Democratic gubernatorial candidates (left to right) Tio Hardiman, Bob Daiber. Chris Kennedy, J.B. Pritzker and Daniel Biss debate in a forum moderated by Chicago Tribune reporter Rick Pearson in Aurora Tuesday night. Photo by Tina Sfondeles.

Democrats spar over role of Madigan and money in gov race

SHARE Democrats spar over role of Madigan and money in gov race
SHARE Democrats spar over role of Madigan and money in gov race

Money and Madigan.

Those are shaping up to be two of the biggest issues in the race for Illinois governor — and Tuesday night’s debate featuring five Democratic candidates stuck to that storyline.

The five hopefuls differed widely on whether House Speaker Mike Madigan — who is also state Democratic chairman — should be given the boot for being “around too long” or should be applauded for holding “Illinois together in difficult times.”

And they also sparred over the role of money in the race.

Chris Kennedy got one of the bigger laughs when moderator Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune noted that the son of Robert F. Kennedy comes from a wealthy family.

“I thought I did,” Kennedy said.

“Oh, you do,” billionaire J.B. Pritzker quickly responded.

But money — and who has enough and how important it should be — was a serious issue at the forum at Aurora University Tuesday night.

The contentious primary is five months away, and contributions reported on Monday night showed Pritzker in a defiant lead — with his own money. The billionaire entrepreneur and investor has been considered the frontrunner for months, but he’s had to fight hard against the notion that he’ll win based on the vast wealth he’s dumped into his campaign.

“Is this just a rich person’s game when we’re looking at this table? Is this just a rich man’s game of politics these days that regular people really can’t participate in?” Pearson asked the candidates.

“This race is about values. They’re about progressive Democratic values,” Pritzker said, adding he felt he had to go out and communicate, and throw in millions because of the millions Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has already tossed in. Rauner contributed $50 million to his campaign last year, and also took in $20 million from Ken Griffin, who on Tuesday was named the richest man in the state. Pritzker too made the list at No. 5.

“Unfortunately he set us on a course that I think is going to mean that we Democrats have got to build the infrastructure that we’ve lost. It’s important that we knock on doors, that we’re phone banking,” Pritzker said. “It also means that we Democrats have to join together to go beat Bruce Rauner. That is the campaign that I’m trying to put together. Not just here in the primary but also in the general election. For us to go out and beat Bruce Rauner and that’s why I’ve funded this campaign.”

Kennedy, heir of the famed political dynasty, too pinned the need to raise money on Rauner: “We need to respond to what they’ve done.”

But he noted his “outrage” at the amount of money in the race and the notion that you have to be wealthy to serve in politics.

“If that’s true, it’s the end of American democracy,” Kennedy said. Kennedy said people in the state must “rise up and make it clear that anybody can serve in office. You don’t need deep pockets.”

Kennedy has said he’s not in the same ballpark as Rauner or Pritzker when it comes to his personal wealth, but the exact figures aren’t known. Insiders had expected that members of the Kennedy family would have contributed more to his campaign thus far.

As Rauner continues to spend millions via the Illinois Republican Party to target Madigan and elected officials the party says are beholden to him, candidates were asked whether Madigan would “run” them if elected.

Kennedy said that wouldn’t be a problem.

“I don’t think that what Speaker Madigan is doing is illegal. I just think it should be,” Kennedy said of Madigan, who owns his own property tax appeals law firm while serving as speaker. Kennedy has for months said there’s a need to find a new way to fund schools beyond property taxes, and has accused Madigan of making money “on a system that destroys our schools.”

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, was a little more blunt.

“Mike Madigan has been around too long. Mike Madigan is in power. I think that power holds back the state of Illinois and frankly, I think as a very proud Democrat, it holds back the Democratic Party in Illinois as well,” Biss said.

Pritzker, who has had to fight off ties to Madigan, said there are issues he doesn’t agree with the speaker on. He said he favors independently drawn legislative maps and leadership term limits. He called himself an “independent progressive leader” and said that wouldn’t change should he win.

Pushed on whether the speaker has been around “too long,” Pritzker pointed to term limits as the answer to the question.

“There’s no chance I’m going to be working for the speaker,” Pritzker said.

Bob Daiber, a schools superintendent from Madison County, said he respects Madigan, crediting him for ending the budget impasse by working an override of a budget and tax package.

“He has held Illinois together in difficult times,” Daiber said. He said it’s up for the people of Illinois to decide whether he’s served for too long.

Tio Hardiman, an anti-violence activist and the only African-American candidate for governor, said he supports term limits: “I believe when I become governor, Mike Madigan might retire,” Hardiman said with a laugh. “But at the same time, if he’s there, I would have to work with him.”

Speaking after the forum, Pritzker told the Sun-Times he plans to release his tax returns “soon.”

“We’re compiling them and we’re putting them together. We’ll make sure we get them out soon,” Pritzker said. Asked why they haven’t been released yet, Pritzker called the process “complex.”

Kennedy too said he’ll release his tax returns when he files his financial disclosure form: “That way everything is together in one place.” He said the state’s financial disclosure form is limited and it’s helpful for voters to see tax returns “to give a little fuller picture of what’s going on.”

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