PEORIA — Businessman and philanthropist Chris Kennedy kicked off his campaign for the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor earlier this week, and outlined his priorities in an interview during a visit to central Illinois.

The son of Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of John F. Kennedy was critical of incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner's leadership, slamming him for having "taken a narrow government budget problem and turned it into statewide government crisis."

Asked whether longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan, who has led his chamber for all but two years since 1983, shares a measure of the blame for the ongoing budget stalemate, Kennedy granted that there is "no doubt that there have been decades of building issues," but maintained that "the fact that we don't have a budget is totally on Gov. Rauner."

The state, he said, has managed to craft budgets with both Republicans and Democrats in the governor's chair, and with both Madigan and a Republican holding the speaker's gavel.

His proposals for balancing the budget are still nascent, at the stage of agreeing "I don't think we can tax our way out of this situation, but I don't think we can cut our way out of this situation either."

Kennedy, who early in his career worked at Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur and recalled visits to its Peoria facility, says that the state also needs to start doing a better job of looking to the best practices of other governments.

"Let's look at things that have worked well somewhere else and bring them to Illinois," he says, both at the state level and while describing thriving communities in Austin, Texas; Boston; and the research triangle region of North Carolina that have benefited from bulking up the performance of their research institutions.

"That has the potential to rebuild the community, to attract people who have new ideas that start little companies, that employ people and pay taxes to support local schools," Kennedy said describing the potential for offshoots from work at places like the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.

"Places like Peoria have the assets in place and we just need government leadership," he said.

Kennedy also stresses social justice issues by leaning in part on their economic benefit. He'd emphasize ensuring mothers and children have access to health care and nutrition, pointing to the fact that underweight births among poorer parents all but ensure health issues for children — and added costs for support.

The onetime chairman of the University of Illinois system's board of trustees is emphatic about the role of education in improving the state, decrying a system in which "75 percent of students who graduate aren't ready to go to college" without remedial courses.

That must start early, he said, with early childhood education to assure kids aren't behind grade level in reading. He'd like to see more funding for schools at the state level, declining the reliance on local property taxes.

During a Wednesday visit to the Journal Star editorial board, Rauner declined to comment on Kennedy's candidacy.


Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at and 686-3255. Follow him at