Running short on time and low on resources, Democrats running against billionaire front runner J.B. Pritzker in the upcoming March primary contest are targeting the wealthy philanthropist with accusations that he bought his way into the good graces of powerful House Speaker and Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan in a scheme to consolidate party support and deny them the nomination.
“In this campaign, every door that has been opened to Mr. Pritzker has been opened because he wrote a check,” said Madison County School Superintendent Bob Daiber. “He has purchased the support of county Democratic Party organizations, elected officials and labor unions.”
Indeed, the first political donations Pritzker made after the November 2016 election cycle were to Madigan and the party he controls. Pritzker donates exclusively to Democrats, and almost always uses his own name to make the contributions. However, in this particular case, Pritzker funneled two maximum corporate contributions each for $10,800 to Madigan’s political campaign and the Democratic Party of Illinois through an obscure company called TNDP, LLC. Another one of Pritzker’s firms, Stateline LLC, donated $5,400 to Madigan’s Democratic Majority fund at the same time.
“That just happens to be where there was money available to give,” Pritzker explained on Wednesday. He and his wife gave another $27,000 in political contributions during that same month under their own names. “As you know, the laws are you either give individually or you give through an organization that is made up of individuals and I am the only individual involved in that organization,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker’s sharpest primary critic Chris Kennedy says Pritzker has “emerged as the poster child of the pay-to-play culture in Illinois.” His campaign spokeswoman, Rebeccca O’Halloran Evans said, “What’s clear is that Mike Madigan and political insiders are supporting J.B. in exchange for the promise that he’ll protect the status quo.
“Pritzker has spent more than $40 million in this race to raise his profile and it hasn’t bought him an ounce of courage,” she said in an email. “Pritzker won’t change the system that only works for a wealthy and well-connected few. A system from which he benefits while everyone else suffers.”
Late Thursday night, Pritzker’s campaign reported he had given another $7 million campaign contribution to himself, boosting his campaign fund up to a total of $49.2 million.
In the months leading up to his bid for governor, Pritzker moved to quickly sell off $220 million in Hyatt stock which he held in a South Dakota trust and controlled through a trust company in Nevada. According to a source who spoke with Pritzker at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, the billionaire, who contributed $15 million to Clinton’s super PAC, was holding out for a White House cabinet appointment. Days after her defeat, Pritzker started pouring money into Madigan’s political coffers.
“No,” Pritzker said flatly when he was asked if his stock market maneuvers were intended to fund his run for political office. Pressed to explain the overlapping timelines, he said, “It was a planned transaction. It had nothing to do with any of what you have suggested in your article.”
His campaign provided a partially redacted letter from a trustee of the Nevada trust company which states he did pay state and federal capital gains taxes on the sale of the Hyatt stocks.
State Senator Daniel Biss, who has surged into second place in the latest public primary poll, said the billionaire’s 2016 gift to Madigan fits part of a troubling pattern.
“Whether it’s to hide the liquidation of his offshore assets to avoid taxes, or hiding his donations to Mike Madigan to avoid being seen as Madigan’s chosen candidate, we know J.B. Pritzker is adept at the billionaire game of using shell companies to hide his record from the voters of Illinois.”
On this matter, Biss and the Illinois Republican Party agree.
“J.B. Pritzker secretly bankrolling Mike Madigan only scratches the surface of their close relationship,” ILGOP spokesman Aaron DeGroot said in a statement. “Madigan knows Pritzker is a fellow insider who will protect their corrupt property tax racket and Chicago political machine. Pritzker will never stand up to Madigan, and that’s why Madigan has worked so hard behind the scenes to crown Pritzker with the Democratic nomination for governor.”
The Kennedy campaign noted it was “interesting but not surprising that [Pritzker] made contributions to state party leadership from a company that received tax credits from the state.”
An annual report from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity shows Pritzker collected $250,000 from the state for TNDP LLC in 2012. The Chicago Sun Times first reported Pritzker’s companies reaped $1.9 million all told in combined state tax credits between 2012 and 2015.
At a Tuesday night primary forum in Carbondale, Biss dared Pritzker to pledge to match his primary donations to his own campaign to the general election party nominee, regardless of who wins. Pritzker declined.
“What’s surprising,” Biss noted, “is that you weren’t prepared to answer that question. The idea that you want to hold the Democratic Party hostage and offer to fund the general election only if you’re the nominee seems to me to be really problematic.”
The latest public primary poll conducted by We Ask America shows Pritzker’s lead shrinking to 30 percent, Biss climbing up to 17 percent and Kennedy stuck at 12 percent with another 38 percent of likely Democratic primary voters still undecided.