PEKIN — The crowd of about 50 at Laborers Local 231 got a lunchtime stump speech Thursday from Democratic gubernatorial candidate JB Pritzker.
But after about 20 minutes, the businessman turned the tables on his crowd and asked them for their feedback and questions, fielding both for 35 minutes of conversational back-and-forth.
Some of what he provided was red meat to a union hall base, reminding attendees of incumbent GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner's efforts to push right-to-work measures in his term and pointing to recent staff shake-ups that he said have surrounded Rauner with more conservative advisers.
Acknowledging his own wealth, Pritzker launched his presentation by asking why anyone would want to trade one side's billionaire first-time officeholder for another:
"This election isn't about money, it's about values. It's about what you stand for," the Chicagoan said, citing social justice, economic justice and preserving the safety net among those values he'd fight for.
Ditto for economic improvements, promising to roll out a downstate revitalization plan during his campaign to create jobs and raise wages.
"There's no competition for labor. So the result is that every community you go to that's outside of a metropolitan area is dependent on a government institution for jobs, and we need more than that," Pritzker said. "We need to strengthen our government institutions, but we also need to create prosperity in the communities by helping people start businesses, build businesses, make sure capital is available for small businesses to grow, and to big businesses that have economic development projects across central and southern Illinois."
Responding to audience questions, he painted the past two years in state government as a failure to work together collaboratively.
"This isn't a one-party state. ... If I get elected governor, I will work with Republicans and Democrats," he promised.
He also admitted that his perspective on guns was colored by his suburban upbringing, and said conversations with his wife — raised in rural South Dakota — helped awaken his understanding of their importance for self-defense. Pritzker said he's a Second Amendment supporter who believes "there are things we can do to fight for gun safety."
Pritzker backs an increase to the minimum wage, and bristles at the notion that a gradual step-up to $15 an hour — or higher income taxes — can alone be a killer of economic growth.
"The governor wants to say it's all about the tax rate and all about the wage rate, and if you lower the taxes and lower the wage rate, then you're going to be able to attract jobs," he said. "If that were true, why is California growing at a much higher rate than we are? Why is New York growing at a much higher rate than we are?"
Pritzker emphasized repeatedly that he was not going to take downstate votes for granted, or ignore the region. Indeed, he referred to downstate as key to winning the governorship, pointing out that among the reasons Gov. Pat Quinn lost re-election was poor support outside Chicagoland.
"I'm trying very hard to spend real time in every part of the state," he said.
Pritzker also toured the Tazewell Community Area Project in East Peoria to highlight damage brought about over the two-year state budget impasse before ending his day in Petersburg.
He is running in the March Democratic primary against businessman Chris Kennedy, state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar, state Rep. Scott Drury of suburban Highwood, Madison County regional schools Superintendent Bob Daiber, a civil engineer named Alex Paterakis and political gadfly Tio Hardiman.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at email@example.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.