Almost no one in Illinois had more resources to devote to running for governor than J.B. Pritzker. At 53, Pritzker is the billionaire scion of the state’s wealthiest family. His sister, Penny, served as President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary. The family name adorns the University of Chicago’s medical school, Northwestern University’s law school and the gleaming, Frank Gehry-designed band shell in Chicago’s Millennium Park, not to mention the country’s most prestigious prize for architecture. Four of the dozen richest Illinoisans are Pritzkers, according to Forbes. J.B. Pritzker’s share of the family fortune is estimated at $3.2 billion.
And yet when Pritzker started considering whether to challenge Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner in the aftermath of the 2016 election, he asked himself not only the questions that most would-be candidates do — Could he win? How would running affect his wife and children? His business? — but also a question most candidates never consider: Was it even possible to fix the state he’d lead?
Illinois — the sixth-biggest state, by population — has seen its credit rating cut to near-junk status in the decade since the financial crisis. Its bonds are now considered as risky as those of Russia and Romania. Its pension system is in worse shape than that of almost any other state. Springfield, the state capital, has grown so paralyzed that Illinois’ own governor compared the state to “a banana republic.” And a bitter standoff between Rauner, a Republican, and Democrats in the state Legislature has left Illinois more than $7 billion in unpaid bills and a sense among the state’s residents and creditors that Illinois might not be governable anymore.
“The state is on the edge of financial collapse,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a good-government nonprofit in Chicago. What scares budget experts the most is that Illinois is facing a fiscal crisis even as the national economy, and the state’s, is roaring ahead. The unemployment rate in Illinois is 4.1 percent. “If there’s a hiccup in the economy, if there is something that’s unexpected, Illinois does not have reserves to basically weather any economic downturn at this point,” Msall says.
When my parents moved to the Chicago suburbs from Missouri in 1976, Chicago was still the country’s second most populous city. It boasted the world’s busiest airport and its tallest skyscraper. In the decades since, as the state’s finances have eroded nearly to the point of catastrophe, Chicago has surrendered its spot as the country’s Second City (if not the title) to Los Angeles. Its murder rate remains stubbornly high, even as those in other big cities have fallen. Companies and fresh college graduates continue to move to Chicago — but there’s also an unmistakable anxiety about the state’s future, even in casual conversations. When I returned to my hometown of Mundelein, in the far Chicago suburbs, last year for Thanksgiving and caught up with high school friends over deep-dish pizza and beer, one friend who’d just bought a house told me that he and his wife weren’t eager to stick around a state whose future seemed bleak.
Even so, Pritzker decided he wanted the job, and with barely a month to go, the governor’s race appears to be his to lose. An NBC News/Marist poll in August found Pritzker leading Rauner 46 percent to 30 percent; a poll conducted by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute late last month had Pritzker up by 22 points. When Rauner won election in 2014, he spent millions of dollars of his own money on the race, but he can’t outspend Pritzker, who’s given nearly $150 million of his fortune to his campaign. (This time around, Rauner has contributed $50 million to his reelection effort.)
The question, it seems, is not whether Pritzker is likely to be Illinois’ next governor, but why he would want the job. Barring a sharp reversal in the polls, he is on track to coast into office. Once he gets there, however, he’ll be confronted with perhaps the most daunting policy challenges facing any governor in the country. Looming over the campaign is not just the question of whether either candidate has a real plan to fix the state, but whether anyone can. At times, the race has taken on an apocalyptic tone. “Defeating Bruce Rauner is critical to the future of our state,” Roberta Lynch, the executive director of AFSCME Council 31, the state’s flagship public employee union, where she’s worked for more than three decades, told me. “I can’t say I’ve ever really felt that way about an Illinois governor’s race.”