CHICAGO — Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker indicated Tuesday he will sign a controversial ethics bill that he acknowledged “didn’t go far enough,” saying he believes it makes some progress toward restoring the public’s trust in Illinois government.
In a short but wide-ranging interview on his first full day as an announced candidate for reelection, Pritzker also hailed House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch as a “breath of fresh air” in replacing his scandal-tarred predecessor, Michael Madigan. The billionaire governor also committed to funding other Democrats on next year’s ballot.
Eschewing a traditional fly-around of the state to announce his bid for a second term in favor of a campaign video followed by a day of media interviews, Pritzker pledged a return to addressing “kitchen table” issues such as affordable education and health care, as well as economic development and job growth in the tech and energy sectors, which were upended in part by the pandemic.
Promoting his success in passing an increase in the minimum wage, expanded subsidized health care and a jobs-producing multiyear infrastructure rebuilding program, Pritzker said, “We generally made government work for people” during his term.
“I’m running for reelection because there’s so much more that we can do to help Illinois families reach their full potential,” he said.
“We have work to do not only to make college more affordable, to help people save for retirement, to help people get better jobs,” he said. “Those are all things that are kitchen-table issues, the things I talked about four years ago, that we’ve been steadily working on and making progress on, and I’m optimistic that we can do more.”
Pritzker’s handling of the pandemic is expected to play a major role in the referendum on his future. But the governor said his campaign launch video’s focus on the state’s battle with COVID-19 was not intended to make it a “political issue” against those who fought his mitigation efforts such as masking and shutting down schools and businesses.
“They were loud,” he said of opponents to his pandemic policies. “But you know, the people who wanted us to continue the work of keeping people healthy, they weren’t out there protesting. They were doing what they needed to do and that honestly has made me so proud of our state — just how many people stepped up and did the right thing.”
Ethics legislation approved this spring by the General Assembly on a bipartisan vote awaits action by Pritzker. But controversy has swirled over many provisions and the state’s legislative inspector general, Carol Pope, contended lawmakers “demonstrated true ethics reform is not a priority” when she announced her resignation earlier this month.
Rather than increasing the inspector general’s independence, the measure places more restrictions on the position. In recent days, House Republicans asked Pritzker to use his amendatory veto to rewrite the measure, even though many of them voted for it.
“What the legislature passed is progress in the right direction,” Pritzker said. “You can’t go by the theory that perfect should be the enemy of the good.”
Pritzker acknowledged more needs to be done to show “integrity in government.” Voter distrust of government contributed to the rejection last November of what had been his signature first-term agenda item, replacing the state’s flat-rate income tax system with a graduated-rate tax.
Pritzker touted legislation he signed in his first year requiring more transparency from lobbyists and said an energy bill that is still being negotiated, aimed at reducing carbon-emission producing power plants, also would contain new ethics rules regarding utilities. He said he remained hopeful a deal on the energy bill could be reached.
“Remember, this has been the focus of the corruption that we’ve seen over the last couple of years,” Pritzker said, referring to Commonwealth Edison’s agreement to pay a $200 million fine and cooperate with federal investigators after acknowledging it gave contracts, jobs and other benefits to allies of Madigan in an effort to curry his favor.
Madigan has not been charged with any wrongdoing and has denied knowledge of the scheme, but the federal investigation and indictments of others close to him were enough to force the veteran Southwest Side Democrat to resign from the legislature as well as his post as state Democratic chairman.
Welch became the state’s first Black House speaker in succeeding Madigan, who was speaker for nearly four decades.
“I will say that working with the new speaker is a breath of fresh air,” Pritzker said. “He really has been somebody who shares a lot of my ideas about where to move this state.”
Pritzker’s choice for state Democratic chair to replace Madigan was defeated by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson. But he called her a friend and said he would be using his wealth to help the party’s candidates through a subset of his own campaign fund, Blue Wave Illinois.
“Helping Democrats up and down the ticket, I’m going to continue to do that,” he said. “I’ve been committed to electing Democrats my whole life and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m friends with and work together well will all of the people who are involved in the Democratic Party of Illinois.”