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Illinois Democrats Divided Over Billionaire Candidate

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are a lot of very wealthy politicians in the mix these days. There's President Trump of course, who likes to promote his billionaire status. And in Illinois, Republican Governor Bruce Rauner is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. All that money has encouraged some wealthy Illinois Democrats to think about running for office themselves. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Tony Arnold reports.

TONY ARNOLD, BYLINE: In Chicago, politicians no longer hang out in smoke-filled back rooms. Nowadays when powerful Cook County Democratic Party officials meet...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to do a five minute break for doughnuts. Committeemen, you can help yourself to a doughnut.

ARNOLD: ...They were meeting in a drab, fluorescent-lit conference room to hear from the candidates who want to take on Governor Bruce Rauner in 2018. Billionaire J.B. Pritzker was among them. He's an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J B PRITZKER: I think the last time I was standing in front of you, I was not yet actually an official candidate for governor.

ARNOLD: Part of his pitch boils down to, I don't need the Democratic Party's money to run a campaign. Instead, save your money for down ballot races.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRITZKER: Our infrastructure as a party - knocking on doors, getting people out to vote - has diminished. Theirs has improved. Our communications endeavor across the state has diminished. Theirs has improved. We've got to rebuild.

ARNOLD: Some labor groups and elected officials have already endorsed Pritzker. They say next year's governor's race is already going to be expensive. That's because Rauner has already spent more than a hundred million dollars of his own money on campaigns over the last four years. All of that spending comes as Illinois has gone without a budget since 2015 because of a war between Rauner and Democratic lawmakers.

The money flooding into the race has also hurt one candidate who was hoping his political pedigree would be a boost. Chris Kennedy is the son of Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy asked that room full of Democratic Party leaders not to make any endorsements and let voters decide next spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS KENNEDY: We need to reaffirm with the electorate that we work for them, that we are servant leaders and not leaders of servants.

ARNOLD: Democrats allied with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party are worried about having a rich, self-funding candidate. Sanders narrowly lost the Illinois primary last year and has a lot of support among the party's grass roots. Another gubernatorial candidate, Ameya Pawar, is a member of the Chicago City Council. He said Democrats would shed what's left of their working-class roots if they choose Pritzker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMEYA PAWAR: We'd be foolish if we didn't learn from our past mistakes and if we continue to take voters for granted, isolating candidates because of fame or fortune because that strategy will not help us beat Bruce Rauner.

ARNOLD: Pawar warns that Democrats have gotten too concerned about raising money and too complacent about their message. For NPR News, I'm Tony Arnold in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "NO LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.