In the wake of a July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Ill. that killed 7 people and injured 46, Illinois’ billionaire Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker declared: “We need to ban assault weapons, not just in the state of Illinois, but nationally.”
He also criticized the National Rifle Association (NRA), the controversial gun lobby, tweeting, “As Governor, on behalf of the people of Highland Park — leave us the hell alone.”
Despite the rhetoric, Pritzker and his powerful administration have done nothing to help pass an assault weapons ban that has been languishing in his state’s legislature since February. Even worse, the Pritzker family’s hotel chain, Hyatt Hotels, has been hosting NRA events for years — including as recently as late May.
The NRA’s relationship with Hyatt creates ethics concerns for Pritzker, said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the good government group Public Citizen. “This is clearly a conflict of interest,” he said. “It’s the same kind of conflict of interest we saw so rampant with Donald Trump.”
The disclosures suggest that even in the face of repeated mass shootings like the one in Highland Park, Pritzker is still offering words rather than actions that might help protect the public — or cost his family money.
In response to a request for comment from The Lever, a spokesperson of Pritzker said, “[The governor] will continue working with the General Assembly to further strengthen gun laws, but as he has said, Illinois is not an island and he believes a federal ban would better protect Illinoisans from the weapons of war that are easily accessible just across the border in other states.”
The spokesperson added, “The Governor does not have a financial interest in Hyatt and has never had a role in the business, other than one part-time summer job as a teenager.”
Welcoming The NRA
While some major hotel brands have severed ties with the NRA in the face of the extraordinary gun violence epidemic, the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, predominantly owned by the ultra-wealthy Pritzker family, has continued to welcome and even expanded its business with the controversial pro-gun group.
As the Best Western and Wyndham Hotels distanced themselves from the NRA in the wake of the 2018 Parkland school shooting in Florida, the Hyatt Regency Dallas hosted events for the NRA’s annual meeting in May 2018. Best Western’s disavowal of the NRA also led the Colorado Republican Party to move its 2018 meetings from one of the hotel chain’s properties to the Hyatt Denver Tech Center.
Most recently, the NRA’s charitable arm, the NRA Foundation, hosted their “Annual National Firearms Law” seminar at the Hyatt Regency Houston on May 27. That was on top of the Hyatt Regency Orlando hosting NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in February 2021, an event that drew controversy due to the set design’s similarity to a Nazi symbol. In April 2019, the NRA Foundation’s firearms law seminar was hosted at the Hyatt Regency Indianapolis.
While Hyatt has bowed to public pressure in the past — activists in 2018 successfully pressured the hotel chain to not host a conference of anti-Muslim extremists — so far this hasn’t been the case with gun groups.
Despite Pritzker’s spokesperson’s claim that the governor “does not have a financial interest in Hyatt,” he is commonly described as an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune. While the governor’s financial disclosure does not show direct Hyatt holdings, a 2019 investigation by the Chicago Tribune pointed out, “The complex and vast nature of Pritzker’s wealth and a lack of transparency illustrate how difficult it can be to learn when a wealthy politician’s financial interests might butt up against what’s in taxpayers’ best interests.”
Profiles of the Pritzker family, like a 1988 story on the family in Fortune, emphasize the complex web of trusts the family uses to hold its assets. Parts of that web were illuminated by the financial disclosure statements of the governor’s sister, Penny Pritzker, during her tenure as Secretary of Commerce during President Obama’s second term. The documents listed an enormous amount of vaguely-titled holding companies such as “SPEGAR LLC.” Disclosure requirements for the Illinois governorship are much more limited than for federal cabinet members.
The shadowy nature of the family’s holdings makes it very difficult for analysts to assess the full scope of the governor’s wealth — and how it is shaped by the financial fortunes of the Hyatt hotel chain. The Tribune investigation noted that Pritzker had declined to “reveal how much he benefits from various family trusts.”
“We Must Act”
In February, Illinois State Rep. Maura Hirschauer, a Democrat who has been active in the gun control group Moms Demand Action, introduced an assault weapons ban in the Illinois legislature. The bill did not make it to the floor during this legislative session.
Despite Pritzker’s recent call for a nationwide assault weapons ban, the passage of such a federal law is unlikely because Democrats only hold a razor-thin majority in the Senate and have not moved to end the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to pass most legislation. Such a ban would likely have a stronger chance in the Illinois legislature, where Democrats enjoy overwhelming majorities — and where Pritzker holds enormous sway.
With the departure of longtime former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D) in January 2021 after being indicted on corruption charges, Pritzker is the undisputed power center of Illinois politics — both as governor and as a member of one of the wealthiest and most politically-connected families in Illinois.
Pritzer has a net worth of $3.6 billion, which makes him both the wealthiest U.S. governor in history and second only to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in terms of wealth of major politicians.
Seven states — Hawai’i, California, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, and Connecticut — ban assault weapons, in addition to the District of Columbia. Studies have found that the federal assault weapons ban in place from 1994 to 2004 was successful in reducing mass shootings, and researchers have found similar successes with state bans.
The alleged shooter in the July 4 Highland Park massacre was said by law enforcement to have used a rifle that was “similar to an AR-15.” He bought and registered the weapon in Illinois.
In response to the shooting, Hirschauer issued a statement noting, “We cannot move forward in peace and security until we address access to assault weapons and high capacity magazines… The state of Illinois has the power and opportunity to take decisive action that will keep our communities safe. We must act.”
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