Gov debate: Request to say something nice about Pritzker stumps Kennedy

SHARE Gov debate: Request to say something nice about Pritzker stumps Kennedy
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From left, Debate moderator Carol Marin, and candidates J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, Daniel Biss, Bob Daiber, Tio Hardiman and Robert Marshall at Tuesday’s NBC 5 Telemundo Chicago Democratic Gubernatorial Forum. | NBC Chicago

Just days after he said Gov. Bruce Rauner “should be applauded” for running attack ads and being “willing to speak truth to power,” Democrat Chris Kennedy on Tuesday declined to say anything positive about Democratic rival J.B. Pritzker.

The dramatic moment came as the six Democratic candidates for governor faced off in their first televised debate, tackling thorny issues such as ties to controversial Democratic party heads — and even whether to compliment, or not compliment, one another.

Demonstrating the rough nature of the campaign, Kennedy — of the Kennedy political dynasty — was unable to list a “positive thing” the billionaire philanthropist and entrepreneur had contributed to the campaign.

Kennedy first paused when it was his turn to answer moderator Carol Marin’s question, then he criticized the perceived front-runner.

“I’m challenged in this election because I think as Democrats, we believe government can be our ally and when J.B. emerges as the poster child of all that’s wrong with the corrupt system in our state, it’s difficult for me to heap praise on him,” Kennedy said. “And that’s where I, unfortunately, need to end it.”

Moments earlier, Pritzker answered the NBC Chicago political editor’s question by telling Kennedy he admired his family’s work on the Special Olympics.

Democrats running for governor from left,  J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, and state Sen. Daniel Biss take their podium positions before a televised forum Tuesday. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

Democrats running for governor from left, J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, and state Sen. Daniel Biss take their podium positions before a televised forum Tuesday. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

Earlier in the hour-long debate, which aired live on NBC Chicago, Kennedy dubbed Pritzker “the poster child for pay-to-play politics in the state,” in response to a question about Pritzker’s relationship with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios.

Pritzker said: “I have been an independent leader and an independent thinker my entire life, and that won’t change when I become governor,” adding there are issues he’ll agree and disagree with the speaker. He cited his support of independent maps and legislative leader term limits as proof he’s not always in sync with the powerful Southwest Side Democrat.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, called Pritzker’s answer a “dodge,” prompting Pritzker to counter that the state senator had voted for Madigan’s leadership and ran “Mike Madigan’s super PAC in 2016.”

“I don’t think you’re one to lecture here,” Pritzker said. “I think you should just be who you are and stop criticizing others.”

Biss led the super PAC Leading Illinois for Tomorrow during the presidential election, but both Kennedy and Pritzker contributed to that PAC. Pritzker personally contributed $350,000, while the Pritzker Group’s Jabodon PT contributed $550,000, record show. Madigan’s campaign contributed $500,000.

Pritzker’s perceived ties to Madigan and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich have been an ongoing issue in the race.

Just last week, Kennedy said Rauner “should be applauded” for running ads featuring wiretapped conversations between Pritzker and Blagojevich. Kennedy also praised Rauner for calling for an end to state lawmakers making money through the property tax appeals process.

Pritzker and Biss both pounced on the praise for a governor they’re all trying to unseat. Kennedy, in turn, said he’s “always been honest about Bruce Rauner’s broken leadership in our state,” while calling Pritzker’s focus on his comments a “weak attempt” to deflect from the pressure he’s under.

In Tuesday night’s showdown, Madison County Schools Supt. Bob Daiber pushed aside the drama behind the perceived ties to other Democrats.

“If we want to change Illinois, we’ve got to change the leadership. And we’ve got to stop talking about Mike Madigan,” Daiber said. “We’ve got to quit talking about Joe Berrios. We’ve got to [quit] talk[ing] about J.B. Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich, and we got to get down to business.”

Former Ceasefire Director Tio Hardiman drew some laughs when he highlighted his role as an outsider.

“I just want to say this quickly. That’s the reason people should vote for Tio Hardiman and [running mate] Patricia Avery, because I have nothing to do with this mess,” he said.

Robert Marshall, a physician from Burr Ridge, chose not to back off.

“Mr. Pritzker is unelectable. There are just too many negatives,” Marshall said.

While Pritzker and his campaign had focused their attacks on Kennedy for months, on Tuesday, Pritzker chose to go after Biss for a pension bill Biss sponsored that fell flat with the Illinois Supreme Court — and for voting for Madigan’s leadership. That might be an indication Biss — who has painted himself as the “middle-class governor” — gaining traction in the race — although no major polls have been released in the thus far.

Pritzker again denied any wrongdoing regarding the FBI wiretap conversation with Blagojevich.

“How could you not have known?” Marin asked as the debate’s first question.

“Hundreds of people were speaking with Gov. Blagojevich at the time, and the bottom line is that, frankly, I did nothing wrong,” Pritzker said. “And I was never accused of anything.”

The next televised debate is on Jan. 30, sponsored by the Daily Herald and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

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