May 15, 2022

Jim Nowlan | What does bankrolling billionaire Griffin want from Illinois politics?

What does Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin want? To take over the Republican Party in Illinois? To be governor? A reporter called with these questions. As a retired politico and professor of politics, I get these calls from time to time.

I don’t know Griffin personally, though I have friends who know him a bit. In 2020, I did lead a campaign committee that received $5 million from Griffin in our successful efforts to knock off the Illinois Supreme Court a judge whom we felt sullied his robes with decisions that blatantly protected Mike Madigan, indicted ex-speaker of the Illinois House.

The money allowed us to compete on a par with the money that Madigan, unions and trial lawyers spent to support the judge. Without Griffin’s contributions, we couldn’t have won.

Here is what I have learned about Griffin and his political objectives. First, he doesn’t care for politics or politicians, which isn’t unusual.

Griffin is not a people person, at least not a “Hail fellow, well met” political sort. He has no interest in mucking it up personally in politics. He would be a terrible political candidate, and he knows it.

After all, Griffin doesn’t suffer fools lightly, which is exactly what you have to do, every day, to be successful in politics.

Griffin has a small staff at his office that works with outside political operatives who represent campaigns. In other words, “our guys talk to his guys” to achieve mutual objectives.

So, what are his objectives? With a net worth of $26 billion and change (which he earned all by himself, starting with stock trading as a college student), Griffin has more money than Croesus ever dreamed of. So, he can spend scores of millions in campaigns in Illinois and beyond, and consider it a rounding error to his wealth. What could politics do for him personally, anyway?

From all I can tell, Griffin finds his adopted state of Illinois poorly led, and this offends his buttoned-down business sense of what can and should be. Isn’t it enough that he just wants safe streets, good schools and an attractive business climate?

Illinois should be a powerhouse. In each of the six Rs critical to economic development — roads, rails, runways, rivers, routers, research — Illinois is arguably among the top three states. And it’s smack dab in the middle of the world’s largest economy.

Yet, Illinois has for decades been steadily slipping relative to the nation in per capita income, and from 2010 to 2020, our state was among the only three that lost population. My friends are leaving for Florida.

And because of widely televised violence and mayhem on Chicago’s main thoroughfares, many of my fellow Downstaters are now afraid to go to the city — which they used to love, for the Cubs and Bears games, and for its breathtaking museums.

Is Griffin asking too much? And why is his money needed to achieve his objectives?

When I was a young elected legislator and statewide candidate in Illinois in the 1960 and ’70s, a Republican Party existed. The party helped guide its chosen moderate candidates through the primary elections and to frequent success in November. Today, the party has no money, almost no precinct workers and avoids trying to play a role in endorsing good candidates.

It is irrelevant in politics.

Big money has, unfortunately, replaced party workers in American politics. I don’t like it, but I haven’t figured out an alternative. It’s our billionaires against theirs.

But can money buy good outcomes? Griffin backed Republican Bruce Rauner for governor (2015-19; now of Florida). Rauner turned out to be possibly the worst chief executive in Illinois history; for example, he deprived Illinois of a state budget for more than two years. This may sound appealing, yet its harmful effects are still being felt.

In 2020, Griffin spent $54 million in a successful effort to defeat a state-tax-increase referendum, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker touted. The governor now says that money isn’t needed, and offers voters a tax cut as he campaigns for re-election.

This year, Griffin’s guys have put their money ($45 million thus far) on Richard Irvin, the Black mayor of suburban Aurora. They think he has the best chance to beat Pritzker in the fall.

But Irvin, a novice to state politics, has stumbled over highly scripted talking points in his few public appearances thus far. The mayor may not be ready for prime time, as they say.

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