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Gauen: Illinois governor's race headed toward battle of fortunes

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Thursday, December 7, 2017  |  Commentary  |  By Pat Gauen

Candidates--Statewide (12) , Governor (44)
If every man, woman and child in Illinois sent me $250 today, I still would not be as rich as J.B. Pritzker, whose TV ads for governor seem to play about once an hour on the shows I watch.

Oh, at $3.2 billion I’d have more money than President Donald Trump. And more than any member of the U.S. Senate or House. But not as much as Forbes’ estimate of the $3.5 billion held by that affable fellow whose face visits my home so regularly. Pritzker’s wealth is the main reason so many know his face.

Please understand that I have nothing against people with big money. At times, I wish I were among them. I realized from the outset that I chose a career based on pursuit of interesting experiences and moral freedom rather than profit. No regrets.

I know that according to the platform of this newspaper, which dates to founder Joseph Pulitzer’s retirement in 1907, one of the wrongs I’m supposed to oppose is “predatory plutocracy.” I’ll bet I wasn’t the only new hire to rush to a dictionary on that one.

Plutocracy means government by the wealthy, in case you’re not smarter than I was. Just what might make it predatory is a key issue of the national debate right now over who would really benefit from federal tax cuts.

The modern political lexicon also includes the term “oligarch,” which sounds more exotic than it is. It refers to a rich person — in today’s context a business owner in Russia — who carries great political influence in government.

From my perch, an American equivalent of oligarchs has grown stronger since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision that the likes of corporations and unions have a free-speech right to spend their money on political advocacy. The Koch brothers come to mind.

No less an observer than Wilma “Bubbles” Gauen, my late mother, used to preach to me about the evils of rich people spending fortunes for selfish political advantage, drowning out the fewer dollars and softer voices of the common people.

But, perhaps surprisingly, my mom was a strong advocate of electing wealthy people to office. “They don’t have to worry about lining their pockets with cash,” she would explain. I think the first time I heard her say it was about President John F. Kennedy. To her, he was no plutocrat but a real, skin-in-the-game candidate.

Now, Kennedy’s nephew, Chris Kennedy, is a relatively rich candidate in pursuit of the Democratic nomination to run for Illinois governor next year. I say “relatively rich” because he is not in the financial league with Pritzker, his main competitor, or even Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor both seek to depose.

According to U.S. News & World Report, Kennedy manages real estate for a family trust of $1.2 billion spread across 30 relatives.

That family total is only a little more than one-third of the $3.4 billion in personal holdings the publication attributed to Pritzker, a financier and Hyatt hotel scion. The difference might explain why Kennedy hasn’t been visiting my TV.

The report put Rauner, a first-term governor who earned his fortune in venture capital, at almost $1 billion, by the way.

There are others running, but it is difficult to imagine folks of comparatively modest means raising enough to overcome the money disparity. Among the other Democrats is Robert Daiber, a respected Metro East figure and longtime Madison County regional school superintendent.

With the primary election more than three months distant, it’s way early for polling. But the Capital Fax/We Ask America Poll of 1,154 people, taken Oct. 17-18, provides a weak peek. Among Democrats, it put Pritzker at 39 percent, Kennedy at 15 percent and state Sen. Daniel Biss at 6 percent. Daiber and community organizer Tio Hardiman each had 1 percent. The margin for error was 3 percent either way. There were a lot of undecideds — 36 percent — but a lot of dollars yet to be spent on persuading them.

Illinois has never seen the likes of what may be shaping up. We have had rich candidates before. Republicans Al Salvi and Al Hofeld both lost U.S. Senate bids. Peter Fitzgerald won a Senate seat, then fell out of GOP favor and didn’t seek re-election. But we have not seen tycoon versus tycoon, in a race the candidates could finance with their pin money.

Some published observers think the 2018 gubernatorial campaigns might spend as much as $300 million — three times the total of the 2014 contest and the most ever for a U.S. statewide election.

So are we nearing a day when only the rich can win high office? Might self-financed plutocrats have purer hearts than poorer candidates who may have to make quiet promises for money from American oligarchs? Or is a candidate’s dependency upon others’ money a hallmark of democracy?