Gawker Endorsement: Working-Class Billionaire J.B. Pritzker

The presidential case for the Hyatt heir who brought you “ToiletGate”

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - JUNE 24: Governor J. B. Pritzker of Illinois speaks to the crowd at an abortion ...
Natasha Moustache/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In mid-June, Crain’s Chicago Business published an article about Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has held the state’s highest office since 2019. The headline read: “Is Pritzker considering a presidential bid?” Pritzker was traveling to New Hampshire for a speech at a party convention, signaling to some that he had bigger plans after his re-election campaign this fall. It was a local story, but it got picked up by a new Twitter account called “Socialists for Pritzker.”

That was the account’s first tweet. In less than a month, Socialists for Pritzker has become an online mouthpiece for the governor’s still-hypothetical presidential campaign, racking up thousands of followers in a matter of days and getting a shoutout in Dave Weigel’s politics newsletter, The Trailer. The account — a mix of Chapo-inflected jokes, fairly sincere political commentary, and memes about Pritzker’s Midwestern, average-guy affect — somewhat resembles the stunt campaign to get former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel on the debate stage during the last Democratic primaries. Here was another guy boosting a dark horse candidate, somewhat wryly, for his apparent progressive bonafides.

But Pritzker cuts a less obvious profile as a socialist contender. For one, he’s the heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, worth an estimated $3.6 billion. He’s also a venture capitalist who worked on Rahm Emmanuel’s council for “technology entrepreneurs” and on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. He has never pushed any kind of social-democratic theory of change. The admin of Socialists for Pritzker knows this; he’s made jokes to that effect. But he remains, in spite of it, somewhat serious. (The guy behind the account wants to remain anonymous; we’ll call him Chris.)

The presidential case for Pritzker seems to have found an audience. The original account has attracted about 12,000 followers, but it has also spawned copy-cats. There are now dozens of anonymous pro-Pritzker meme accounts — a non-exhaustive search turned up more than 50 — running from the more general “Progressives for Pritzker” and “Capitalists for Pritzker,” to the exceedingly specific “Romanian Maoists for Pritzker,” “Swiss Farmers for Pritzker,” and “Gavin Newsom Staff for Pritzker.” Many are jokes, but like the original, there’s a kernel of sincerity within the bit. The pages have tweeted Pritzker into a tidy foil for Trump: an easily memeable billionaire who has, to the surprise of many, managed to excite a base.

The Pritzker push from the left has been bubbling up around Illinois since the 2018 election. When Pritzker ran for the Democratic nomination, he was viewed as the centrist alternative to progressive candidate Daniel Biss, a former math professor at the University of Chicago and current mayor of Evanston. Biss’s campaign imploded when he tapped DSA member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa as his running mate, only to drop him just six days later over his support for Palestine and BDS. Biss lost significant support after that; Priztker steamrolled him in the primaries. “Everyone was mad because this billionaire — not quite the richest man in the state, but one of the richest men in the state — had just bought the Democratic nomination,” Chris said. “And then he got elected.”

But public opinion seemed to shift when Pritzker took office. “It’s been nothing but shock at just how excellent he's been as governor,” Chris said. “Not just that he’s been keeping his promises, but the speed and ferocity with which he’d gotten things through.”

In his first year alone, Pritzker raised the state minimum wage to $15 by 2025; legalized recreational weed; expanded immigration rights and safe harbors; signed a gun control bill requiring state certification for dealers; repealed a 47-year-old law restricting doctors from performing “unnecessary” abortions; passed a $40 billion state budget that taxed private insurance to fund Medicaid and put hundreds of millions into public education; issued an executive order to protect trans students in public school; and signed the “Rebuild Illinois Act” — the first state capital plan in a decade that’s investing $45 billion into public infrastructure. The following year, he expunged over 500,000 cannabis-related arrest records; a few months later, he signed a reform bill that made Illinois the first state to eliminate cash bail.

Pritzker’s local support varied throughout that time, sliding from an approval rating of 63 percent in the early pandemic to the low 50s last fall (he handily won his primary in June). But his legislative streak coincided with the decline in support for Joe Biden, whose agenda has been stalled in Congress for much of that time. The contrast has come into starker relief since the far-right Supreme Court doubled down on their culturally revanchist judicial activism this summer.

While national Democrats got pilloried for their borderline-apathy to the Dobbs ruling, for example, Pritzker got plaudits for a fast and forceful reaction. The day the decision came down, he outlined how his administration had worked to safeguard access within the state; ordered a special legislative session; went to an abortion rights rally in Chicago; and publicly called on Biden to meet a list of demands. The same dynamic played out after the mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, earlier this month. As Politico put it in a piece on the contrast: “Whereas Pritzker demanded that people make politics of the moment — as grisly as it may be — the president initially made just passing reference to the shooting.”

At risk of sounding too Pritzker-pilled, it bears noting that the governor has several glaring shortcomings. For one, well, he’s a billionaire — and one with several stupid scandals. There’s the wire-tapped phone call he had with the state’s former governor and Cameo freelancer Rod Blagojevich, who went to federal prison on corruption charges in 2011 (Trump later commuted his sentence). In 2018, Pritzker was caught in a toilet-related tax evasion scheme. It turned out the then-nominee had removed all of the toilets in one of his mansions, so that the assessor would deem it “uninhabitable” and slash his tax rate. Pritzker eventually paid the Cook County treasurer $330,000 for what’s now called “ToiletGate.”

Those factors don’t bother Chris, who pointed out that Pritzker appeared in only one tapped Blagojevich call that involved no criminal activity (he was never charged during the Blagojevich proceedings). ToiletGate broke during the gubernatorial elections, but didn’t greatly impact the campaign. “I think most voters in Illinois were just kind of endeared by it,” he said, “it's like the pettiest, smallest fry corruption in the state.”

As for Pritzker’s massive fortune, supporters have several possible rebuttals. There is the old cliche that billionaires “can’t be bought;” Pritzker’s major, if unsuccessful, push for overhauling Illinois’s tax system to raise rates on the ultra-wealthy; and his somewhat ethically dubious history of paying public expenses out of pocket. But the fact remains that the governor’s inherited wealth is at odds with the left’s antipathy to big money in politics. It “is definitely a knock against him,” Chris said, “there's no way around it.” The main bulwark against critiques of Pritzker’s class status, he argued, was the governor’s extremely Midwestern vibe:

He doesn't look or sound like [a billionaire] at all. He's a big Midwestern boy who doesn't speak in a snotty, snooty, or overly intellectual manner; it's easy to forget that he's a member of the American aristocracy. You can contrast that with someone like [Michael] Bloomberg — when he ran, that man was just dripping with so much contempt for ordinary people. But when you hear J.B. speak, you can tell he doesn't view you as an ant and he would never try to ban your extra large soda.

That affect is part of what makes Pritzker easily memed. An obvious point of comparison might be John Fetterman’s campaign for one of Pennsylvania’s Senate seats. Fetterman’s left-leaning proposals and similarly large stature have earned him a devoted following and a particularly online one. The candidate has clearly made this a part of his campaign; his fundraising emails are sometimes written, regrettably, from the point of view of his dog.

It’s unclear whether Pritzker would do the same; his campaign didn’t get back to us for this piece. Chris said the staff is aware of his account and “not offended,” though will likely stick to a more conventional route in any future campaigns. But if Pritzker does wade into the primaries, Chris hopes he’ll channel some of the fandom. “There needs to be a real sense of joy in any political campaign,” he said. “Even if it's vindictive joy — the Trumpian joy in causing pain to your enemies — it's still joy, a sick, twisted type of joy. You've got to have something positive going on and something that makes people laugh.”