Pritzker donation raises concerns of partisan influence on school board races
With significant financial support from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Illinois' Democratic Party is getting involved in contests for school and library board seats this spring to combat what party officials call "really extreme candidates," including some backed by conservative groups.
Pritzker's campaign committee, which has been nearly entirely self-funded by the billionaire governor, made a $500,000 donation to the state Democratic organization Feb. 27, Illinois State Elections Board records show.
The cash will be used to raise awareness of the April 4 consolidated election and counter candidates Democrats fear could be elected without much of a fight, a Pritzker campaign staffer familiar with the plan said.
"Now, thanks to the support of Dick Uihlein and fringe groups like Awake Illinois, extreme Republicans hellbent on banning books, rewriting history, and ignoring public health are running for school and library board seats all across Illinois," Natalie Edelstein, communications director for the JB for Governor campaign, said in a statement. "We won't sit idly by and allow these radical candidates to waltz into public office without a fight."
Pritzker's involvement is another example of how nonpartisan school board races -- amid lingering discord from COVID-19 mitigations and fierce debate over sex ed curriculum and library books -- are feeling the influence of party politics.
The governor was asked about his decision to get involved when he appeared last week on the CBS news program "Face the Nation."
"Well, what Republicans are trying to do is, of course, ban books in libraries," Pritzker replied. "They're trying to keep our schools from teaching Black history. They make up things about CRT (Critical Race Theory) in schools that just don't exist. And so they have got a lot of extreme right-wing candidates, frankly, on the crazy end of things that are running. And we just want to make sure that people know who they are and know not to vote for them."
Pritzker's effort to influence school board races has drawn criticism from Republican leaders, including Lake County Republican Party Chair Keith Brin.
"Our school boards shouldn't be partisan, and our schools shouldn't be political," Brin said. "Gov. Pritzker is forcing partisan politics onto our local schools while trying to force his ideology onto local communities who ought to be able to set their own priorities for their schools."
Democrats say they are particularly concerned about candidates backed by Awake Illinois, a Naperville group that has criticized suburban drag events, opposed mask mandates and -- as recently as this month -- has repeatedly called Pritzker "a groomer" for signing a controversial law updating sex education standards in K-12 schools.
Awake founder Shannon Adcock has said she's helping teach get-out-the-vote efforts and other campaign tactics to more than 75 school board candidates in Illinois.
While Adcock declined to be interviewed for this story, Awake issued a lengthy statement that, in part, said Pritzker's $500,000 donation shows he and the Democratic Party "are obviously running scared."
"The civil rights movement of our time is undeniably the issue of education, and it's disappointing to see the Illinois nonpartisan school board elections become so politicized," the statement reads.
As for being labeled extremists by some Democrats, Awake officials said the accusation says more about the accusers than the organization.
"If supporting academic excellence, equality in schools, children's innocence, parental rights and lower property taxes makes us 'extreme,' then so be it," the group said in its statement.
While the Illinois Republican Party hasn't reported receiving any donation comparable to Pritzker's check to the Democrats, the Kane County Republican Party has launched a fundraising and get-out-the-vote effort.
"(Pritzker's donation) is a clear effort to radically transform our local public schools," Chairman Andro Lerario said in a public fundraising plea. "That's why the Kane County Republican Party is responding with a plan to motivate residents (who) reject Pritzker's ideological power grab to not sit this election out."
Lerario identified Elgin Area School District U-46, Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 and St. Charles Unit District 303 among the districts Republicans "can help defend."
District 300 candidate Connie Cain said she hasn't seen signs of Pritzker's influence in her race. But she believes her 2022 run for state representative in the 66th District as a Republican -- as well as past campaign support from Republican megadonor Elizabeth Uihlein -- could make her a target of Democrats' spending.
"It's supposed to be a nonpartisan race," Cain said.
Mark Cramer, running for reelection to the Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 board, is one of four candidates endorsed by the local conservative group Citizens for Kids Education (C4KE). He also received a $6,000 donation from Richard Uihlein last year, and another $6,000 this year from Palatine Township GOP leader David Prichard.
"Those two folks believe what I believe in," Cramer said. "They think I'm a pretty good school board candidate."
Cramer noted that four other candidates in the race -- incumbents Kimberly Cavill and Steven Rosenblum along with challengers Michelle Barron and Jane Russell -- are being endorsed by the District 211 teachers union and are beneficiaries of a local political action committee called Palatine Supports Public Schools.
Susan Saam, another candidate endorsed by C4KE, has received a $2,000 donation from Prichard. But incumbent Peter Dombrowski and challenger Barbara Velez, who also are endorsed by the conservative group, have reported no significant financial donations.
Cramer said receiving support from Richard Uihlein may make him a target of the Pritzker money, but he has yet to see any evidence of its influence in the District 211 race.
"Pritzker is trying to define any Republican as a radical right-winger," Cramer said. "He wants to drive the wedge. He wants this culture war to continue."