January 10, 2018



Chris Kennedy, along with Bill Daley, have been the proverbial Hamlets of Illinois politics for over two decades. To run or not to run? That was the biennial question. Kennedy, scion of the East Coast Kennedy Clan, always answered by vacillating, equivocating and prevaricating. But he has been playing coy so long that nobody even bothers to ask anymore. And now that he is running for governor, nobody gives the "Nowhere Man" much of a chance.

Illinois Democrats beseeched him to run for governor in 1998 and 2002 as their anointed candidate. Had he run in 1998, he would likely have beaten George Ryan, and saved Illinois (and Ryan) the pain of Ryan's pay-to-play scandal in the Secretary of State's office, and subsequent jailing. Had he run in 2002, he would likely have defeated Rod Blagojevich in the Democratic primary, and saved Illinois (and Blagojevich) the pain of Blagojevich's impeachment, and subsequent conviction and jailing on corruption charges.

And, in 2004, Kennedy would certainly have won the Democrats' U.S. Senate nomination had he run for the open seat. Barack Obama, then a South Side state senator, might not have run, or, if he had, would have surely lost the primary to Kennedy. Instead, Obama went to the U.S. Senate, beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, and went to the White House. Had Kennedy won Illinois' senate seat in 2004, Clinton would have gone to the White House in 2008. And maybe Donald Trump would have remained an idle, aging billionaire.
In the annals of U.S. politics, never has anybody accomplished so much by doing absolutely nothing.

But now Kennedy, son of the assassinated 1968 presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and nephew of the assassinated President John Kennedy, age 54, is finally doing something, and may be doing it quite astutely. He is putting separation between himself and the two least-popular Democrats in Illinois - Speaker Mike Madigan and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He has made vague charges that the mayor's stewardship has an underlying racial goal - namely to hasten the ongoing departure of blacks from the city, to augment the white vote, and to make realtors gobs of money by gentrifying South Side and near West Side black areas. Since 2010, Cook County's black population has declined by about 50,000.

To suggest some kind of an intentional Machiavellian conspiracy is absurd. But demagoguery -which is defined as a politician who attempts to stir up the populace by appeals to emotion and/or prejudice in order to win power - is a powerful tool. Given the current political climate in Chicago and Illinois, with officeholders behaving intractably and stupidly, with spending and taxes out of control, shootings and murders commonplace - separating oneself from those responsible is wise. And making incendiary charges has no downside, as it gets headlines. Kennedy is definitely positioning himself as the OUTSIDER.

If blacks are leaving the city, as Kennedy suggests, it's not the poorest that live in areas with gun violence, school closures, food deserts, diminished police presence and alleged "disinvestment" in the communities. They are generally renters, and can find no place cheaper. It is the South Side black middle-class who is flooding out to the south suburbs, and the reason is economic: Chicago's property taxes and water bills are increasingly oppressive.

According to 2017 financial disclosures, Democrat J.B. Pritzker raised $42 million through December, almost all from his own pocket. According to press reports, Pritzker's net worth is $7 billion, generated initially by his inheritance of a share of the Hyatt Hotel chain, founded by his father, and then augmented by his career as a venture capitalist. Pritzker is Kennedy's principal opponent, the perceived frontrunner, and he was endorsed and slated by the Cook County Democratic Party. Pritzker's TV ads, which vilify Republican Governor Bruce Rauner for cutting state services, and tie him to President Donald Trump, began in late spring, and he is spending $50,000-a day on media, staff and polling. Recent polling indicates that Pritzker is getting some traction. The most recent poll, in October by We Ask America, had had Pritzker up 39-16-6. A June Garin-Hart-Young poll had Kennedy ahead 44-38. Also in the race, and considered formidable, is state senator Dan Biss, of Evanston. Both Biss and Kennedy are competing for the ABP - Anybody But Pritzker - vote. In short, they're proclaiming that they're not part of the stalemate in Springfield, are not endorsed by the likes of the mayor and speaker, and won't capitulate to Madigan. Wait a minute: Isn't that what Governor Bruce Rauner has done?

(As an aside, I saw Pritzker in action at a Thorpe school forum last autumn. He is totally scripted, stays on message, and has mastered the art of uttering innocuous drivel. No questions were taken from the audience. Questions were submitted in writing. On the matter of Madigan, Pritzker said that he would "work with the speaker" since he was "elected by the Democratic state representatives," and that Illinois "must provide funding for those who are most vulnerable." On that, he said funding would come from "closing corporate loopholes." When I sought specifics - such as why a Democratic legislature hasn't closed those pernicious "loopholes" already - they would not let me talk. And, lest I forget, Pritzker said he "grew up in a family business," and that, as a teenager - which would have been in the early 1980s - he would "help out" by hauling the dirty sheets to a local laundromat. Sure.)

Without question, Pritzker is the establishment Democrats' candidate because (1) he can self-fund, matching Rauner dollar-for-dollar, and because (2) that allows Madigan to scoop up money from traditional Democratic sources, like unions, so as to protect his 67-51 House majority, keeping himself as speaker. When it comes to Madigan, the state party chairman, the operative phrase is "me, myself and I."

Kennedy, during 2017, raised a tepid $3.2 million. That does not make him competitive. The Kennedy Clan is reputed to be fantastically wealthy, but they don't spend it to elect their dynastic legacies, and those legacies don't seem particularly ambitious. Kennedy's brother, Joseph Kennedy II, was a Massachusetts congressman, but made no attempt to run for senator or governor, and quit after a decade. His sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, was Maryland's lieutenant governor, and bungled a 2002 governor's bid in an overwhelming Democratic state. His cousin, Uncle Ted Kennedy's son Patrick, was a Rhode Island congressman for 18 years, but never tried to move up. Caroline Kennedy, the late president's daughter, has, like Chris, been procrastinating, seemingly forever, a bid for statewide office in New York. The "magic" of the Kennedy name has dissipated.

2018 looms as the year of SOMEBODY DIFFERENT. Politicians who are tired, tiresome, conventional and/or incumbents are at great risk. The key slogan will be: "I'm not part of it."
Without a massive paid media presence, meaning a glut of repetitive TV ads, Kennedy and Biss must rely on "earned" media, which means creating news events and getting on TV news programs. Rauner, who self-funded his campaign with $50 million in 2017, is on TV proclaiming his "accomplishments," and Pritzker with ads trying to make him some kind of Sir Galahad - the savior of all those in Illinois who need to be saved. And in the Democratic primary, nobody is being specific about anything.

Kennedy can win only if he delegitimizes Pritzker, and elbows Biss out as the "reform" alternative. That is doable, but only if Kennedy goes heavily negative on Pritzker. Pritzker, for example, paid taxes on only on $14 million of income despite self-disclosed wealth of $7 billion, most in a foundation. Pritzker lives in a $6.2 million north Gold Coast mansion, and, after having bought the mansion next door, ripped out the toilets and sinks so as to make it "uninhabitable," reducing property taxes by $230,000. Pritzker and his family - sister Penny Pritzker was the Obama Administration commerce secretary, and the family donated heavily to Hillary Clinton in 2016 - are insiders, part of the system, and they know how to use the system for their financial benefit. He also has at tie to Blagojevich. Pritzker is neither likeable nor loveable. Kennedy can only win if he defines Pritzker as just another rich opportunist.

The Cook County black vote, combined with the Downstate vote, is critical. Against two opponents, with three minor candidates, Pritzker wins with 40 to 45 percent of the vote. The 2010 primary between Pat Quinn, who succeeded Blagojevich, and then-Comptroller Dan Hynes is illustrative. Turnout was 915,000, with 575,000, or 63 percent coming from Cook County, 215,000 from the collar counties, and 125,000 from Downstate. Of the Cook County vote, 345,000 came from Chicago, and 165,000 from the black-majority wards. Statewide, Quinn won by a minuscule 8,372 votes.

Quinn triumphed because he won nearly 70 percent of the countywide black vote, and that was because his agents circulated the fact that Hynes' father, former assessor Tom Hynes, ran against Harold Washington in 1987 as the "Chicago First" party candidate. That was political poison.

To win in 2018, Pritzker needs to get 50 to 60 percent of the black vote, have Madigan deliver 60 to 70 percent of the Downstate vote, and break even in the collar counties. That is definitely doable. Kennedy needs to do some serious damage real soon.

Send e-mail to russ@russstew art.com or visit his Web site at www.russstewart.com.