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Pritzker Puts Democrats In Control Of Illinois Government

Pritzker and Rauner
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois
J.B. Pritzker, left, and Gov. Bruce Rauner

Billionaire J.B. Pritzker’s big investment paid off. The Illinois Democrat soundly defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner Tuesday night.

It’s thought to be the most expensive governor's race in American history. And Pritzker's win gives Democrats complete control of Illinois government.

Four years ago, Illinois voters elected Bruce Rauner — a political novice who spent tens of millions of dollars on his own campaign. Now they're changing course, electing a different political novice who spent tens of millions of dollars on his own campaign.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am so grateful tonight to all of you in this room, and those watching at home,” Pritzker told supporters. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your faith in Juliana and me.”

As much as voters were supporting Pritzker and his running mate, state Rep. Juliana Stratton, they were also rebuking Rauner. He lost by nearly 15 points.

That's partly because Pritzker spent millions attacking Rauner as a failure and a liar. But speaking to supporters at a Marriott in Chicago, Pritzker was magnanimous in victory.

“Earlier this evening, I received a call from Gov. Bruce Rauner, and I want to thank him for his service to this state over the last four years, and I wish him and his family well,“ Pritzker said.

We'll come back to the Pritzker party. But first, a little earlier in the evening and a few miles uptown, Rauner was speaking to his own supporters at the Drake Hotel.

”I would like to say thank you to all the people of Illinois for the opportunity to serve you,” Rauner said.

Rauner came into office with a big agenda to — in his words, "turnaround" Illinois. But he ran headfirst into a Democratic legislature that wanted little to do with his business-friendly, union-weakening proposals.

Rauner almost never acknowledged that Democrats might have legitimate differences of opinion about the best policies for the state, and even in defeat, he stuck to that view.

“And I call on my friends in the Democratic Party. Let us work together. Let us find common ground. Let us listen to each other, respect each other. Let's study what other states have done to move themselves forward,” he said.

But back at the Pritzker party, it was clear he has his own ideas about what Democrats should do to move the state forward.

"We make no small plans for Illinois,” Pritzker said. ”We will strive for the highest graduation rate in the nation. ... We will bring fairness to our tax system and tackle the fiscal challenges of our state. And we will become the leading protectors of workers' rights and civil rights and human rights in the nation."

Pritzker repeatedly tapped his vast personal fortune in his quest for what will be his first job in elective office. And his spending helped insure that his victory was not his alone.

The Democratic Party now has a lock on all statewide offices in Illinois, including attorney general, secretary of state, comptroller and treasurer.

It was also a good night for Democrats in the General Assembly. By early Wednesday morning, the Associated Press projected they'd expanded their supermajority in the state Senate and reestablished one in the Illinois House.

Pritzker will need them if he hopes to follow through on his campaign plan of overhauling the state income tax system. Heck, he'll need them to find a billion dollars just to limp through the current budget year.

But there will be time for those problems another day. Pritzker ended his victory speech on a hopeful note — looking back and looking ahead.

“In 27 days, Illinois will celebrate our state's 200th anniversary. Join me in beginning our third century in Illinois with hope and optimism and living every day better [than] the 200 years we lived before it. Thank you all. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. Good night, everybody. Thank you,” he said.

From one ultra-wealthy political novice to the next, one could say that among Illinois voters, hope triumphed over experience. We'll know soon enough whether Pritzker can meet their expectations.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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