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How DeSantis megadonor Ken Griffin used his wealth to influence Illinois elections

The billionaire hedge fund manager, who contributed millions to the Florida governor’s recent reelection campaign, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on local elections in Illinois.

By Matt Cohen - May 11, 2023
Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin discusses a $10 million donation to reduce gun violence in the city during a press conference in Chicago, April 12, 2018.
Chicago billionaire Ken Griffin discusses a $10 million donation to reduce gun violence in the city during a press conference in Chicago, April 12, 2018. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, File)

When Ken Griffin, the billionaire founder of the hedge fund Citadel LLC, announced in June that he was moving the headquarters of his multibillion-dollar enterprise from its longtime Chicago home to Miami, Florida, insiders and experts speculated that the main reason was Florida’s business-friendly tax laws.

In conversation with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez in November, according to Fortune, Griffin said that he disagreed with Chicago policies, especially those around policing and law enforcement, and supports Florida’s policies. “When you’ve got great schools, a great environment and your streets are safe and clean, that’s when you’ve got a place you want to live in and call home,” Griffin said.

Before he moved to Florida, Griffin was the wealthiest man in Illinois. He often used his vast fortune to influence local politics and policies through massive donations to Republican campaigns. His political spending during his time in Illinois shows how one person’s wealth can have a significant impact on local politics. 

Griffin’s political spending isn’t limited to Illinois, however. In the 2022 midterms, he donated $68.5 million to federal campaigns and political action committees, according to The Hill. He also gave $5 million to a PAC supporting Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ reelection campaign in 2022, according to Politico, and suggested that he would support DeSantis if he ran for president.

Griffin spent nearly $179 million on political campaigns in Illinois over two decades, according to the website Jacobin. That includes nearly $50 million in 2022 to support the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Richard Irvin, who lost the GOP primary election.

Griffin announced that he would be moving Citadel’s headquarters to Miami days before the primary election, when polling showed Irvin trailing significantly behind Darren Bailey. Bailey clinched the GOP nomination for Illinois governor, but ultimately lost to Democratic incumbent J.B. Pritzker in the general election.

Prior to his moving to Florida, one of the most significant Illinois races that Griffin spent heavily on was the state’s 2020 Supreme Court election, when Democratic Justice Thomas Kilbride faced a retention election. Kilbride, who was first elected to the state’s highest court in 2000, became the first Illinois Supreme Court justice to fail to pass the 60% vote threshold required to retain their seat on the court. Griffin donated $4.5 million to a PAC called Citizens for Judicial Fairness, which spent $4.3 million on ads against Kilbride, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The campaign Griffin spent the most money on wasn’t for a candidate; it was to defeat a ballot measure that would slightly raise the tax rate for Illinois’ wealthiest residents. In 2019, Pritzker proposed a constitutional tax amendment that, in order to be implemented, would need to pass via ballot measure. The progressive tax reform would have raised the tax rate for the wealthiest Illinois residents — those making more than $250,000 a year — to 7.99%, while those with income less than that would have their tax rate at or below the longtime current rate of 4.95%. Illinois is one of 13 states that have a flat income tax rate, and among those states it has the fourth-highest tax rate.

Griffin spent approximately $54 million to stop the tax hike, which Illinois voters rejected. Griffin funneled his money through an independent expenditure committee called the Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax Hike Amendment, which raised $60 million total, according to ProPublica.

In an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune, Griffin explained that he opposed the tax hike but did not mention any of the details of who would be most affected by the initiative, instead writing that Pritzker’s ballot proposal was a “clever marketing guise” and saying, “What they’re advancing is nothing more than a graduated tax scheme engineered to extract the greatest amount of money possible from Illinois taxpayers.”

Griffin, who is estimated to be worth $35.5 billion, has been candid about his political donations in recent years. Though he’s given hundreds of millions of dollars to philanthropic organizations over the decades, in the same interview with Politico about his support for DeSantis he said he started giving more money to right-wing political candidates because of issues involving policing and public safety, education, and economic policy.

“Charitable giving was the lane that I was most focused on for many, many years of my life as a means of moving society to a better place,” Griffin said. “Watching so much of what I did on the philanthropic side be undermined by poor policies from our political sphere has pulled me more into politics with a portion of my resources.”

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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