Pfingsten: Billionaires reshaping political campaigns – Shaw Local – Shaw Local News Network

Patrick Pfingsten
It wasn’t that long ago, just the end of 2005, that political observers and reporters were all atwitter that then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich had amassed a campaign war chest of $15 million. It was a year before the election, and nobody had seen that kind of money in Illinois politics before.
Of course, there was plenty of suspicion that Blagojevich was a walking criminal indictment, but we wouldn’t know the extent of it until late 2008, two full years after he sunk Judy Baar Topinka under a sea of negative ads.
But even while the reliance on expensive TV ads and direct mail have increased costs in statewide campaigns, $15 million looks so quaint now that billionaires or near-billionaires have taken control of Illinois politics. Not quite a billionaire Bruce Rauner dumped $40 million of his own money to get elected governor in 2014. Gov. JB Pritzker, a billionaire, spent $170 million of his own money to be elected governor in 2018. Now, Illinois’ richest man, hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, has put $20 million behind his preferred Republican candidate for governor, Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin. That $20 million is said to be a down payment on Irvin’s candidacy. Meanwhile, Pritzker continues to fill his own campaign coffers, putting in $90 million at once earlier this year.
This column isn’t about the way rich guys spend money. In fact, as someone who grew up in a depressed rural area, it’s easy to respect people like Griffin and Pritzker who built their businesses. Although, some would argue Pritzker had quite the head start in his career.
I will never fault someone for making money. If it is legal and ethical, go buy five super yachts and a spare Gulfstream for your lake home in the Italian Alps. I don’t care.
But the reliance on money has negatively impacted state politics in a couple of ways. First, from Blair Hull to Andy McKenna to Jim Oberweis to Bruce Rauner, we’ve seen that rich people aren’t necessarily the best candidates. As Rauner showed (and many would argue Pritzker is showing), they often aren’t adequately prepared for the demands of governing.
Running state government isn’t like running a business. I know it’s an easy talking point for a lot of Republicans, and I’ve surely written it for them over the years, but government is a massive, complicated organization. And while the point of business is to maximize profit, sometimes by cutting corners or prioritizing, a lot of state government spending is based on constitutional requirements, federal matching funds and a moral safety net that both Republicans and Democrats agree about.
While CBS and Disney will be happy to have billionaires fund a nice dividend for their shareholders thanks to the hundreds of millions that will be spent on TV ads this year, it makes candidates less accessible to the public.
Since Irvin got into the race last month, he’s held no public events, has done a couple of tightly controlled interviews, and has only campaigned at GOP events that the media wasn’t given notice of. He can hide behind his TV ads without having to answer many tough questions from voters, reporters, or people like me who write columns in your newspaper.
So, I encourage you to get involved in the political process. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or somewhere in between. Try to meet these candidates. Talk to them when they barnstorm and pull their fancy bus up to the diner in your town. Ask them about what’s important to you. Be respectful and be fair. Record it with your cell phone. You have the power to hold candidates accountable for what they say and believe. Our cellphones and our voices are the best tool to fight back against billionaires having their way with a system that belongs to us.
• Patrick Pfingsten is a former award-winning journalist and longtime Republican strategist who writes The Illinoize statewide political newsletter. You can read more at or contact him at
Copyright © 2021 Shaw Local News Network
Copyright © 2021 Shaw Local News Network


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