Jim Dey: This is rich: Kennedy short on cash, clout

Jim Dey: This is rich: Kennedy short on cash, clout

It's pretty clear that if Chris Kennedy, heir to the Kennedy family political dynasty, is going to win the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination next March, he has to go over the heads of party bosses and appeal to the rank-and-file.

Democratic power brokers don't want him, preferring instead J.B. Pritzker, the Chicago businessman who's an heir to his family's multibillion-dollar fortune.

Why?

Money.

Pritzer's got plenty of it, and big-shots like state Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan, who's also the speaker of the Illinois House, want and expect him to self-fund the governor's race. That would allow Democrats to rely on their traditional donors — organized labor and trial lawyers — to finance contested House and Senate races without having to worry about the gubernatorial contest.

Here's how rich Pritzker is. He's got way more money than Gov. Moneybags, aka Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, the self-made multi-millionaire who used his ample fortune to put the GOP on an even footing or better with Democrats in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

Republican spending, much of the money provided by Rauner, squeezed Democratic resources in last year's state legislative races. Democrats don't want to have to go through that again in 2018 while also funding the race for governor.

The GOP picked up four House seats in the November election, breaking Madigan's veto-proof control of that body. Democrats easily maintained their veto-proof control of the Senate. That legislative dominance has allowed Madigan & Co. to block Gov. Rauner's agenda and helped produce the 2-year-old budget stalemate that has made the state's already horrific financial situation even worse.

Pritzer, who is making his first run for public office, has indicated he's more than willing to pay his own way.

Politico reports that "he has already announced a $1.5 million TV ad" campaign that is running now and quoted a Democratic strategist as saying that Pritzker's "prepared to spend $70 million on the primary alone."

Pritzker's money and the party backing it buys also have allowed him to collect a slew of major endorsements, particularly from organized labor leaders who have always been tight with Speaker Madigan.

Indeed, Pritzer's backing has come so fast that the Chicago Tribune recently noted that 14 labor endorsements the multibillionaire gathered may "be the earliest and least vetted" ever.

"It was so fast, some of Pritzer's rivals complained they didn't have a chance to court the unions with an interview or a written survey or even a phone call. And Politco reports that the Illinois AFL-CIO is preparing to endorse Pritzker," a Tribune editorial stated.

In addition to Pritzer and Kennedy, three others Democrats have announced they are running for their party's gubernatorial nomination. They are state Sen. Daniel Biss, Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar and Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools Bob Daiber.

Madison County is right next door to St. Clair County, both well-known political sewers. Giving Daiber's proximity to St. Clair, one might have expected the local pols to hold their fire on an endorsement, even though Daiber is a long-shot at best to win his party's nomination.

But that didn't happen. The St. Clair County Democratic Party recently endorsed Pritzer,

Candidates like Daiber, Biss and Pawar can't be too surprised by the lack of clout they bring to their campaigns. Their name recognition is low, and, for now at least, they lack the big financial resources needed to be credible candidates.

But it's a different story for Kennedy, a longtime Chicago businessman who for years oversaw the family's substantial business interests there. He comes from political royalty and has long been considered a likely Democratic candidate for high office in Illinois.

The Kennedys are used to burying opponents under an avalanche of money and making light of it afterward.

Consider the laughs 1960 presidential candidate John F. Kennedy generated when he responded to accusations by his rivals that he was trying to buy his party's presidential nomination. "I have just received the following telegram from my generous father. 'Dear Jack: Don't buy a single vote more than is necessary. I'm not going to pay for a landslide,'" JFK joked.

He was, of course, referring to family patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, who built the family's mammoth fortune through astute stock market investments and forays in the banking, movie, real estate and liquor businesses.

So it's more than ironic that Chris Kennedy, the son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and former chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees, finds himself on the outside looking in at the party establishment.

Since necessity is the mother of invention, he's rebranding himself as an underdog who won't be pushed around by the big dogs,

In an unmistakable allusion to the Hillary Clinton debacle in November, he said, "When the Cook County Democrats asked me if I would agree to drop out of the Illinois gubernatorial primary if they did not slate me, I told them no. If Democrats have learned nothing else from the disastrous 2016 election, it must be that party elites should not dictate the outcomes of elections. Democratic Party voters should have the final say on who is best suited to represent our party against Governor Rauner."

Kennedy also expressed concern over the malign influence of Pritzker's billions, suggesting the Illinois Democratic Party would be little different than the state Republican Party if it comes under Pritzker's control.

"We can't say to our people, you know, let's find another billionaire. Let's find someone to fight our fights so that we don't have to and make him our kind. If we do that, if we're not willing to make the sacrifices to win an election, sacrifices such as taking time to go door-to-door, signing petitions, give $5 or $10 or $15 to a candidate, if we're not willing to do that, we don't deserve the freedom that comes with being an American," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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