The Democrats’ SOS Candidate Keeps His Options Open

CHICAGO — Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois sat comfortably in an office board room high above the Loop on Monday and halfheartedly batted away the notion that he was preparing a run for the White House.

The billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune may be seen by some Democrats as the “in case of emergency break glass” candidate, one of the few prominent politicians who could stand up a White House run at a moment’s notice. Although President Biden has said he intends to mount a campaign, that has not eased Democrats’ obvious worry: the famously dilatory Hamlet on the Potomac might decide not to run for re-election at 81, and worry could turn to panic.

But while Mr. Pritzker declined to provide a yea or nay on whether he would run, he added that a last-minute swap of an understudy for Mr. Biden was “such an odd hypothetical if you ask me.”

“I think it assumes a lot of things about someone who’s 80 in this world today. No kidding, you know, 80 is a lot different today than it was in the ’80s,” he said with his signature aw-shucks wave.

Politicians hate hypotheticals, or say they do to dodge questions, but if Mr. Biden cannot or will not run, the Democratic Party would have 3.6 billion reasons — Forbes’s most recent estimate of Mr. Pritzker’s net worth — to turn to the Illinois governor.

Four months after winning a second term by 12.5 percentage points, Jay Robert Pritzker, 58, has maintained his political operation and his ambition. His influence and money reach far beyond state lines, and a string of progressive victories in the last year has raised his stature.

“He would run for two good reasons,” said Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Peoria who served as a transportation secretary in the Obama administration. “He’s a billionaire who’s not afraid to spend his own money, and he’s very progressive, which is where the Democratic Party is today.”

Indeed, Mr. Pritzker has turned center-left Illinois into an island of prairie progressivism, much as Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who won re-election last year by 19 points, has enacted a blood-red “Florida Blueprint” that he is now pitching to the wider nation ahead of an expected campaign.

And while Mr. DeSantis has created a conservative bastion in Florida over the wishes of millions in his diverse state, Mr. Pritzker’s policies have rankled much of Illinois beyond Chicagoland. Under his leadership, the legislature has approved a $15 minimum wage, legalized recreational cannabis, ended cash bail, guaranteed access to abortions and gender-affirming care and banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Who’s Running for President in 2024?

The race begins. Four years after a historically large number of candidates ran for president, the field for the 2024 campaign is starting out small and is likely to be headlined by the same two men who ran last time: President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump. Here’s who has entered the race so far, and who else might run:

Donald Trump. The former president is running to retake the office he lost in 2020. Though somewhat diminished in influence within the Republican Party — and facing several legal investigations — he retains a large and committed base of supporters, and he could be aided in the primary by multiple challengers splitting a limited anti-Trump vote.

Nikki Haley. The former governor of South Carolina and U.N. ambassador under Mr. Trump has presented herself as a member of “a new generation of leadership” and emphasized her life experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants. She was long seen as a rising G.O.P. star but her allure in the party has declined amid her on-again, off-again embrace of Mr. Trump.

Vivek Ramaswamy. The multimillionaire entrepreneur and author entered the Republican presidential race with an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and a video centered on opposition to social justice activism. He has made a name for himself in right-wing circles by opposing corporate efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes.

President Biden. While Mr. Biden has not formally declared his candidacy for a second term, and there has been much hand-wringing among Democrats over whether he should seek re-election given his age, he is widely expected to run. If he does, Mr. Biden’s strategy is to frame the race as a contest between a seasoned leader and a conspiracy-minded opposition.

Others who are likely to run. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire are seen as weighing Republican bids for the White House. The self-help author Marianne Williamson said she will join the race on the Democratic side.

Last year Mr. DeSantis used Florida tax dollars to ship migrants to Democratic cities like Chicago, and Mr. Pritzker expanded health care access to undocumented immigrants. On a recent morning, Sol Flores, his deputy governor, said she had dragged him to a Chicago shelter at 7:15 a.m., so he could high-five migrant children as they headed off to school.

Patience and power

Late last month in the Lexington Elementary School gym in Maywood, a Chicago suburb, Mr. Pritzker unveiled his youth mental health initiative, then waited, sitting on a foldout metal chair, as each health policy expert, school official, state representative and state senator took their turn at the lectern. His security detail and black S.U.V. were at the ready behind the school, but he listened for over an hour with a wry smile on his face.

Patience, of course, is a virtue in politics, but don’t try to tell Mr. Pritzker there was a metaphor in his ability to wait out other Democrats. He has no interest in challenging Mr. Biden. Unity, he said, is the strongest weapon that Democrats will have to thwart a Donald J. Trump comeback or a contest against Mr. DeSantis, the two presumed front-runners for the G.O.P.

But should such a presidential race evolve, pitting Mr. Pritzker against Mr. Trump or Mr. DeSantis, it would be a clash of forceful avatars of modern conservatism and liberalism.

In the rural reaches of downstate Illinois, Mr. Pritzker’s shutdowns intended to slow the coronavirus pandemic have empowered the most ardent voices of the right, who point to crime and poverty in Chicago and the out-of-state relocations of Boeing, Caterpillar and the hedge-fund giant Citadel as his true legacy.

“He will fail running for president as an out-of-touch billionaire who made Illinois less affordable and less safe,” said Representative Mary Miller, a pro-Trump Republican who defeated a more moderate fellow House Republican last year in a primary necessitated by the Democratic redistricting of the state.

He has deep-pocketed detractors in fellow billionaires Ken Griffin, the Citadel founder whose flight to Florida has not quieted his criticism, and Richard Uihlein, who still lives in Illinois and spent more than $50 million trying to thwart Mr. Pritzker’s re-election.

How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

But even some Republicans express a grudging admiration for the governor’s affability and his willingness to show up in parts of the state where his support is minimal.

“I think it’s very sincere,” Mr. LaHood said. “He believes he has to be governor of the whole state.”

What they really admire, though, is the political instinct for the jugular under that jovial shell.

Mr. Pritzker’s signature initiative in his first term — ditching the state’s flat-rate income tax for a progressive structure — failed spectacularly in a 2020 referendum, but he secured the allegiance of the left with marijuana legalization legislation that expunged the records of half a million people convicted of low-level cannabis crimes. His minimum wage increase cemented the support of labor, and he won over traditionally Republican suburbs with fiscal management that balanced the budget, solidified Illinois’ bond ratings and began repairs to its creaking infrastructure.

Broad shoulders and bare knuckles

As for Republicans, he didn’t so much win them over as he destroyed their political foundation. Illinois’ redistricting, which the governor signed and extolled as preserving representation of voters of color, was probably the most partisan of any Democratic state, combining four Republican seats into two, creating one new Democratic seat and shoring up Democratic incumbents in swing districts.

When the moderate Black mayor of Aurora, Richard C. Irvin, entered the governor’s race last year, Mr. Pritzker and the Pritzker-funded Democratic Governors Association spent nearly $35 million to attack Mr. Irvin and lift a hard-right candidate, Darren Bailey, who won the primary only to muster a mere 42 percent of the vote last November. Republicans still say some of the attacks on Mr. Irvin bordered on racist.

“J.B. Pritzker won in a landslide because he sent over $30 million to pick his own candidate, who then got eviscerated,” said Rodney Davis, the House Republican who lost to Ms. Miller in the primary.

“Look, I like talking to the guy. He’s affable. He’s fun,” Mr. Davis conceded, before blasting Mr. Pritzker for “buying a governorship, breaking a promise on fair redistricting, then building a supermajority” in the state legislature with no regard for the views of rural Illinois.

Mr. Pritzker, of course, sees things differently. He calls himself a “pragmatic progressive,” a phrase reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative.”

He is open about his political ambitions. He is not the Illinois Democratic Party’s chairman, but he sees himself as its head and his political organization as its muscle. His money travels well beyond the state lines, but with strings attached. He intends to shape the party in his image.

“I intend to be impactful in the 2024 elections, helping Democrats run for Congress, helping Democrats run for United States Senate, and helping Joe Biden win re-election,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that you sit back and write a check to the D.N.C. and say, ‘Hope you get it right. Good luck. Have fun storming the castle.’”

The question still lingers: Could he, if asked, storm the castle himself? Mr. Pritzker is not one to hide his possible liabilities. He jokes constantly about his girth, which is ample. He refers often to his Judaism, which he places at the core of his liberal values and his empathy for society’s underdogs. And he knows well that being a billionaire in the Democratic Party isn’t a positive for many of the party’s voters.

“I’d love to sit back, eat popcorn and watch J.B. Pritzker and Bernie Sanders on a debate stage,” Mr. Davis quipped.

For all his privilege, Mr. Pritzker has struggled. His father, Donald, died of a heart attack at 39, when J.B., his youngest son, was only seven. His mother, Sue, sank into alcoholism — Mr. Pritzker has spoken of childhood fears that she would fall asleep with a cigarette and burn down their Atherton, Calif., house — then tragedy. In 1982, when J.B. was a teenager, she wrecked her car, then, apparently intoxicated, tumbled out of the tow truck she had called and was run over by it.

At 17 he was an orphan, raised in part by his older sister, Penny.

“They had resources, but those don’t make up for the absence of a father and the afflictions of his mother,” said David Axelrod, who watched Mr. Pritzker’s rise as an Illinois political consultant. “He’s had every advantage, but he has suffered emotionally.”

At 33, he made his first lunge into politics, plowing $500,000 of his own money into a House race in Chicago’s heavily Democratic North Shore suburbs in 1998, only to come in third. From there, he devoted himself to business, a venture capital firm, a technology start-up incubator and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s business and technology council in Chicago.

He returned to politics in 2018, when Bruce Rauner, a Republican governor, was up for re-election after a damaging first term. Mr. Pritzker built a political team of seasoned veterans, led by Anne Caprara, who had been executive director of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, and Quentin Fulks, who went on to lead Senator Raphael Warnock’s successful re-election campaign in Georgia last year.

That ability to recruit a diverse and potent team may be Mr. Pritzker’s most powerful skill, and one that keeps him in the conversation as Democrats wait for Mr. Biden to begin his campaign.

“Look, we have only one president at a time,” said Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor and an ally of the governor. “But one of the things I watched when he became governor was the way he scooped up political and policy talent as he was taking office. His ability to put together a team and put them in the right spot was and still is really impressive.”

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