Citadel founder Ken Griffin claimed Gov. J.B. Pritzker refused to mobilize the National Guard last August to address civil unrest centered on North Michigan Avenue. “It won’t look good,” he quoted Pritzker as saying. 

Pritzker’s spokeswoman accused Griffin of “lying” about the episode during his appearance before the Economic Club of Chicago on Oct. 4.

And the rhetoric carried on from there.

Bad blood keeps boiling between two of Chicago’s most prominent and powerful people. Our billionaire governor and one of our wealthiest private citizens are in most respects political opposites, but linked in pursuit of a safer and better city and state. 

I spent the better part of this week getting to the bottom of the contentious Aug. 17, 2020, call with Pritzker, convened by Mellody Hobson. Several participants among the business leaders on the line recall Pritzker stating he would not call the guard unless Mayor Lori Lightfoot asked for the help. 

The governor also observed that guard soldiers—trained for warfare—might be ill suited to calm the rage on North Michigan Avenue, participants said.

Pritzker likely also said something close to what Griffin recalled, based on participants’ recollections. Yet some believe Griffin’s version distorted Pritzker’s intended meaning.

And, frankly, Chicago and the state of Illinois have bigger issues at hand than chasing down that minor mystery.  

The ongoing surge of violence in Chicago’s neighborhoods, both rich and poor, is just a start. Other key challenges include the failure of Pritzker and the General Assembly to undertake comprehensive ethics reform, despite a historic corruption scandal; to prevent gerrymandered electoral maps, abandoning a Pritzker campaign pledge; and to undertake structural reform of Illinois’ debt, spending and pensions.

These woes, and others, were on Griffin’s mind in a Q&A session serenaded with applause from the business-centric Economic Club audience. His solutions would be starkly different than Pritzker’s, but their lists of challenges are much the same.  

Griffin’s critique included intriguing ideas on pension reform. He called for support of Chicago police. He wants better schools. He correctly argued that $700 million in subsidies for Exelon showed a lack of accountability for the utility’s role in a major corruption scandal. And his threat to move Citadel’s headquarters from Chicago if conditions don’t improve should not be ignored—by the mayor, governor and business community.

Griffin has earned standing on policy debates—as a large employer, a major force in Illinois politics and a source of large-scale, people-centered philanthropy. He spent more than $50 million to defeat Pritzker’s signature graduated tax amendment to the Illinois constitution last year alone.

Sure, gifts like Griffin’s $100 million-plus contributions to the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago have made headlines. Yet his “smaller,” seven- and eight-figure gifts hit home, too: internet access and better principals for Chicago’s schools; feeding Chicago schoolchildren during COVID; bringing state-of-the-art technology to the Chicago police; providing a refurbished lakefront bike path for recreation.

Even so, Griffin’s elevated position also can translate into blind spots on some issues. He said little about Pritzker’s fight against COVID, which has consumed the governor’s attention for most of the past 18 months. And some failures in government performance during Pritzker’s term are rooted in budget cuts and management neglect by Gov. Bruce Rauner, whom Griffin enthusiastically backed.

Still, the preponderance of Griffin’s critique stands up to scrutiny. And he backed it with a call for urgent action, encouraging Pritzker to do what is right, even if there are political costs.

A concluding Griffin remark focused on pensions, but it also can be read as a broader call for bold, urgent action from the governor.

“Illinois has to put its house in order, and we’ve got to do it quickly, because every single day that slips through our fingers, the liabilities get bigger, and the ability to change course gets smaller,” Griffin said. “J.B. Pritzker, Gov. Pritzker, understands the math. He understands the issues. I can’t believe he won’t actually use the stunning amount of political capital he had to fix the problem.”

Indeed, it has been frustrating to see Pritzker decline to lead on ethics reform, fair maps, fiscal reform and other issues. 

Yet Griffin made his appearance at the Economic Club in part because he is not giving up. Late in my reporting on this column, he provided a statement that tacked toward a more constructive dialogue with the governor.

“Personally, I think the playground name-calling is beneath a governor,” it opened: So far, not so helpful. But then Griffin offered a list of key challenges on which both he and Pritzker might concentrate: safer neighborhoods, a more prosperous state, reduced violence and debt.

“Despite our differences, if he actually decides to address our state’s biggest problems, I would welcome the opportunity to work with him in an effort to improve Illinois,” Griffin concluded.

The statement reads as an uneasy effort to cool down the hot talk—an olive branch, though beset with thorns. But who knows. In pursuit of a shared desire to help Pritzker make Illinois a better place to live and work, Griffin might just be looking to make a first, important step.

David Greising is the president and chief executive of the Better Government Association, joining the BGA in 2018. For nearly a century, the BGA has fought for honest and effective government through investigative journalism and policy advocacy.

Greising’s career started at the City News Bureau of Chicago, with stops at the Chicago Sun-Times, Business Week magazine, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. He was a co-founder of the Chicago News Cooperative and worked briefly as a consultant to World Business Chicago. Today, Greising writes on government issues in regular columns for the Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business.

Under Greising’s leadership, the BGA has played a key role in uncovering public corruption amidst the wide-ranging federal probe, starting with an in-depth report about Ald. Ed Burke’s conflicts of interest before the federal charges against Burke. The BGA also has exposed waste and fraud at O’Hare and the proliferation of corruption and poverty into Dolton, Lyons and other Chicago suburbs. The BGA’s policy team has led calls for ethics reform in Chicago’s City Council and in state government.