Last week, hedge fund manager Ken Griffin announced that he was moving Citadel’s headquarters from Chicago to Miami, remarking that the southern Florida city is a “vibrant, growing metropolis that embodies the American Dream.”
The timing of Griffin’s departure was no coincidence. Polls showed that Griffin’s $50 million gamble on Richard Irvin, his handpicked Republican candidate for governor, would go belly-up in Illinois’ primaries. On Tuesday, Irvin lost, bolstering the reelection chances of Griffin’s nemesis, Democratic governor J. B. Pritzker. As he packed his bags, Griffin — who spent about $418 per vote in the primary — blamed Pritzker for Illinois’ “out-of-control crime, high taxes, and continued corruption.”
A high-profile rich guy announces that he’s fleeing the Rust Belt for the Sunbelt after losing a pivotal matchup against an archrival. Sound familiar? It’s like an alternate reality version of The Decision, the ESPN documentary about LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat. Imagine a conservative Wall Street billionaire playing the role of James and Florida governor Ron DeSantis as Heat president Pat Riley, and you’ve got The Decision II, the worst in a summer season full of bad remakes.
The MVP of Buying Elections
Ken Griffin once said that the rich have “insufficient influence” on politics. Over the last two decades, he’s set about trying to rectify that shortcoming, spending $179 million on Illinois political races.
The Citadel founder began seriously playing kingmaker in 2014, spending $13 million to get his plutocratic pal Bruce Rauner into the governor’s seat. The following year, he swooped in to save the sagging campaign of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel from progressive candidate Jesús “Chuy” García with a $1 million donation — solidifying Rahm’s reputation as “Mayor 1 Percent.”
“A Wealthy Governor and His Friends Are Remaking Illinois,” warned the New York Times in 2015. They went on to do just that: four years of Rauner left the state with $16.7 billion in unpaid bills and drastically underfunded social services. In 2018, Griffin spent $10 million of his own money to fund the expansion of Chicago’s dystopian Minority Report–style crime prediction software, which used algorithms to place people on police watchlists.
Pritzker Strikes Back
The conservative activist finally met his match in 2018 with Democrat J. B. Pritzker, the heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, who spent his own millions to unseat Rauner. The first “battle of the billionaires” was the most expensive election for governor in US history, with $285 million raised. Pritzker won that first round and has emerged as a surprisingly effective New Deal Democrat type who has passed a six-year, $45 billion infrastructure package, helped legalize the sale of marijuana, and hiked the state’s minimum wage.
But the rematch went to the Citadel CEO. In 2020, Griffin threw $54 million into the campaign to stop the “fair tax” amendment, which was designed to let lawmakers alter the state constitution so they could legally implement a progressive income tax on those earning over $250,000 a year.
Meanwhile, throughout the pandemic, Griffin kept on getting richer. He was one of the 400 wealthiest Americans who saw their collective fortune increase 40 percent in 2021 to $4.5 trillion, and his $25.2 billion sent him into the top 50 of Forbes’ richest-of-the-rich list. He’s spent large chunks of that money on ridiculously posh real estate (he’s got $1 billion in homes) and vanity purchases, like a rare copy of the US Constitution that he wrested from a group of crypto enthusiasts in a $43.2 million auction.
But Griffin still had plenty of moola left to spend in the third billionaire battle royale against Pritzker, this time over the governorship again. The hedge funder donated $55 million to fund the campaign of Irvin, a relative unknown Republican mayor of a Chicago suburb, to beat Pritzker in November. It was the largest amount ever given by a single donor to a candidate in American history, according to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy.
Meanwhile, Griffin kept dropping hints about his impending departure from Illinois in order to browbeat Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and others into doing his political bidding. He followed through on his threat less than a week before the June primary, with polls showing that Irvin was 10 to 15 points behind Darren Bailey, a MAGA-friendly state senator.
Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association spent tens of millions of dollars supporting Bailey over Irvin — calculating that the politician who cosponsored “New Illinois” legislation calling for Chicago to secede from the rest of the state to become America’s fifty-first state would be too radical for Illinois voters.
Faced with the possibility of watching his archrival dunk in his face on election night, Illinois’ richest man basically said, “You didn’t beat me, I quit!” With a $363 million purchase of a South Florida waterfront property, Griffin signaled that he was, as LeBron James put it, “taking my talents to South Beach.”
Since then, local media has been bellyaching over Griffin’s departure. The Chicago Tribune called it “warning sign of trouble, of a city and state that needs to pay more attention to its sagging identity as a global city.” But Illinois doesn’t need Griffin to succeed. He’s no MVP, just the LeBron (okay, maybe James Harden) of making billions of dollars on Wall Street and spending that fortune mainly on himself and his own retrograde right-wing political fantasies.