. There’s a failed president in Washington, DC who’s a wealthy businessman. There’s a failed governor here in Illinois, who’s a wealthy businessman. But here’s the thing: I bring real experience to the job getting things done for working families.
It's no easy job. If he wins, he’ll inherit a stack of IOUs and unfunded pension liabilities. Those are big issues Pritzker would face if he wins, but he seems to think it’s worth it.
The billionaire has given his campaign $171 million.