By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
J.B. Pritzker may have access to billions in the family bank account. But unlike popular perception, he’s never been enveloped in a silver-spoon emotional upbringing.
That could be a source of hope and comfort for Illinois residents if Pritzker, by far the most visible Democratic candidate for governor, unseats incumbent Republican Bruce Rauner and displays — based on his personal history — how he can relate to their often-dire economic and social needs.
One of two Jewish Democrats vying to challenge Rauner in 2018, Pritzker looks as if he wants to blow other candidates out of the water through sheer financial resources. Pritzker’s affable personality is ubiquitous on Illinois TV screens via an aggressive –and costly — statewide ad campaign. Critics could say he is simply trying to buy the governership. But if he wants the job that badly, he’s likely doing so as a result of an amalgam of life experiences that have shaped his personality and Jewish sensibility while spurring his immersion in social causes.
Pritzker’s parents, Donald and Sue, were political activists in the southern San Francisco metropolitan area that eventually developed into Silicon Valley. They helped found the first Reform synagogue in the area. And yet the Pritzkers were not fortunate enough to witness their son, along with two siblings – one, Penny, fated to become Commerce Secretary under Barack Obama – grow up and succeed on their own. Donald Pritzker, just 39, died when J.B. was 7. Sue, only 49, passed away when he was 17. And in the last years of her life, Sue Pritzker’s children were saddled with dealing with her alcoholism.
Self-described as an extrovert taking after his father, the 52-year-old J.B. Pritzker traced his path to his third bid for political office in an expansive interview the other day in his busy West Loop campaign headquarters jammed with campaign workers.
“I think many of us are defined by our parents and our faith,” said Pritzker, who if nominated and elected would become Illinois’ third Jewish governor after Henry Horner (1933-40) and Sam Shapiro (1968-69).
“In my case, I grew up with parents who were very dedicated to social justice. My parents were involved in progressive Democratic politics. One of my earliest memories was going door-to-door (with Sue Pritzker) for candidates.”
Several generations later, as an adult running his own businesses, Pritzker became a firm supporter of early childhood education and school lunches, lifelong learning extending from college through late middle age and an advocate for single-payer health insurance – a kind of Medicare for all.
His back story began with his parents. Donald Pritzker had pursued his future wife unsuccessfully through part of their mutual schooling from kindergarten through 12th grade in Chicago.
“She was a beauty, and all the boys wanted to date her,” said J.B. “He was kind of short and stubby.”
After years of just acting as “friends,” Sue Pritzker finally said “yes” to marriage after the pair graduated from college. Starting a family, Donald Pritzker moved to the West Coast to enter the hotel business with brother Jay. Their youngest son, Jay Robert, was named for uncles Jay and Bob.
J.B. was shaped by being part of the lesser-known West Coast branch of the Pritzkers, one of the wealthiest families in the country, owners of Hyatt Hotels, among many other businesses.
“I like people,” he said. “I’ve always been someone who’s interested in hearing people’s stories and engaging them. The kind of environment I grew up in wasn’t the same as the environment as in Chicago, where our family’s name was well-known. But not in the San Francisco area, and Hyatt (hotels) was not the name it was later.”
Buffered by a support system of their parents’ friends and close family back in Chicago, J. B. Pritzker learned to be independent. He grew up quickly due to his mother’s condition.
“In the 10 years between my father’s and mother’s deaths, my brother and sister and I had to manage through (Sue’s alcoholism),” he said. “There are a lot of people in the world who grow up in homes where their parents are addicted to alcohol and drugs. As my mother sank further and further into her addiction, we became more dependent on my parents’ friends. It became a very close-knit community. We were very lucky. You can imagine somebody who goes through these same things who doesn’t have that kind of community around them.
“I learned a lot from the experiences I’ve had. You learn to be empathetic from your parents and your faith. Those experiences are the things that have made me what I am today.”
Pritzker could have logically withdrawn into a shell based on early-life setbacks. But he went the other way to becoming an outgoing personality, following in Donald Pritzker’s footsteps.
“My father was an extraordinary extrovert in the hotel business,” he said. “You have to be a bit of a showman. You’re creating a brand in the hotel. His friends said he’d walk into a room and everything would tilt in his direction. He was more than a salesman. He was very smart, went to Harvard, got his graduate degree from the University of Chicago and was a crypto-analyst in the Navy. I named my son after my father.”
Through his saga, Pritzker learned that a positive imprint on a child doesn’t necessarily have to come from a parent, although next-of-kin always is preferable. Teachers and coaches could be supplementary role models and mentors.
“A good, quality caregiver can be very, very valuable. If you have people as mentors, who care about you, it’s very positive. For many kids, it can be someone else (other than parents).”
Pritzker has first-hand experience at home practicing what he preaches. He and wife M.K., “the most terrific woman in the world,” just celebrated their 24th anniversary. They have produced two children. Daughter Teddi, 14, is a track and cross-country runner. Son Donny, 12, “is a total math whiz and football fanatic.”
Another generation is now learning the same Jewish values that were never heavy-handed or ritualistic, but instead well-integrated into the Pritzkers’ lifestyles through the decades.
Involvement in Judaism via an activist and philanthropic way had been a family mandate since the first prominent Pritzker – Nicholas, J.B.’s great-grandfather — moved with his great-great grandfather Jacob from the Ukraine to get away from pogroms in 1881.
Nicholas Pritzker wrote a book about his life and philosophies circulated only within the family, and given to children upon their bar or bat mitzvahs.
“His ethos for our family (written in the book) was focused on all of us having an obligation to take care of others,” J.B. Pritzker said. “Everybody had one, whether you have nothing or everything. It’s a commitment. It’s a tenet of our religion. We’re all responsible for one another in the world. If you have the ability to do more, you do more. If you have the ability to do a little, you do a little. You do something to repair the world (tikkun olam).
“It’s not about money, it’s about values.”
The family teachings were carried faithfully by Donald and Sue Pritzker.
“They moved out to an area on the ‘Peninsula’ that had a burgeoning Jewish community, but had no Reform synagogue,” Pritzker said. “My parents and other families in the area ended up building Temple Beth Am, the synagogue I ended up being bar mitzvahed many years later.
“I’ve often said it’s hard to separate the values of my parents and the values of my religion. When we would go to temple and listen to discussions (in services or Sunday school), there was no difference between the things being taught at temple and those being taught at home. Honestly. It wasn’t (heavy ritualism). It was just the basic things you learn from your rabbi and teachers are the same things we were learning from experiences with our parents. I don’t know how to separate being my parents’ child and being Jewish.”
The most visible product of Pritzker’s support of Jewish institutions is the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Although his is the most prominent name among donors and he led the capital campaign to build the center, Pritzker credited the Holocaust survivors who came to him when the original storefront museum on Main Street in Skokie was bursting at the seams and needed capital to expand.
Pritzker recalled a session, circa 1999, when Holocaust survivors Sam Harris and Lisa Derman visited him for support.
“Sam began the conversation by taking his watch off and putting it on the table. I just need three minutes of your time,” he said. “I gave him nine years and more.
“He said we want to build a new Holocaust museum and we need your leadership. They both made this plea. Illinois was the first state in the country to mandate that every school teach the Holocaust. The museum was overrun with requests. They had built this little museum with no money.
“I asked if they had a site for the new museum? No. Do you have a business plan? No. Do you have community support? No. Do you have any business people involved? No. Do you have any government help? No. I said, I think you’ll need to get some of those things going before you think about building a museum.”
Nearly eight months later, Harris again met with Pritzker, took his watch off and asked for three minutes. He had checked off Pritzker’s list of necessities — and then some. Harris landed Stanley Tigerman as architect along with multiple potential sites. “By sheer will, they went out (to gather support),” he said. “Their desire to teach kids really affected me.” Pritzker soon jumped in with both feet until the museum was completed.
“This museum was so unusual in that it was built by the survivors,” he said.
The museum, hosting 50,000 children, 60,000 adults and thousands of teachers annually, is a glittering highlight of Pritzker’s political resume. But his pitch for Jewish voter support is not solely based on the museum, his immediate family’s background or the Pritzker record of philanthropy, but on his own record of social activism and business expertise.
“I’d step back and ask all the candidates what have they accomplished over the years that they can point to, to do big things for the state of Illinois?” he said. “How does it affect people’s lives?”
Pritzker cites his work on early childhood education, including involvement in President Obama’s White House summit on the subject. Other campaign points: boosting the serving of free breakfasts to 230,000 needy students in the state, running the bi-partisan Illinois Human Rights Commission, and claiming he “turned it around,” and endowing the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.
“That’s the kind of leadership we need in Springfield today,” he said. “You mention Jewish sensibilities. I wasn’t just marching in the (Chicago) Pride Parade (on June 25) for the first time. I was there 25 years ago. Similarly, on the Women’s Right to Choose, I was marching in Washington, D.C. 25 years ago and I’m marching today.
“These are not things that came to me because I decided I’m going to run for public office. These are things I’ve been doing my whole life.”
Questions about a businessman translating to a government chief executive – only heightened with the limited success of Rauner in Illinois and Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. – will dog Pritzker. Previous attempts to sell that experience have not worked for Pritzker. He finished third in a three-candidate race for the Ninth Congressional District Democratic primary that ended with the nomination of the now-entrenched Rep. Jan Schakowsky. Recently-released recordings revealed Pritzker talked to Rod Blagojevich about the state treasurer’s job as the since-imprisoned governor was being investigated.
But amid a financially-strained Illinois, Pritzker might now point to his success as a tech-jobs entrepreneur.
Pritzker founded the non-profit small business incubator called 1871, which in the last five years is responsible for creating 6,000 new jobs in Illinois. Much earlier, in 1996, he founded Pritzker Group Venture Capital (formerly New World Ventures), the largest venture investor based in the Midwest. The firm invested in more than 100 companies nationally in rapidly growing technology companies at all stages of their growth, with a principal focus on enterprise software and e-commerce.
Creation of more such jobs would ease Illinois’ financial crisis, which is uncertain of settlement in the short-term amid a continued political tug-of-war between Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan, a perceived Pritzker ally. If elected, Pritzker would need to reverse a population drain from Illinois caused by better employment prospects elsewhere.
Asked about reports that there are several million unfilled job openings nationwide, due to the fact that countless potential employees lack the precise skills for the jobs, Pritzker’s Rx is a better-funded and coordinated system of lifetime education that trains workers of all ages for the newest in-demand jobs.
“We’ve got to focus on education and training, including vocational training and apprenticeships,” Pritzker said. “Thirty percent of kids who graduate from high school don’t go to college. Let’s make sure those kids get a skill they can use, that will earn them an income that will allow them to have a family.
“Then there is the question of kids who graduate from college who need a year of expanded training and learning. We need our community college system to train our kids for real jobs, actual jobs that exist, not theoretical jobs where you graduate with an English degree hoping that maybe there will be an English teacher’s job. People need to get a job with skills so the job will pay.
“Some of those jobs today focus on logistics, they’re focused on computer programming, or being a developer, or software architect.”
Perhaps a bigger challenge will be re-training older adults pushed out of jobs, often due to automation, the march of the internet, salary levels and outright age discrimination about which a Gov. Pritzker would need to crack down much harder than the adjudicated cases he oversaw at the state human rights commission.
“The answer is the same thing as for kids,” he said. “They need adult education, and it can’t bankrupt them to do it. Make sure the corporations themselves are providing the programs.
“Lifelong learning is now a necessity. It’s not just something you’re choosing to do because you’re curious. For you and me, when we went to college, we got a degree and whatever education you got after that. When you’re done with that, you’re done with education. Whatever things you learned, you do the rest of your life. Not anymore.
“We need to change the way we think about education entirely. When you’re 55, you can become a computer developer.”
Even in slower-growth Illinois, Pritzker claimed a big jobs-to-employee mismatch.
“There are tens of thousands of job openings in Illinois for a certain kind of skilled labor that doesn’t exist in Illinois,” he said. “Or the people that have them aren’t being matched up with the jobs.
“We also need to use the internet appropriately to allow people who have skills, but don’t live where the job is, to telecommute. We ought to make sure we have enough broadband in this state so wherever you live, you can get a job telecommuting if you don’t choose to pick up and leave where you are. I was one of the first investors in one of the first on-line colleges. That was 1996, and we couldn’t imagine (how it would develop). Today, you and I could take classes on-line. The world has changed a great deal, we need to keep up with it and here in Illinois we’re not keeping up with it.”
As for the current Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, Pritzker said, “Let’s not give up yet. We have to fight, fight, fight. I’ve been doing that and I’ve been at as many protests as I can get to the last number of months. We’ve got to fight to maintain the ACA.
As for calls for a Medicare-for-all, single-payer plan available in almost all other First World countries. Pritzker could be a backer, but such a radical change would require a voters’ revolt to turn over Washington, D.C., he said.
“I don’t think we’ll see a single-payer federally until we can turn the Congress and the presidency around (to Democratic control),” Pritzker said. “But I think single-payer is absolutely worth contemplating nationally. If we can put the right safeguards in place around single-payer, it might be the right solution. But I also want to say we don’t have to have single-payer to cover everybody. There’s several ways to get there. ACA was a good way to get there.”
Every so often, Pritzker chills out from these heavy thoughts and appearances, in person or via TV spots. He’s a Cubs season-ticket holder with the “stress” of going for a World Series repeat in a season when so many North Side wheels are wobbly. And he’s a maniacal Blackhawks fan stimulated by recent team-shaking trades. He’ll remain a paying fan. Don’t ever expect him to be a sports-team owner given his standards of a sound business investment.
When the games conclude, the real world inevitably calls again for his all-out drive to duel Bruce Rauner to win one of the lower-paying jobs J.B. Pritzker has held in his adult life.