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Governor hopeful JB Pritzker talks immigration, small businesses and Chicago violence


Venture capitalist, entrepreneur and philanthropist Jay Robert “JB” Pritzker wants to rescue the state from Gov. Bruce Rauner. Pritzker has thrown his hat into the ring for the 2018 governor’s race, in which Rauner plans to seek re-election. And he’s not mincing words about the source of some of the state’s most serious problems.

“We’ve got to fix the challenges that Bruce Rauner has brought to the state,” Pritzker said in an exclusive interview with Negocios Now. “He has driven it off a cliff.”

Pritzker is highlighting his progressive, Democratic values to contrast his own campaign and personal experience with that of Rauner, readily admitting he is another “rich guy running for office.” The Pritzker family, descended from Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, is most well-known for making its fortune with the Hyatt hotel chain, and Forbes Magazine tallies JB Pritzker’s personal net worth at $3.4 billion.

But even though Pritzker and his family have come a long way since his great-grandfather arrived in the United States as a poor immigrant, Pritzker has not turned his back on that history. He is a strong supporter of pro-immigrant policy, tying his logic back to his own family. A social service agency helped his great-grandfather find a place to live when he arrived in Chicago, a public school helped him learn English and get a good education, and then a state university got him a college degree and set him up to be successful in law school.

Pritzker said every immigrant in Illinois should have the same opportunity — for the good of the entire state.

“Immigrants are often the biggest driver of small business and job creation so we need to nurture and support our immigrant community and not have them living in fear,” Pritzker said.

He added that the state needs to stand up for its so-called “sanctuary cities,” which have vowed to limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities, but he stopped short of committing to declare Illinois a sanctuary state, saying he would have to look into it as governor.

Pritzker, 52, ran for U.S. Congress in 1998, losing in a crowded primary. He comes back to Illinois politics after, among other things, having started one of the top 10 tech hubs in the world, Chicago’s nonprofit business incubator 1871; helping expand the state’s school breakfast program so 175,000 more kids benefit; and working to found the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie.

Small business development and education are high on his list of priorities. Acknowledging that the state’s Latino business community struggles because of a lack of access to capital, Pritzker said he supported a state-backed small business loan fund, where the state would be a partial guarantor of the loan and business owners would get access to technical assistance and mentorship from the state, along with the money.

He rails against Rauner’s role in cutting state funding for education, especially considering the state’s reputation nationally. Illinois contributes a smaller share of funding for K-12 schools than any other state in the nation, which Pritzker says leads to higher property taxes and worse schools. He wants to lift up the state’s education system, alleviating property taxes and making sure kids get the education they need to find good jobs after graduation.

On the topic of Chicago violence, Pritzker draws the problem straight back to Rauner and the state’s budget standoff.

“People who lose hope are people who become desperate, and it’s desperate people who become violent so we need to help people,” Pritzker said. That means with support for social service organizations and mental health agencies. “When we close down all those facilities or take away all those services for people whose lives are not yet stable, who don’t have a place to live or don’t have clothing or food and certainly don’t have a job, then we are leaving them with nothing and they are hopeless,” Pritzker said.

The first step in reducing the city’s violence, then, is solving the economic crisis. Pritzker said the next step is getting illegal guns off the streets through new protections and penalties.

The Democratic primary already has five other candidates, including State Senator Daniel Biss and Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar. Looking to the general election, Pritzker also expects a strong fight from Rauner, who he thinks will get a substantial fundraising boost from the conservative political donors Charles and David Koch.

But despite the competition within and outside of his party, Pritzker is confident.

“Running for public office is a challenging endeavor no matter who you are,” he said. “What I know is that because I have a history of bringing people together to accomplish big things, that I’ll be able to do that for the state.” (By Tara García Mathewson and Clemente Nicado)