Pritzker inaugurated as Illinois governor, cementing Democrats’ control of state government


Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Governor J.B. Pritzker waves after being sworn into office by Judge James Snyder at the Bank of Springfield Center Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Springfield, Ill.

By Mike Riopell, Chicago Tribune

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Democrat J.B. Pritzker became Illinois’ 43rd governor Monday, acknowledging the challenges the state faces and saying “our abdication of responsibility must end.”

His inauguration at a pomp-filled ceremony in Springfield capped a dominant campaign, when he defeated Republican Bruce Rauner by promising to change the state’s tax system, legalize recreational marijuana and restore social services that languished during a historic budget stalemate that dominated state politics over the last four years.

Without referencing his predecessor by name, Pritzker sought to suggest times were changing in Springfield after Rauner’s four years marked by fights with Democrats and a long budget war.



“That starts with leadership that abandons single-minded, arrogant notions,” Pritzker said. “No. Everything is not broken.”

Now, the billionaire Hyatt hotel heir starts a four-year term with Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and a Capitol packed full of Democratic lawmakers who could help usher his agenda through Springfield if they stick together.

His inauguration has given hope to Democrats that they can push forward their priorities after four years under Rauner. But Pritzker also faces big challenges.

Illinois has a $7.4 billion pile of unpaid bills. Rebuilding roads and bridges will cost money. Payments for state worker and teacher retirements keep going up. He’ll have to negotiate a new contract with the state’s largest employee union, which endorsed him, after it remained at a stalemate with Rauner for years.

In his acceptance speech, Pritzker invoked the state’s bicentennial last month and referenced Chicago’s comeback from its Great Fire of 1871 in laying out challenges ahead.

“We fail to hold accountable leaders who sacrifice truth for personal gain – who substitute pageantry for patriotism,” Pritzker said. “We are a nation founded on fearless ideas _ and yet we move away from those drawn to that vision.

“We want better roads, better schools, better wages – but we vilify anyone who dares suggest a workable path to those things,” he said. “We allow our schools, our movie theaters, our hospitals, our neighborhoods to become battlefields – legally accessible by the weapons of war.”

Making a veiled reference to Rauner’s term, Pritzker said: “Our abdication of responsibility must end.”

Democrats’ flood of state government after the November election was evident on the inauguration stage, where the party’s candidates were being sworn into all of Illinois’ statewide offices.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul starts his first term, succeeding Lisa Madigan. Chicago mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza begins her first full term as the state’s comptroller, even as the city election looms next month. Treasurer Mike Frerichs won another term, and Secretary of State Jesse White starts a record sixth.

Unlike his predecessor four years ago, Rauner attended the ceremony. He hasn’t held many public events since losing in the November election, but he’s used those occasions to try to sound an alarm about incoming Democratic control.

“It has been a privilege to serve the people of Illinois as Governor,” Rauner tweeted. “I am so grateful for the opportunity. I pray the new administration will build on the challenges we met to conquer the challenges that remain. May our future be bright and may God bless our great state.”

Rauner didn’t sign a budget into law until his final year in office. Pritzker’s first spending proposal is due next month.

Illinois’ tough finances could mean some unpopular decisions, and keeping Democrats at the Capitol united and voting in the same direction might not always be easy. Plus, his hope to change the state’s income tax structure to a federal-style graduated rate system can’t be approved until 2020 at the earliest, and that proposal will invite a war with Republicans.

Still, at the start, Pritzker has tried to sound a bipartisan note.

“So today, with all the challenges Illinois faces, Democrats and Republicans will work together, and we must begin with our most basic responsibilities,” he said. “We will propose, debate and pass a balanced budget this year.

“It won’t be easy, but let’s confront this challenge with honesty. Our obligations as a state outmatch our resources,” he said. “Our fiscal situation right now is challenging. And the solution requires a collective commitment to embracing hard choices.”

Pritzker led Democrats’ victories in the war at the ballot box in November. He defeated Rauner by more than 15 percentage points, and a bevy of Democrats were swept into the House and Senate on the party’s strength in the suburbs.

“We won in a big way, not just in my race, but across the state, on those very issues,” Pritzker said in an interview before his inauguration. “So I believe the Democrats stand together on most of those issues.”

Pritzker started his inaugural festivities Sunday with a meet-and-greet at the Old State Capitol, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s famous House Divided speech. On Monday morning, he attended a service at a nearby church, and a ball was to follow the ceremonies Monday evening.

Upon taking the oath, Pritzker supplanted Rauner as Illinois’ richest governor. He pumped more than $171 million into his campaign, and Pritzker flexed his wealth again in the days before taking over.

He announced he would use his own money to bolster his top government aides’ salaries. He boosted, for example, chief of staff Anne Caprara’s $148,000 state salary by $150,000 more. The extra will be paid for from East Jackson Street LLC, an organization Pritzker set up.

The LLC’s creation is the latest development showing how the Hyatt hotels heir will manage the intersection of his substantial personal wealth and his job running state government. Last Thursday, Pritzker promised to shift some of his immense wealth into a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest, but it’s unclear whether he will be able to fully wall off his fortune from his official duties.

Pritzker said he has appointed Chicago-based Northern Trust Co. to act as an independent trustee and make all investment decisions about his personal assets. Those same rules won’t apply to the extended Pritzker family fortune that is held in secretive onshore and offshore trusts. Pritzker said the terms governing the family trusts do not allow for the assets to be moved into the blind trust.

Despite his billions, Pritzker tried to highlight middle-class themes in his speech, repeating his call to raise the minimum wage, highlighting the work of teachers and trumpeting his proposal to tax wealthier Illinoisans at higher rates.

“The current tax system is simply unsustainable. Others have lied to you about that fact. I won’t,” Pritzker said. “The future of Illinois depends on the passage of a fair income tax, which will bring us into the 21st century like most of our Midwestern neighbors, and like the vast majority of the United States.”