SPRINGFIELD — His campaign crippled by sexual harassment allegations, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford bemoaned how Illinois politics has become a “blood sport” — but otherwise was a non-factor in Tuesday’s debate among the four-way GOP field for governor.
Instead, state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale and state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington were the ones drawing blood against each other — and front-runner Bruce Rauner — in a bid to assume Rutherford’s one-time role as the main alternative to the private equity investor from Winnetka.
Rauner, meanwhile, played it cautiously by inflicting no barbs on his GOP opponents and whisking himself out a back entrance from the Springfield theater the moment the debate ended, thus avoiding any encounters with reporters. The three other candidates stuck around for questions.
During the debate, Rauner’s most significant statement was an apology to a Springfield newspaper reporter for making completely conflicting statements in several media interviews about allegedly clouting his daughter into the prestigious Walter Payton College Prep high school in Chicago by calling President Barack Obama’s education secretary.
“I apologize to you for being incorrect,” Rauner told debate panelist Bernie Schoenburg, a columnist for Springfield’s State Journal-Register who had quoted Rauner completely denying asking for help for his daughter from Arne Duncan. “Frankly, my memory is not clear, and I honestly thought I hadn’t talked to Arne.”
Rauner, who was quoted in other interviews acknowledging he had spoken with the former Chicago Public Schools CEO about the matter, said his wife, Diane Rauner, corrected him about the discussion he had with Duncan.
“The fact is it was a minor issue because we didn’t ask for any special favors,” Rauner said.
Dillard, the most aggressive of any candidate at the hourlong Citizens Club of Springfield debate, ridiculed Rauner for his evolving position on the Payton Prep controversy and for a series of other issues.
“I’ll give Mr. Rauner a pass tonight on pay-to-play,” Dillard said sarcastically, before outlining Rauner’s hiring of convicted influence peddler and ex-state pension board member Stuart Levine as a consultant and Rauner’s $300,000 contribution to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, before Rauner’s investment company got a boost in pension funds from that state.
Dillard, who Friday won an endorsement from the Illinois Education Association, also tore into Brady for voting on tax increment finance district legislation that Dillard said financially benefited the Bloomington Republican and for initiating a 2010 bill to allow animal shelters to kill rabid strays en masse.
“The demise of his campaign began with an idea that he had to mass euthanize animals. That began the drumbeat that made him a vulnerable candidate,” Dillard said, outlining how Brady’s 2010 gubernatorial run began unraveling almost from the get-go.
Later, Brady got in his licks against both Dillard and Rauner.
“Sen. Dillard’s ad for Obama, saying he’d serve our country well as president of the United States, is a non-starter among most Republicans and, frankly, independents,” Brady said, alluding to a 2008 commercial Dillard cut for Obama during the presidential primary.
“And with all due respect to Mr. Rauner, his support of Rahm Emanuel doesn’t serve well with Republicans in a primary,” Brady said, referring to the close, personal friendship Rauner and the mayor have. “It doesn’t work to win elections.”
Rutherford remained entirely out of the line of fire from opponents while addressing the sexual harassment complaint against him from a former male employee. Rutherford launched a taxpayer-funded internal investigation into the claim and vowed to let taxpayers see it, but reversed course after that ex-underling filed a federal lawsuit against him.
“I very much would like [taxpayers] to see it,” Rutherford said, when asked by Schoenburg about his about-face. “In fact, when I made the announcement we were going to release it, that was totally the intent. What happened … was the fact there was a federal lawsuit filed.
“I’m working it through. I want to get it out there,” he said. “Believe me.”
Rutherford also undercut his earlier claims that Rauner somehow was behind the sexual-harassment allegations.
“I do not have direct proof of that,” Rutherford said.
As the debate concluded, in an acknowledgment of the personal and political toll he has endured during the past two weeks, the treasurer himself again brought up the controversy that has caused his campaign poll numbers to drop precipitously and prompted calls for him to drop out of the race.
“I see Illinois now in the worst blood sport I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “This is not easy to stand up and run here in the state of Illinois.”