Positioning himself an aspirational outsider, Central Illinois venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan launched a bid for the Republican nomination for governor Thursday, saying he’s a “moral leader” who stands in contrast to a political system that has produced high taxes and corruption.
In making his first foray into elective politics, Sullivan, 37, described himself as a “nonideological” candidate, even as he faces a primary race in a Republican Party increasingly focused on ideological issues ranging from abortion to opposition to COVID-19 mitigations.
“I look at Abraham Lincoln as a moral leader and someone who was able to be honest, principled, a uniter, who also was willing to fight for what’s right,” said Sullivan, of Petersburg, the founder and CEO of Alter Global, a venture capital group associated largely with international technology related investments.
“I really feel like our political class has driven the state into the ground and people are fleeing to better-run states,” he said. “After a lot of prayer with my wife, I decided that I feel like my life experiences and background have led me to a place that I actually could help turn things around in the state of Illinois.”
With his announcement, Sullivan filed a campaign finance report showing him with nearly $10.8 million in donations, largely from California-based business executives.
Sullivan becomes the fourth declared candidate in the June 28 Republican primary looking to challenge first-term Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and the third from Downstate Illinois. Others who have announced are Bull Valley businessman Gary Rabine, state Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia and former state Sen. Paul Schimpf of Waterloo.
With the primary pushed back from its traditional March date, the GOP field could expand. U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis of Taylorville is among several who are considering a bid in a contest where no significant front-runner has emerged.
The lack of a front-runner is one motivating factor for Sullivan’s candidacy as he and the other GOP contenders face a race for building statewide name recognition. Campaign documents show he is counting on an outsized turnout Downstate and in rural areas that have turned deeply Republican, while trying to return increasingly Democratic suburban areas back to the GOP column.
Sullivan, who has promoted his Roman Catholic faith along with family and service as his core values, said he believed a Republican could be successful in an increasingly Democratic state by avoiding a focus on “wedge issues” and instead concentrating on ways to improve the economy and reducing taxes, corruption and crime.
But while he said his background in technology and finance could “serve as a bridge” to suburban voters, his opposition to abortion rights could become an issue for a key regional demographic — moderate suburban women.
Sullivan said he was “realistic” on the issue and that a “goal of everyone is to reduce the total number of abortions” by means such as increasing foster care opportunities. He said he has two foster children.
Sullivan also said he has been vaccinated for COVID-19 and encourages vaccination, in contrast to Rabine and Bailey.
“Science is there to help us as a society to make these decisions and I get very frustrated that politics has infiltrated every aspect of our lives,” he said.
Pritzker has made his handling of the pandemic a central theme of his campaign. Sullivan said he opposed Pritzker’s decision to close businesses early in the pandemic as well as statewide vaccination or masking mandates, preferring such decisions get made at the local level.
Sullivan said “small businesses and livelihoods matter too” and “good leadership is not just saying lockdown.”
Sullivan criticized the governor for approving new legislative redistricting maps drawn by Democrats despite previously pledging he would veto any partisan maps, and also brought up Pritzker’s agreement to pay the Cook County treasurer $330,000 in 2018 after getting a property tax reduction for the removal of toilets from an adjacent Chicago mansion he purchased.
The state’s last Republican governor was wealthy private equity and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner. Rauner, defeated by Pritzker in 2018, engaged in a lengthy battle with majority Democrat lawmakers over his anti-union stance while he alienated core Republicans over his support of abortion rights.
“I am not an ideologue,” Sullivan said, before making a reference to Rauner. “I actually think it’s really not healthy to be an ideologue if you want real outcomes — especially if you’re going to run as a Republican in a Democratic-leaning state where they’re the supermajority in the legislature. I think we tried that experiment previously and it did not work.”