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Jewish Candidate Launches Bid for Illinois Governor—And It’s Not Pritzker

As of Monday morning, there’s a Jew in the 2018 race to be governor of Illinois.

But not the one most people were expecting.

Instead of entrepreneur and billionaire philanthropist J.B. Pritzker, the Jew on the ballot is Democrat Daniel Biss, a state senator from north suburban Evanston, who announced his candidacy in a 25-minute-long Facebook Live video in which he promised to be a voice for the state’s progressives and non-millionaires.

“In Illinois, billionaires and machine politicians have a monopoly on political power,” Biss said. “They fight with each other, they help each other out, and mostly they make decisions about us without us in the room… . This is a movement of people to take power back from money and the machine.”

He blamed the state’s problems—its rising debt and falling credit rating, its lack of a budget, people leaving because they can’t depend on education or other services—on both the failed policies of Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and the intransigent legislature, led for the past 20 years by House Speaker Michael Madigan. He is the first of the Democratic candidates to try to distance himself from Madigan, one of the state’s most powerful Democrats.

As governor, Biss said, he would raise income taxes for the wealthy and make Illinois a “beacon” of resistance against the Trump administration, particularly for immigrants and women seeking abortions. He also supports term limits for legislative leaders like Madigan.

Unlike two of his gubernatorial opponents, Rauner and Chris Kennedy, and Pritzker, who formed an exploratory committee last week, Biss is not wealthy enough to self-finance his campaign with his personal fortune. Before he was elected to the Illinois state legislature, Biss was an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago. His background as a mathematician, he assures his supporters, has given him plenty of experience finding solutions to complex problems.

He is also an accomplished fundraiser. Last fall he led the super PAC Leading Illinois For Tomorrow, which spent more than $10 million on television ads that linked Rauner to then-Presidental candidate Trump. Among the donors to the super PAC were Madigan and Kennedy.

Within hours of Biss’ announcement, the Illinois Republican party issued a news release that called Biss “the North Shore branch of the Madigan machine.” It pointed out that Biss had, in the past, accepted money from Madigan for his campaign and had voted for some of Madigan’s spending proposals. “Daniel Biss is a willing Mike Madigan accomplice who would give the Governor’s office back to the Chicago machine,” the statement continued. Rauner himself said, “We don’t need people folks who were part of the system.” On Facebook, Biss dismissed this as an “alternative fact.”

Biss grew up in Bloomington, Ind., in a musical family. His parents are violinists Paul Biss and Miriam Fried. His brother Jonathan Biss, is a pianist. Biss has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from MIT; he moved to Chicago to teach at the University of Chicago when he was just 25. Currently, he lives in Evanston with his wife Karin Steinbruick and their two sons. In addition to publishing academic papers, he contributed the math to John Green’s cult YA novel “An Abundance of Katherines.”

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