Griffin Backing Irvin for Illinois Governor: Interview Transcript

In an interview with David Greising, president of the Better Government Association, Citadel founder Ken Griffin disclosed he will back Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin in his race for governor, starting with a $20 million contribution to Irvin’s campaign. A transcript of the interview follows.

Based on the content of this interview, Greising wrote a fully-reported column about Griffin’s announcement, published by the Chicago Tribune. 

Griffin previously has contributed to the Better Government Association, with his last gift made in 2020. This interview for Greising’s regular Chicago Tribune column marked the first time Greising has spoken with Griffin in his capacity as president and chief executive of the Better Government Association.  

In response to a query about some of Griffin’s comments, Pritzker campaign spokeswoman Natalie Edelstein issued the following statement:

“Ken Griffin would conveniently like us all to forget he bankrolled the very governor that decimated the social services that prevent violence, caused our colleges and universities to nearly lose accreditation, and devastated our state’s finances in previously unseen ways. Moreover, Ken’s chosen candidate is entirely unserious about addressing the issues facing Illinois and spent fifteen years profiting off of the defense of violent criminals. The wounds left by Bruce Rauner’s incompetence are still fresh and Illinoisans see Irvin’s candidacy for exactly what it is: another empty suit for Ken Griffin to drag our state backwards.”

Here is an edited transcript of the Griffin interview:

David Greising, president of BGA: Good afternoon, Ken. Please tell me your news.

Ken Griffin: Big picture, I’m going to get behind Richard Irvin, the mayor of Aurora. He’s an incredible leader, has a strong track record as mayor of Aurora, and really epitomizes the American dream. I believe he has the talent, the drive and the caring that we need to turn Illinois around.

BGA: When did he first come to your attention, him and his track record?

KG: That would have been months ago. My team has been very carefully following the various people who have considered running for governor. We have tried to keep ourselves appraised of the people who are in the field and who do we think is going to have the strength, the personality, the problem-solving skills and the commitment to our state to make Illinois a place where people are comfortable raising their families, starting businesses and living their lives. And we think Richard Irvin is the best person to make that happen for our state in this election cycle.

BGA: I’d like to hear more about the read that you made in landing with Richard Irvin and your view of his political prospects.

KG: This is not just about beating J.B. This is about having a person in office who is going to put the people of our state first; who is going to be willing to make the tough calls that need to be made to end the senseless violence that’s been gripping our state; that we put our state on a path of fiscal sustainability, and that we make Illinois a place that firms like Citadel can proudly recruit talent to and build businesses within. I’ll make it really clear. This is about not just beating J.B., it’s about helping to make sure that Illinois wins.

BGA: Citadel is well known for your use of data. What sort of data did you collect in making this decision?

KG: It’s a field of candidates with very little name recognition to start with, so the data is not going to be as important as the character of the people that you’re getting behind and the policies they’re going to drive as governor. And what you’ve got with Richard is you can see what those policies are going to look like based on his effective track record as mayor of Aurora.

I had with Richard a connection on issues that are really important to me, issues around making sure to end the crime pandemic that has engulfed Chicago; making sure that we put the state’s fiscal house in order so that we build new factories, creating both jobs in construction, in the factory, in all the infrastructure around the factory. These things will happen in a state that is perceived to be stable and where the economy is growing. We need the flywheel to work in the other direction, one that takes us forward, not backward.

BGA: What have you found in his Aurora track record that most appeals to you vis a vis a statewide race?

KG: There are two things that are really important across much of the state. Number one is, Richard understands public safety. He was a prosecutor. He understands what it is like to be at the tip of the spear of law. He understands prosecuting people he has grown up with, people he knew in the neighborhoods. The importance of law and order in our communities is really important at this point in time.

And Richard has been really committed to how do we drive economic revitalization in the second-largest city in the state. Whether that’s revitalization of the waterfront, driving new businesses: Entrepreneurs have seen this commitment and it gives them confidence to start and build new businesses in Aurora. That’s really powerful.

Richard understands the importance of making business people know that he understands the joint prosperity that comes with a successful business community.

Mayor Daley was really clear that Chicago is the city that works, and he valued all the people I brought to this city. The mayor made clear that he had my back, that I could be comfortable making the investment in infrastructure, in talent, and in building Citadel. I know with Richard Irvin I’m going to have that feeling again. J.B. Pritzker is nowhere to be found on this issue.

BGA: Going to criminal justice, do you expect Richard Irvin will be proposing a reversal of the no-cash-bail reform that was passed by the legislature last spring before it is implemented next year?

KG: This is not an issue I’ve spoken with him about specifically. But he’s very thoughtful about the issues of bail being, how do we insure people are respectful of the law. How do we end senseless violence, and how do we use common sense in ensuring safety in our communities.

BGA: Judges are the ones who implement the law. Is this idea of criminals on the streets really going to be persuasive given that it’s more of a municipal issue and a county issue?

It’s tone from the top. When a law is signed that we’re now in an era of no-cash bail, irrespective of a technical implementation date, it affects the decision of every single judge immediately. It’s the tone from the top that is so important to how this state runs. That’s where leadership comes into play.

BGA: In your speech to the Economic Club of Chicago you made a point about the impact of violent crime on the city.

KG: Crime in Chicago is out of control. I’ve had four colleagues mugged in the last year, year and change. I had a colleague in a car where a bullet went through the car right next to him. The retail space in the building I live in had 27 bullet holes in the looting during the summer a year and a half ago. It’s a tough environment to tell somebody when you graduate from college you need to come to Chicago. It’s damn near impossible to grow a business in a state where people who live here are afraid to stay. I’ve got high-paying jobs. I’ve got plenty of opportunities and options. My New York office is growing by leaps and bounds. My Chicago office is not.

BGA: Will Richard Irvin’s background as a criminal defense lawyer be an issue in the politics of the campaign?

KG: It could be an issue, but I’m going to tell you, every single person in this country is entitled to a good defense. If you want justice, then every single person is entitled to a good defense. I have respect for a person who will give a young man or a young woman, or any demographic—old, young, middle-aged—the right to a fair trial. It’s a core tenet of our democracy.

BGA: Let’s talk about fiscal solvency questions. Aurora has a high credit rating, and Richard Irvin has been mayor long enough to deserve some credit. How does that transfer to the statewide picture, pension issues, etc?

KG: The ethos of driving toward a higher credit rating makes a huge difference. The first step toward putting your budget in order is to care about it. There’s no doubt that Richard understands we have to get our fiscal house in order, and our governor refuses to engage in any area of controversy that involves getting our spending in order. And without the ability to get spending in order, our taxpayers have clearly demonstrated, we don’t want to keep sending money to Springfield to get burnt in the furnace.

If you look at the tax amendment battle of a year ago, that’s a statement by the citizens of Illinois saying, “Enough corruption and enough wasteful spending.” And the right governor with the right agenda is going to seek to end corruption and end wasteful spending, and after that, if Richard needs to raise revenues, he can credibly return to the voters looking for revenues.

J.B. Pritzker is resorting to accounting tricks in a desperate move to mislead the voters of Illinois. His proposed spending is already 8% above 2021 levels while taxpayers are fleeing the state. More spending, fewer people: Anyone can do the math. Rather than using the funds the federal government provided to shore up the state’s finances, he’s playing politics by postponing his previously enacted tax hikes until after the election. He’s hoping to fool the citizens of Illinois who will be left with a larger bill to pay in 2023.

BGA: We’re being deluged with J.B. Pritzker ads about an improved credit rating, about a balanced budget. Gov. Pritzker is meeting obligations on evidence-based funding for schools and meeting pension obligations. As a political matter, how concerned are you that there’s an impression that Illinois fiscal house is getting in order?

KG: As a political matter, I’m very concerned. The handouts that our state government has gotten from the federal government during the course of the pandemic have given us a temporary respite from our poor decisions. And rather than helping to prepare for a rainy day, the governor’s just pretending everything is business as usual. I think the voters of our state when presented with the facts will come to a thoughtful conclusion.

BGA: How do you expect to make that point in a way that lands with voters in the state?

KG: Richard Irvin is going to have to carry that water. And the media is going to have to make that decision. Are they going to support transparency in reporting? All these issues are complicated, and I will hope the media comes to the right place and does the work. The state depends on it. We have such a mass exodus of talent that we won’t have much to report on in 15 or 20 years if we don’t do the work now.

BGA: Turning to education, the elected school board for Chicago passed last year. Some people see that as leading to a teachers’ union capture of the Chicago school system. Is there anything a governor can do about that?

KG: I’d like to have the fantasy that one day we’ll reverse that. But the fact that this nightmare happened under J.B. Pritzker, again, it’s a statement about tone from the top. And the movement to unionize principals in the school system, again, it’s tone from the top.

BGA: Tell me a little more about your personal connection with Richard?

KG: I have no words other than respect and admiration for a person who has lifted themselves from a very difficult starting position in life and has been as accomplished and successful as Richard has been. He and I both shared the stories of how our grandparents used to get oranges for Christmas was an orange, and that’s all they got. In our own respective ways, we’re both living the American dream.

BGA: Richard needs to get out of a Republican primary, and his Republican opponents have criticized him for voting in Democratic primaries?

KG: You might want to think strategically about what party you’re going to affiliate with in terms of what your vote is going to impact. You as a voter should vote in a primary in a way that you think is going to have the most powerful impact in the state where you live, or city or county. If Chicago’s primaries were partisan, I’d pull a Democratic ballot.

It’s really important that we find people on both sides of the aisle to lead our country from the center. The polarized politics that rip apart Washington, DC will do nothing to help the state of Illinois move forward. We’re living the nightmare of the polarized politics. We’re living the ultra-progressive politics of J.B. Pritzker and it’s destroying our state.

If you tell me there are parts of Richard that strike you as centrist, God bless. That makes me happy. I want to see someone in office who is going to run it with common sense, who is going to listen to the issues of the everyday person on the streets and who is going to care to make Illinois a better state.

BGA: How would you describe your own politics?

KG: I’m pretty close to the nonexistent center of 2022. And that’s where most of our country lives. They’re just afraid to say anything. In this moment of cancel culture and social justice warriors, it’s really hard to speak from the center and not risk being ostracized by the left.

BGA: To the extent Richard Irvin is a centrist, do you see that as an advantage in running for governor if Illinois?

KG: I think it’s a huge advantage. The primary is an important part of the election process. Richard is his own man, he carves his own path. Voters are going to make their decision, and hopefully he’s going to serve this state as governor at the end of the election cycle.

BGA: Gov Pritzker recently contributed $90 million to his campaign. There has been reporting that you may put in anywhere from $150 million to $300 million for the campaign. What are you saying about this?

KG: I’m going to let J.B. Pritzker be anxious about what that number might be. Unlike J.B. Pritzker, I’ve earned my wealth. It wasn’t given to me. And if I think what I can do to let me keep my firm in Chicago and create hundreds and hundreds of high-paying jobs in Chicago, then you might understand where I come from in this election.

I’d much rather be complimenting J.B. on policies, but that’s just not happening. I have the opportunity to help make a difference, and if I believe I can stop the crumbling of Rome, I will do it.

BGA: We’re in a situation where you as a billionaire are putting up money against another billionaire. How do you view the fact that you and Gov. Pritzker are such a presence in the election, and is it good for the state that you two played such a role in the graduated tax and will again in this election?

KG: Thank God for the state that I have the resources to lend a different voice. Otherwise, we’d just have J.B.’s voice. I’m going to help give a voice to Richard. He has a great message. This will help him get on the air. This will let him tell his message of where he’s come from, what he believes in and where he’s going.

Most fundamentally, this election will be decided by every single voter in the state who will show up and cast a ballot. I hope that we’ll help people in the state make a really good decision, one that they think is right for them. I believe that if you look at the facts, it’s an easy decision to vote for Richard. But I’ve got to tell you, I believe in a democracy, and I believe in the right of every person to be involved in the democracy and to come to their own decision.

BGA: Do you believe Richard Irvin faces an uphill battle?

KG: If you look at policy, I believe there is no comparison between the two as political leaders. But I do know that J.B. Pritzker is willing to put an incredible amount of inherited wealth into this race, and he's willing to deliver a message that is flat-out deceiving to our citizens about the fiscal house of the state being in order.

I just challenge J.B.: Spend your time back in Chicago where we have so much going wrong and come forth with a real plan to address the issues plaguing our state, many of them made worse by your pursuit of an ultra-progressive agenda.