Pritzker, other elected officials speak at College Democrats of America convention at U. of C.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker
Aaron Gettinger

Staff Writer

Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker addressed the College Democrats of America’s national convention at the University of Chicago on Friday, welcoming students to what he promised would be “the land of opportunity” should he win the November general election.

A graduate of Duke University, Pritzker said he had once been involved in the organization himself. “The fact that I was able to get involved in organizations at a young age, that I had an outlet for my activist tendencies as a kid led me to be involved in politics for all of these years, even as I was pursuing another career,” he said.

Pritzker said “the future of the free world is on the ballot” and that the process of changing the country begins at the state level. He called his opponent, incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, President Donald Trump’s “silent partner” in Illinois and endorsed several Democrats challenging incumbent Illinois Republican congressmen.

Pritzker said he has spent his life fighting for “social and economic justice, equality and inclusion.” He pointed to his advocacy for free school lunches and expanding early childhood education and endorsed universal preschool and childcare nationwide. He called for gun control legislation, saying the National Rifle Association “has no safe place in the State of Illinois if I’m governor.”

“We are not going to get this easily. It’s going to be a tough fight in 2018,” he told the delegates. “There’s no ‘blue wave’ coming. You are the blue wave. You are it. We are it. So we’ve got to make it happen.”

Pritzker’s running mate, State Rep. Juliana Stratton (5th), whose district spans from River North to Greater Grand Crossing, preceded him and cited the Democratic Illinois General Assembly’s ban of rooms in schools set aside for processing students for arrest. She championed the Women’s Correctional Services Act, which she introduced, that ensures trauma-informed and gender-responsive systems for incarcerated women in Illinois and House Bill 4469, which has been awaiting action from Gov. Bruce Rauner since June, that would allow incarcerated people to vote before their trials.

“What we are seeing all across this state, here in Illinois, and what we are seeing all across the country on college campuses is young people like you stepping up to the plate in any which way you think is the best way for you to be engaged in this process,” she said.

Former Governor Terry McAuliffe followed Pritzker, who said his “great State of Virginia” is “not quite as great as Illinois.” McAuliffe quickly countered that the Old Dominion’s unemployment rate is lower than the Land of Lincoln’s.

“How’s your credit rating?” asked McAuliffe, who chaired the Democratic National Committee (DNC) from 2001 to 2005, sparking a round of belly laughs and groans.

“That’s why we need to elect a Democratic governor of the State of Illinois!” answered Pritzker, sparking a round of cheers.

Hadiya Afzal, an 18-year-old student at DePaul University and candidate for DuPage County Board, spoke on Saturday, talking about how community support after her family lost their possessions in a house fire and volunteering as an election judge in the 2015 primaries moved her to engage with politics.

She said she is running for office because of constituents’ disconnect from the county government and because the current Republican-controlled Board does not reflect DuPage County’s recent margins for Democratic presidential candidates nor its demographics.

“If we want change, we have to participate, compete and defeat the status quo,” Afzal said. “Don’t let them tell you you’re not ready.”

Northwest suburban Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (8th), Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, former Missouri Secretary of State and Kansas City mayoral candidate Jason Kander and two Midwestern mayors, Karen Weaver of Flint, Michigan, and Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, also addressed the convention.

University of Chicago Democrats President Ridgley Knapp, a second-year undergraduate from Greenwich, Connecticut, said the Illinois College Democrats chose the U. of C. to host its bid out of a desire to hold the national convention in a central and accessible location.

He said the convention featured several workshops, including one on voter protection by the National Democratic Training Center and another on campaign fundraising and finance by the DNC, with whom the College Democrats are affiliated, in addition to the speakers and the organization’s leadership elections.

“It was definitely very helpful for people who already do work in campaigns and want to get their foot in the door from a more intense finance standpoint,” he added.

Knapp said the U. of C. Democrats are spending the summer working at elected officials’ offices and on campaigns. The group campaigns during election seasons in the academic year — they plan to work on races in DuPage County and for Sen. Joe Donnelly in Northwest Indiana this autumn — and hosts speakers and discussions at other times. Membership surges at the beginning of the year before tapering off to around 60 at midterms, with 10 to 15 typically showing up for weekly meetings and many more showing up to campaign.

“I think that the student body definitely tilts left overall,” he said, adding that the U. of C. Democrats maintains “a fairly good relationship” with the College Republicans, whom they debate every quarter.