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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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When elephants fight, ants get squashed.

But what happens when billionaires battle? Illinoisans will have to wait and see.

There’s a big-time rumble getting underway between Ken Griffin, Illinois’ richest man, and multibillionaire Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Previously, the bad blood was mostly beneath the surface. But ugliness spilled into public view this week when Griffin, a Chicago-based hedge-fund manager and self-made man, delivered a scathing review of Pritzker’s stewardship that prompted the governor’s attack dogs to respond with an equally ferocious personal and political counterattack.

The subtext of the political ugliness relates to the upcoming 2022 gubernatorial election in which Democrat Pritzker should be the prohibitive favorite in this solid Democratic state.

But with the state’s financial and political dysfunction on wide display and Chicago turning into a free-fire zone, Pritzker is taking nothing for granted.

That’s why Pritzker unleashed his Dobermans after Griffin spoke Monday to the Economic Club of Chicago. He talked about Chicago’s declining appeal to job creators caused by a crime problem that is growing steadily worse and “‘broken’ public schools, high taxes, (and) the need for pension reform.”

Griffin made it clear he blames Pritzker, in part, for the city’s steady deterioration.

Griffin noted that he maintains his company’s corporate headquarters in Chicago but said that may not be the case in future years.

“Chicago is like Afghanistan on a good day. And that’s a problem,” he said.

Where Griffin crossed in line, in Pritzker’s opinion, was when he complained that the governor has been too passive in the face of growing problems and initially declined to send National Guard troops to Chicago during riots in the summer of 2020.

Pritzker responded by labeling Griffin not just a liar but a bad person who has no compassion for others.

“Ken Griffin is a liar. Governor Pritzker is dedicated to the safety of this city and state, deployed the National Guard during the social unrest ... and is making landmark investments in crime prevention,” said a Pritzker spokeswoman.

She also charged that Griffin, a private citizen, “has actively worked to dismantle the vital ecosystem of social services that prevent violence.” In a follow-up statement, the governor’s press office justified its claim that Griffin opposes social services because he “was the top donor to Bruce Rauner’s election efforts and supported him as (Rauner) dismantled social services” during a longstanding budget standoff between the former Republican governor and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Considering Griffin has donated many, many millions of dollars to education, poverty, religious and arts programs, Pritzker’s charge that Griffin is hostile to social-service programs and the poor doesn’t square with reality.

But truth hardly matters when public figures wage political war.

What’s striking about Pritzker’s ferocious response to Griffin’s talk is that Griffin, while well known in limited circles, is not particularly well known in Chicago or Illinois.

However, Griffin was speaking to opinion leaders at the Economic Club, upper-crust types whose support and respect Pritzker wants and needs.

Some have speculated that Griffin might be tempted to run for office. But given his multiple business interests and lifestyle, that is, at best, a long shot.

Instead, Griffin has used generous campaign donations to support the kinds of candidates he hopes will bring positive change to Illinois. Among those he has not supported in the past and will not support in 2022 is fellow billionaire Pritzker.

By taking the fight directly to Pritzker, Griffin made it clear that he’ll do what he can and spend what he must to remove Pritzker from the governor’s office next year. The governor’s animated response shows that he’ll fight fire with fire.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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