During a recent debate between Illinois’ Democratic governor hopefuls, billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker proclaimed himself “the only candidate on this stage that’s created thousands and thousands of jobs.”

That prompted this retort from rival Chris Kennedy, a developer and one-time manager of a property portfolio owned by his politically storied family: “I think if there’s an award for that, it would go to me.”

In an era when wealthy business people increasingly seek public office, it has become something of a rite of passage for such candidates to frame their bona fides in terms of whose job creation claims are biggest.

Donald Trump, the developer turned reality TV star, declared during his successful presidential run that his experience proved he would be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.”

Here in Illinois, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a longtime private equity investor, cast himself throughout his 2014 campaign as a “business guy” who could bolster job creation with his real-life know-how.

While campaigns are expensive, talk is often cheap when it comes to politicians claiming impressive track records as job creators.

Which is why we asked Pritzker and Kennedy to prove up their fuzzy boasts. Prying solid numbers out of both campaigns proved a heavy lift.

Scant specifics

For some perspective, it’s useful to take a look at the last campaign for governor when Rauner used business savvy as the centerpiece of his pitch to voters.

During one televised debate, he was asked a question that should have been a slam dunk for a Chicago-based “business guy”: Identify an investment he had made that increased jobs in Illinois.

Rauner stumbled for an answer and ultimately didn’t identify any, even failing to mention the headquarters operation of his own private equity company, GTCR. Federal records show that in 2014, two years after Rauner left to enter politics, GTCR employed 83 professionals plus clerical help.

It was against that backdrop that we asked Pritzker and Kennedy to break down their job creation claims. It took days for both camps to come up with answers, something that seems reasonable to expect since both candidates were already touting their achievements.

In the end, Pritzker’s campaign punted on specifics, offering little beyond the broad generalities uttered by the candidate on the campaign trail and during the debate itself.  

“JB’s private business, Pritzker Group, has helped create over 3,500 jobs through their venture capital investments. Pritzker Group’s private capital investments have created more than 500 jobs,” spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in an emailed statement.

Pritzker’s Chicago-based venture capital, private equity and asset management firm, which he stepped away from to run for governor, was even less help. The Pritzker Group, co-founded by Pritzker and a brother, did not return a message seeking more specifics.

Pritzker also claimed credit for helping to create more than 7,000 jobs through 1871, a Chicago-based technology incubator he helped found. Pritzker, according to his campaign, was responsible for establishing “the foundation that allowed Chicago to surge to the forefront of the technology industry.”

What jobs? With what employer? Where? And how permanent in a tech industry where employers come and go with frequency and workers often job hop? The campaign is not saying.

Also left unsaid was that Pritzker hardly launched 1871 by himself. Several other sponsors chipped in funding as well, and the state of Illinois invested $2.3 million to help open the tech hub’s office space in the Merchandise Mart.

There’s something of an irony in the location, because 1871 opened in 2012, the year after Kennedy ended a 10-year run as president of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc.

Kennedy’s job creation claims largely center on his Merchandise Mart stint. His campaign answered our job creation query with a precision that Pritzker’s did not.

Rebecca Evans, a spokeswoman for the Kennedy campaign, said the candidate created 13,593 jobs through construction and capital projects at the Mart and a nearby annex.

She also attributed another 3,188 jobs to the luxury apartment high-rises at Wolf Point near the Mart that Kennedy has played a key role in constructing. One tower opened two years ago and ground was recently broken on a second. Most of those jobs are likely related to construction work, which by its very nature is temporary.

Evans said both figures exclude part-time or seasonal workers, but the campaign defined a full-time worker as one hired for at least a year and working approximately 2,000 hours during that time.

That leaves a lot of leeway to count construction jobs that go away once the work is done.

Kennedy’s campaign also added another 8 jobs to his tally through a non-profit he created called Top Box Foods that provides affordable food to low-income families.

Fuzzy math

Public officials don’t technically create private sector jobs, so it may seem a little off point for political candidates to lean on job creating prowess as a yardstick to measure them by.

Increasingly, however, they do it anyway, including here in Illinois where two leading Democratic candidates for governor with business backgrounds are now making such claims. So we asked them how they came by their numbers.

Explanations should have been easy to come by because the only way to reach a valid total to boast about is to understand the underlying numbers that add up to it. Pritzker never came up with specifics. Kennedy did, but a large number of the jobs he took credit for were likely temporary in nature.

Pritzker, Kennedy and Rauner, too, all have track records of business success, so it stands to reason that the activities that ultimately enriched the candidates had a spillover effect in the creation  of jobs. If they didn’t generate jobs they probably wouldn’t have been successful at business.

But trying to one-up each other with job creation claims on the campaign trail is of questionable value in evaluating how someone would perform in an executive position with responsibilities and powers very unlike one in the private sector.

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