As it hurtles toward a Nov. 6 climax, Illinois’ record-shattering race for governor is throwing off lots of heat but very little light.
Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker are saturating the airwaves with attack ads and blistering each other with insults in debates billed as formal that more resemble bar brawls in tone. Last week, as the two appeared together before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, the bickering cross-talk became so hard to follow that Editorial Page editor Tom McNamee felt compelled to play referee.
“Boys, boys!” McNamee implored the 61-year-old Rauner and 53-year-old Pritzker. “Please, please, please! You have to take turns here a little bit, OK?”
But much of what transpired at the Sun-Times event, as well as other debates featuring the pair, had a Groundhog Day feel with the candidates reliving questionable variations of well-rehearsed put-downs and defenses over everything from tax-and-spending priorities to a big tax break snagged by Pritzker and Rauner’s handling of a fatal disease outbreak at a state home for aging veterans.
We are not going to attempt to apply truth-o-meter ratings to the contradictory claims gushing out at these debates. The sheer volume makes that a foreboding task.
But here are some highlights — or lowlights.
Rauner portrayed Pritzker as a lawbreaker after a report from the Cook County inspector general, first reported by the Sun-Times, branded a steep property tax break obtained by Pritzker on an empty Gold Coast mansion “a scheme to defraud.”
One factor the report said contributed to that conclusion was a directive to contractors from Pritzker’s wife just days ahead of the property being reassessed in 2015. The order, the report said, was to disconnect every toilet.
At the Sun-Times event and other debates, Pritzker has adhered closely to a script in denying any wrongdoing. “The rules were followed here,” he told the paper’s Editorial Board. “There were inaccuracies in that report.”
His version of events largely rests on technicalities rather than substance.
The inspector general’s report, while taking issue with how the Pritzker break was handled by the Cook County assessor, also said the office was “the victim of sworn affidavits containing false representations” of the property’s condition as it related to its bathrooms.
Pritzker spokesman Jason Rubin disputed that conclusion, pointing to a statement in sworn documents signed by J.B. Pritzker’s brother-in-law and an assistant to Pritzker’s wife that were used to obtain the breaks: “The property has been vacant and uninhabitable from January 1st, 2012 to present. There are no functioning bathrooms or kitchen. The interior stairwells are unsound.”
“The time period cited in the affidavit refers to the period when the property was vacant and uninhabitable, not the period during which there were no functioning bathrooms or kitchen,” Rubin wrote in an email.
But the statement referred to by Rubin is ambiguous. What’s more, the report includes a different affidavit form in which the brother-in-law and assistant appear to apply the full three-year time frame to unusable toilets and kitchen.
Rauner, meanwhile, has been on the defensive over his administration’s management of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the historic state-run Quincy Veterans Home in 2015.
A WBEZ report this month revealed the governor’s office played a role in a six-day delay in informing residents, families and the public about the outbreak. That delay meant some residents got sick and, in some cases, died without their families knowing why.
Four days after the outbreak was discovered, a deputy press secretary to Rauner, who since has left the administration to work for President Donald Trump, directed the Illinois Departments of Veterans’ Affairs and Public Health not to issue a public statement about it. It would be another two days before the public was notified.
The deaths of 14 residents have been linked to Legionnaires’, with another 70 residents and staff sickened by the disease since 2015, according to WBEZ.
“Our team went there immediately, took action every day to keep the veterans safe and the staff safe and brought in immediately the national experts and did what was necessary to mitigate the risks,” Rauner told the Sun-Times Editorial Board.
Those claims fly in the face of what health safety experts told WBEZ. They said the delay aggravated the impact of the outbreak, with one infectious disease authority calling it “mind-boggling.”
And Rauner’s own labor department censured his veterans affairs department for failing to “effectively notify all employees” about the outbreak after two workers first fell sick in 2015.
Rauner has attacked Pritzker over the Democrat’s plan to replace Illinois’ flat-rate income tax with a more common graduated rate system where those with higher incomes pay more. The governor claims such a switch would hit the middle class as well as the wealthy, something Pritzker disputes.
“Every state — every state — that’s put in a graduated income tax, the middle class has paid more in taxes after the income tax came than before,” Rauner said at the Sun-Times event. “Look at what the middle class paid before the graduated income tax came in and what they paid afterwards.”
Variations of the line are repeated often by Rauner, and last month we rated it False.
At the same event, Pritzker made a tax claim of his own to rebut Rauner. The Democrat contended most graduated tax states “are doing better than the state of Illinois” on job creation.
His campaign pointed us to federal labor statistics showing 27 graduated tax states created jobs at a higher rate last year than Illinois. Given that most states tax income at a graduated rate, odds are good that many of them would do better than Illinois. What the Pritzker camp failed to point out is that topping job growth rates among the states in 2017 was Utah, according to federal statistics. And Utah, like Illinois, has a flat-rate income tax.
The Better Government Association runs PolitiFact Illinois, the local arm of the nationally renowned, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking enterprise that rates the truthfulness of statements made by governmental leaders and politicians. Ahead of the historic 2018 elections, BGA’s fact-checking service is teaming up weekly with the Sun-Times, in print and online. You can find all of the PolitiFact Illinois stories we’ve reported together here.
Video: Chicago Sun-Times Governor Debate, Oct. 9, 2018
Video: WGEM News Governor Debate, Oct. 11, 2018
Video: ABC Governor Debate, Oct. 3, 2018
Video: NBC Chicago, Sept. 20, 2018
“For J.B. Pritzker, mansion’s disrepair has saved $230K in taxes,” Chicago Sun-Times, May 12, 2017
“Game of thrones? Watchdog sees ‘scheme to defraud’ in Pritzker toilet tax break,” Chicago Sun-Times, Oct. 1, 2018
Email interview: Jason Rubin, Pritzker spokesman, Oct. 10, 2018
“Rauner’s Office Contributed To Delay In Quincy Legionnaires’ Notice,” WBEZ, Oct. 2, 2018
“Rauner falsely claims graduated income taxes always hurt the middle class,” PolitiFact Illinois, Sept. 9, 2018