Dem gov hopefuls’ Downstate debate message: Trump the problem, not Trump voters

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Democratic gubernatorial candidates, from left, Robert Marshall, Bob Daiber, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and Tio Hardiman participated in a forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board in Chicago earlier this month. File Photo. (Rich Hein/Sun Times via AP File)

The Democrats running for governor hashed out their differences in deep southern Illinois on Tuesday — Donald Trump country — trying to make clear their criticisms of the Republican president does not extend to the local residents who support him.

Chris Kennedy warned that worse things will come to the country if the American Dream isn’t restored. He said it is a “mistake” not to listen to the voices of those who supported Trump in Illinois.

“If we don’t restore the American Dream. If we don’t restore upward economic mobility, we’ll elect somebody worse than Donald Trump,” Kennedy said.

Rival candidate Daniel Biss was quick to defend Trump supporters, while saying there must be an end to the politics of division:“Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot,” Biss said. “That doesn’t mean that his supporters are.”

The six candidates largely plowed familiar ground in the 90-minute debate, sparring over billionaire philanthropist J.B. Pritzker’s ties to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Kennedy’s earlier praise for Gov. Bruce Rauner — compliments that Kennedy tempered on Tuesday, but did not take back.

Kennedy and J.B. Pritzker traded attacks over TV ads Rauner’s campaign is running featuring FBI wiretaps of Blagojevich speaking with Pritzker. It came during a back and forth in the second Democratic gubernatorial debate, held at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

Candidates were asked whether anyone could defend Pritzker’s role in the tapes. Pritzker has said he has done nothing wrong, and on Tuesday, he elaborated on the intent of one of the conversations caught on tape.

“Look, nine years ago I spoke to the governor about serving as state treasurer because as some of you may recall, we were in a terrible economic crisis and I have unique experience to offer to the state,” Pritzker said. “I never made it a secret that I was willing to do public service. Now, Gov. Rauner is using leaked portions of that conversation to attack me. Why? Because he’s a failed governor and he knows that he can’t beat me in the general election.”

Robert Marshall, a Burr Ridge doctor, called the ad “very damaging,” and said it makes Pritzker “unelectable.” But Madison County Schools Supt. Bob Daiber — the only candidate from Downstate Illinois — said Pritzker is “innocent” unless it is proven that money was exchanged.

“I personally will say this, that I think J.B. is innocent as long as there’s no money that has been exchanged. If there is money that comes up in this, then he’s not. And I think it should be investigated,” Daiber said.

Candidate Tio Hardiman continued to try to paint himself as the one with “nothing to do with none of this mess.”

“J.B. can speak up good for himself, but Bruce Rauner ran on the premise that he was going to shake up Illinois, Springfield, but the only thing he shook up was the poor and working class people of Illinois,” Hardiman said.

Biss, a state senator from Evanston, chose to steer clear of the controversy — saying the race must be focused on defeating Rauner.

“We’re forced to play defense about Rod Blagojevich and FBI recordings. That is not good for Democrats. That is not a conversation that we want to be having in October … leading into this crucial election where we have to beat Bruce Rauner,” Biss said.

Kennedy also said the FBI wiretaps make Pritzker “unelectable.”

“The truth is just because you don’t break a law, doesn’t mean you’re innocent,” Kennedy said. “We need to hold our elected officials to a higher standard.”

That prompted Pritzker to criticize Kennedy for saying Rauner “should be applauded”for running the ads.

Pritzker said he’s had countless conversations with voters around the state.

“I have never heard any of them say to me that Bruce Rauner should be applauded. Or that Bruce Rauner speaks truth to power. Or that Bruce Rauner is improving the economy,” Pritzker said. “But 10days ago, Chris Kennedy said all of those positive things about Bruce Rauner. That might be why Bruce Rauner wants to run against Chris Kennedy in the general election.”

Kennedy, in turn, called Rauner “heartless” for throwing “a million people out of government programs.” But he again gave the governor credit for highlighting corruption in the state.

“I think the fact that he went two years without a budget makes him incompetent. But I think when he criticizes the pay to play culture in our state, he’s not wrong,” Kennedy said. “And J.B. has emerged as the poster child of that system. And the fact is we’ll never get all the Democrats to turn out, progressive independents or progressive Republicans to join us for win in November if he’s a standard bearer for our party.”

Trump was also a topic of debate.

Pritzker didn’t back down from his earlier take on the president: “I don’t care what part of the state I’m in. Donald Trump is still a racist, and a xenophobe, and a misogynist and a homophobe. And I’m going to call him that. I don’t care,” he said to applause.

But he also blamed the Democratic Party for not focusing on issues that affect the middle class during the 2016 presidential race — despite being a strong backer of Hillary Clinton.

“They voted for him [Trump] because we Democrats in 2016 didn’t demonstrate that we were standing up for the kitchen table issues, the things that really matter to middle class families and those striving to get to the middle class,” Pritzker said.

Daiber said his neighbors voted for Trump and he “has to get along with them.” Daiber said local Trump supporters in southern Illinois didn’t think Clinton was a strong enough candidate and didn’t think their voices were being heard. Daiber, too, noted a disconnect with voters in southern Illinois in past elections with former Gov. Pat Quinn not winning in southern Illinois counties.

Marshall said southern Illinois voters have been ignored. He said Chicago is “bossing” around the other 80 percent and again touted his idea of splitting the state into three brand new states: Chicago, the suburbs and everything south of I-80:: “The sky is the limit with your new state,” he said.

And despite the sharp elbows, most of the candidates indicated they would support whoever winds up being the Democratic nominee.

“Every single person on this stage, any of you, would be a better governor than Bruce Rauner, and I’ll support whomever wins the Democratic nomination,” Pritzker said.

In Biss’s response, he also asked Pritzker if he would give $42 million to others should he not win. Pritzker didn’t answer, and instead questioned Biss about some of his contributions, asking him not to pledge to take contributions from “insiders.”

Kennedy talked of playing rough games of touch football with his siblings as a kid, but said they were soon united at the dinner table: “I’m going to back anyone here, except for you Doc Marshall,” he said to laughs.

Marshall said he’d support whomever wins, then asked if the winner would support his idea of splitting up the state.

“It’s fair, gentlemen,” Marshall said, while bringing out a map featuring his three divisions.

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