Illinois Politics

J.B. Pritzker Has Brought 

Sanity and Leadership to Illinois

Governor Gets High Marks For Handling of Pandemic, Economy

By Steve Rensberry
Opinion / Analysis

    EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. - 5-31-2021 - The year 2018 was a good one for J.B. Pritzker, but more importantly, for the state of Illinois.

    As you might recall, Pritzker, a Democrat, all but trounced former governor and Republican Bruce Rauner in that year's gubernatorial election, garnering a decisive 54.5 percent of the vote to Rauner's 38.8 percent. It was a big change from 2014, in which Rauner beat former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn with 50.27 percent of the vote compared to Quinn's 46.35 percent.

Illinois ranks No. 5. Source: statista. Click to enlarge.

    Proving that politics has indeed become a rich man's game, Rauner (a multi-millionaire) dumped some $26 million of his own money into the 2014 race, and another $70 million into the 2018 campaign. (1) But even with such an enormous investment in one's own election, it wasn't enough to fend off Pritzker (a billionaire), who spent $171 million of his own money to get elected. (2) This isn't counting all the additional campaign revenue raised by the two men.

    However, it wasn't just big money that decided the 2018 race, but the fact that the Republican's front-man simply failed at governing. "Rauner Deficit Increased 52% in FY17 to $14.7 Billion," one news release from Pritzker's election team reads (3). Talk is cheap, and Rauner, like most Republicans, was under the naive delusion that all the state needed to do was lower taxes and cut spending and its problems would be solved. One of his worst decisions was refusing to sign a budget for two years, essentially holding the state hostage until lawmakers approved a list of partisan demands. The fallout was felt by school districts, service organizations, and others all across the state, ultimately leading to a downgrading of the state's bond rating. (4)

    Bottom line: neither tax increases alone nor tax cuts alone are likely to solve the state's fiscal problems, we need both. That's what most economic experts I've read insist. But Republicans have been myopic and uncompromising on the issue -- and consequently have made the situation worse. (5)

    The scary part is that Rauner was not conservative enough for some, like his challenger Jeanne Ives, who narrowly lost to Rauner in the 2018 Republican Primary. Ives claimed she was motivated to run after Rauner signed into law HB-40, a bill that ensured abortion would remain legal in the state, and allow coverage for women with Medicaid or state-employee insurance coverage. (6)

    Pritzker, meanwhile, has stayed the course and acted as a governor should, with integrity, all the while taking a responsible lead on the pandemic and approving extended aid to unemployed workers. Nor has he dwelt on his losses, or become vindictive when rejected, as Rauner was prone to do. When voters gave Pritzker's graduated income tax proposal a thumbs down, he moved on to the task of governing and looked for other ways to balance the budget, including cuts. As luck would have it, the economy did better than expected and it was ultimately determined that no income tax increase would be needed to close a projected $3 billion budget deficit. (7)
    "Before JB became governor, for over two years a dysfunctional state government couldn’t even pass a budget. Services were cut, schools suffered, and families throughout the state paid the price because of a governor who didn’t get the job done," the governor's campaign site reads.

    One big disappointment in the 2018 state election was that the Illinois Chamber of Commerce still gave Rauner its endorsement, despite his dismal performance on the economy, citing opposition to Pritzker's "support for a graduated income tax, a $15 minimum wage, support for trial lawyers' agenda and lack of a meaningful commitment to reforming pensions and restoring fiscal integrity to our finances." (8)

    The Chamber's position on such contested issues was revealing in terms of showing its ideological biases, and unfortunately fits a pattern of siding against Illinois families, against poor and underpaid workers, and against people injured through medical malpractice or negligence.

    So here we are, a year and a few months away from the next gubernatorial election, set for Nov. 8, 2022. The opposition is ready with their "Pritzker Sucks" signs, their accusations that Illinois' population is "dramatically" shrinking because of a high tax burden and Democratic policies, and claims that Pritzker's tax policies will destroy businesses and hurt downstate residents. None of it is true, but I'm not sure the opposition cares because in their minds winning is everything. It's the new paradigm.

    What has Pritzker done while in office? Does he deserve a second chance? Consider the following list of achievements, as posted on Pritzker's official campaign site, here.


  • Passed a balanced, bipartisan budget that begins to pay down debts from the prior administration.
  • Improved our bond outlook to “stable” for the first time in years.
  • Passed a public safety pension consolidation bill to help lower property taxes and reduce future budget pressure.
  • Reduced state pension liabilities with an employee pension buyout program.

The Economy

  • Launched the bipartisan Rebuild Illinois capital plan, the largest in state history, to rebuild roads, bridges, and communities and create and support hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs.
  • Prepared our children for the jobs of the future by expanding skills development and focusing community college programs on the fastest growing industries.
  • Raised the minimum wage to a living wage for all Illinois workers.
  • Made college more affordable for Illinois students by expanding in-state scholarships and making more merit scholarships available for high-performing students.
  • Created a minority business loan fund.


  • Launched an effort to bring high-speed broadband internet to every corner of the state
  • Created a minority business loan fund.
  • Developed new incentives for job creation on new construction and renovations in underserved communities.
  • Refocused community college workforce development programs to concentrate on high-growth industries.
  • Signed the most equity-centric cannabis legalization plan in the nation to invest in communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.
  • Encouraged new job creation and workforce development with an apprenticeship tax credit for businesses.
  • Extended the film industry tax credit, creating and supporting thousands of entertainment industry jobs in Illinois.
  • Elevated the innovation economy with new business incubators and an extension of the research and development tax credit for manufacturers.

Early Education

  • Expanded child care assistance eligibility to 10,000 more children.
  • Strengthened early childhood education and child care with the biggest investment ever in Illinois into early childhood programs and facilities.

K-12 Education

  • Provided historic funding levels for K-12 students across the state.
  • Raised the minimum salary for teachers.
  • Expanded skills development with new investments in vocational training in high school.

    Illinois is a lot of things, and by no means perfect, but to call it a failed state, never mind a haven for "judicial hell holes," is pure partisanship. It is often compared to surrounding states as though there were any real parity, but considering the state's contribution to the nation's overall GDP, Illinois is a powerhouse of productivity and opportunity by comparison, ranking No. 5 nationwide and outranked only by Florida, New York, Texas, and California. Neighboring Indiana is ranked No. 18, Wisconsin No. 21, and Missouri No. 22. (9)

    Although Pritzker has not yet officially announced his candidacy for re-election, the Chicago Sun-Times reported this past March that he had already made a $35 million campaign contribution, so it seems likely. (10)

    I don't think I'm alone in recognizing that the Republican Party has a problem on its hands, not just because of Pritzker's popularity and success, but because of the growing influence of extremists within its ranks.

    A May 14 story written by Sarah Nardi for WGLT is insightful. Reporting on a meeting of the Lincoln Club of McLean County, in which former Gov. Jim Edgar, Rep. Dan Brady, and former Illinois Republic Party Chairman Pat Brady served as panel members, Nardi writes: "Edgar said the problem facing Republicans in a gubernatorial race is the growing chasm between a state that's moving left and a party that's moving right . . . . To reclaim the governor's office, Edgar said Republicans will have to unite behind a moderate candidate -- something hard-line conservatives will resist. But a shifting electorate means that in the Chicago suburbs, a once reliable source of GOP votes, people aren't casting ballots for Republicans the way they once did." (11)

    Nardi writes that Edgar acknowledged the shifting political landscape, and how much things have changed. "My definition of a moderate (Republican) is what would've been an extreme conservative 20 years ago," Edgar is quoted as saying.

    So there you have it. An admission, by at least one prominent Republican, that Illinois' second major political party is definitely not what it used to be, is conflicted, and has essentially normalized its most extreme elements.

    Is that the kind of leadership we need in Illinois? I think not.

    Illinois has had bad luck with governors, both Republican and Democratic, but today's Democratic Party -- and Pritzker specifically -- have earned my confidence. He is what Illinois has needed. If Pritzker goes the way of Ryan, Blagojevich, or Rauner, making things worse instead of better, then he should be held accountable, but in today's climate of extremism, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for a Republican challenger worth considering. 

1) Rauner 2018 Race Campaign Finance (politico)
2) Rauner, Pritzker Spending For Governor (NBC Chicago)
3) How Bad is the Illinois Deficit (politico)
4) Fitch Downgrades Illinois (Fitch Ratings)
5) Governor's Budget Cuts Costs, Corporate Tax Breaks (Bloomberg)
6) Jeanne Ives (wikipedia)
7) No Income Tax Hike Needed (WTTW)
8) Illinois Chamber Endorses Rauner (Effingham Radio)
9) States and Territories Ranked by GDP (wikipedia)
10) Pritzker Re-election Campaign Contribution (Chicago Sun Times)
11) GOP Leaders Say Moderate Governor Candidate Key (WGLT)