Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) is setting himself up as the liberal answer to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), advancing progressive policies across a range of culture war issues, including abortion, gun rights and, in particular, education.
In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Pritzker proposed massive increases to Illinois’s education budget while indirectly criticizing DeSantis and his highly publicized moves on Florida schools.
“There is a virulent strain of nationalism plaguing our nation, led by demagogues who are pushing censorship, with a particular attack right now on school board members and library trustees,” Pritzker said.
Democratic strategists are applauding the boldness from Pritzker and believe others in the party should emulate his willingness to come to the front lines to combat Republicans such as DeSantis on issues including education.
“DeSantis is someone who national Democrats haven’t really started to react to yet, so yes, it is interesting to see Gov. Pritzker on these education issues, on these culture — more of education issues, start to take him on,” said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish.
DeSantis, who is considered a probable 2024 White House candidate, has made headlines for multiple controversial moves on education, including book bans in schools, rejecting the AP African American studies course and banning discussion of LGBTQ issues for young students.
Pritzker said during his address that “it’s all meaningless if we become a nation that bans books from school libraries about racism suffered by Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron, and tells kids they can’t talk about being gay. It signals to Black and brown people and Asian Americans and Jews and Muslims that our authentic stories can’t be told.”
Like DeSantis, Pritzker was reelected by a double-digit margin last year after leaning into hot-button topics.
He’s moved to protect reproductive health and encouraged women from states where abortion is banned to seek refuge in his. Last month, he signed a ban on assault weapons that is currently the subject of multiple court challenges.
And, in 2019, he signed an executive order saying that Illinois schools must be “affirming and inclusive” of transgender and non-binary students.
“Look, I think if you’re J.B. Pritzker, you’re advocating for your own people,” Reinish said. “Illinois is a diverse state. Chicago was one of the most populous and diverse and prosperous areas of the country with all of the diversity and complexity of a big metro area. So J.B. Pritzker is going to battle for his own constituents.”
While DeSantis has laid out the reasoning behind his policies as protecting children from dangerous or inappropriate ideas, Pritzker said in his speech this week that is far from the real intention.
“It’s an ideological battle by the right wing, hiding behind a claim that they would protect our children but whose real intention is to marginalize people and ideas they don’t like,” he said.
Democratic strategist Fernand Amandi said he thinks it’s good for Democrats to push back on Republicans who are “weaponizing education,” but also “you can’t escape the idea that presidential politics is another one of the motivators fueling this engagement.”
“I think it’s probably good politics for any Democratic office holder who has national ambitions to try and establish themselves as a foil of Ron DeSantis,” Amandi said.
During his speech, Pritzker spent much of his time laying out priorities for pre-K, K-12 education and higher education. The governor said he wants an increase in $506 million to go towards K-12 and more than $200 million in early education that would go towards transportation, school funding and universal pre-K.
In a statement to The Hill, Natalie Edelstein, a spokesperson for Pritzker, didn’t mention DeSantis but took the opportunity to slam Republicans and show how Pritzker is setting himself up as an alternative to their policies.
“Governor Pritzker’s budget proposal invests heavily in our children and in the future of Illinois. The Land of Lincoln is one that doesn’t hide from the truth, it embraces it. While the GOP continues to offer nothing but demagoguery and conjecture, Governor Pritzker is proud to put forth his fifth consecutive balanced budget, accompanied by a vision for the state that brings everyone along and uplifts families everywhere. In Illinois, we will always be honest about our nation’s history,” Edelstein said.
In January, Pritzker went after DeSantis more directly over his administration’s decision to block the AP African American studies course in his state.
While Florida said the course had “no educational value,” objecting to the inclusion of sections on intersectionality and Black queer studies, Pritzker sent a letter to the College Board saying, “one Governor should not have the power to dictate the facts of U.S. history. In Illinois, we reject any curriculum modifications designed to appease extremists like the Florida Governor and his allies.”
When asked for comment about Pritzker’s speech and recent attacks on DeSantis, a spokesperson for the Florida governor sent a clip of DeSantis going after Pritzker during a Fox News interview regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
“Pritzker himself, he sent his family to Florida. He sent his family to Florida during the lockdowns, so while the people of Illinois are suffering under his petty tyranny, his family is down living in freedom in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in the interview. “Our worst critics always somehow find a way to be in Florida.”
Pritzker, along with California’s Gavin Newsom, is one of the few Democratic governors drawing national attention for going toe-to-toe with their Republican counterparts.
“Governor Pritzker has seemingly picked up on the same strategy that Governor Newsom is in California in trying to draw a direct contrast not only with Ron DeSantis, but with today’s Republicans by picking fights with them on these cultural issues like education, which is now seemingly the Republicans’ Ground Zero culture war issue,” Amandi said.
As DeSantis becomes a rising star in the Republican Party and a potential 2024 candidate, Democrats say it is going to be imperative for their leaders to take on his policies and actions.
“I applaud [Pritzker]. I think it’s wise politics for sure to try and define DeSantis, not just for the people of Illinois, but for a national audience before DeSantis defines himself. It’s good politics for other Democrats to follow his lead,” Amandi said.