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Gov. J.B. Pritzker makes 2022 reelection bid official, acknowledges his handling of pandemic will be key issue

Chicago Tribune

Tuesday, July 20, 2021  |  Article  |  Rick Pearson and Dan Petrella

Pritzker, J.B.

Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his widely anticipated bid for reelection Monday and acknowledged his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the overarching issue in the 2022 race.

“When I ran for governor four years ago, I could not have imagined that I would end up leading the state through a pandemic,” Pritzker said in a three-minute video focused on the way he dealt with COVID-19 issues, which accompanied his reelection announcement.

Pritzker acknowledged that “I may not have gotten every decision right” in handling the pandemic, which involved his use of emergency orders restricting public activity. But, he said, at every step he “followed the science” to protect residents.

“Part of why I’m running for reelection is because I watched the heroes across our state step up and do the right thing. We had so much to accomplish and we were able to do that together,” he said. “I’m very proud of all of the people in the state of Illinois. And we have so much more we can do together.” While Pritzker’s decision was widely expected, particularly after he put $35 million of his own money into his campaign account in March, the governor had been silent publicly about his reelection plans — an effort to show he was more focused on the pandemic and governance than politics.Now, with less than a year until the state’s newly moved June 28 primary, the wealthy heir to the Hyatt fortune believes the state is far enough along in dealing with COVID-19 to issue his first reelection campaign message.

Pritzker, 56, and worth an estimated $3.5 billion according to Forbes, spent $171 million of his own money to defeat one-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018.

Pritzker’s campaign video takes a swipe at former President Donald Trump and his administration’s handling of the pandemic, with an announcer saying, “In Washington, science took a back seat to politics. But in Illinois, we knew the stakes were too high.”

The reference to Trump, whom Pritzker frequently criticized through the worst days of the pandemic, also was a subtle shot at the three announced Republican candidates for governor — Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine, state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia and former state Sen. Paul Schimpf of Waterloo.

All three have sought to align themselves with their party’s Trump supporters and have been critical of Pritzker’s stay-at-home orders and limits on public gatherings both at work and for social occasions, as well as his rules on masks, during the pandemic.

Bailey was unsuccessful in repeated attempts to legally challenge Pritzker’s authority to issue emergency orders regarding public regulation and business access rules during the pandemic. At one point last year, Bailey was removed from the floor of a temporary Illinois House chamber for refusing to wear a mask.

Schimpf said Pritzker’s announcement meant voters “will face a stark choice” about the future of Illinois, and accused the Democratic governor of having a “leadership deficit” and demonstrating “he has neither the vision nor leadership skills to unite our state.”

“Simply put, Illinoisans deserve better — they deserve a leader with common sense who will renew our state,” Schimpf said.

Bailey in a statement called Pritzker a “failed, liberal governor” trying to “buy another election.”

“Billionaires like Pritzker cannot relate to the struggles of working Illinoisans and families, said Bailey, a successful farmer.

Rabine had no immediate comment.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville, who has been exploring a potential run for the Republican nomination for governor, went on Twitter to accuse Pritzker of “pushing tax hikes,” “embracing corruption,” “failing our veterans” and “abandoning police.” He concluded: “J.B. Pritzker is just another lying, failed politician.

Davis later Monday was selected by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy as one of five Republicans to serve on the Democratic-led panel looking into the Jan.6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Post reported.

State Republican Chair Don Tracy called the governor’s pandemic record a “failure.” He cited the loss of in-person schooling, problems for those trying to get unemployment compensation and the 36 COVID-19 deaths at the LaSalle Veterans Home, which an inspector general’s report blamed on mismanagement.

Since the pandemic began, a total of 23,377 deaths in Illinois have been attributed to COVID-19, according to state statistics. The governor has pushed hard on the vaccination effort, and his Department of Public Health reported that 57.4% of Illinois’ population age 12 and older had been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, while nearly 65% had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Nearly 85% of the state’s population age 65 and older has gotten at least one vaccine inoculation, the agency said.

But several downstate areas with low vaccination rates, among them some of the state’s strongest Republican regions, have seen a recent increase in COVID-19-related hospitalizations, including from the delta variant.

Pritzker’s reelection announcement comes as state government has shown recent signs of fiscal stability, in part due to the pandemic.

Federal relief and stimulus funds helped fuel economic activity that led to higher-than-expected tax revenues. That will allow Illinois to prepay more than $2 billion in loans from the Federal Reserve. In addition, the state’s backlog of overdue bills has fallen from more than $16 billion during Rauner’s tenure to $4 billion on Monday, according to the comptroller’s office.

The financial moves have led to two credit upgrades, elevating the state from the edge of junk-bond status and allowing for future borrowing at less onerous interest rates.

Pritzker also has scored several victories with a Democratic-led legislature during his initial term, strengthening abortion rights, raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, launching of a major infrastructure repair program and legalizing recreational marijuana.

In a state that has shifted increasingly Democratic, Pritzker has sought to work closely with the party’s Black base, signing legislation backed by the Illinois Black Legislative Caucus that includes sweeping changes in criminal justice laws regulating police conduct and the eventual elimination of cash bail for nonviolent offenses.

But Pritzker also has had some failures. His signature campaign election agenda item, asking voters to shift the state from a flat income tax to a graduated-rate system, fell flat at the ballot box last year — a loss Republicans figure to seize upon in the upcoming race.

And amid intraparty tensions, Pritzker saw his choice for new state Democratic Party chair defeated by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson, the choice of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Unlike four years ago, Pritzker’s reelection bid won’t be hampered by the presence of Michael Madigan, the former House speaker and state Democratic chair who resigned both posts amid a federal corruption investigation. Pritzker blamed public dissatisfaction with Madigan for helping to create a climate of distrust that contributed to the defeat of his income-tax proposal.

Though Pritzker defeated Rauner 55% to 39% in 2018, Pritzker faces a much more politically polarized state than he did just three years ago. The split is largely between the urban and suburban Chicago area and rural downstate regions, and is reflective of the national political climate.

Some Downstate Republicans, including Bailey, have backed long-shot legislation seeking to make Chicago its own state and several rural communities openly bucked Pritzker’s COVID-19 mitigation orders.

Pritzker, however, has dismissed talk of separation as political grandstanding by local officials, and has sought to encourage diversity and unity, even referring to it in his budget address last year.

“Some of you need to stop pretending that one part of Illinois can exist without all the others,” Pritzker said. “We are one Illinois.”

Pritzker also announced he was keeping Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton as his running mate for a second term.

“We’ve made real progress for the people of Illinois,” said Stratton, a former state lawmaker who became Illinois’ first Black female lieutenant governor.

rap30@aol.com

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com