After days of dramatic, damning headlines, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker came to their second debate Wednesday evening prepared to argue whose week was going worse.
They haggled over a report calling Pritzker’s property tax savings a “scheme to defraud” and a newly launched criminal probe into Rauner’s handling of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at a Downstate veterans’ home.
And they exchanged insults about being rich men.
“He is trying to buy political office,” Rauner said of Pritzker. “He’s trying to buy the governorship to be something for the first time of his life because if he wasn’t a trust fund baby he would be nothing.”
With just 34 days before the November election, Rauner dubbed Pritzker a “fundamental part” of corruption and a tax cheat, while Pritzker repeatedly blamed the governor for the budget impasse — calling him the “biggest deficit spender in the history of Illinois because of his unwillingness to work with people.”
Pritzker — who is ahead by double digits according to several polls — stuck to familiar themes; the uncertainty of state government caused by the budget impasse, the deadly Legionnaires’ outbreak at the Quincy veterans home and an emissions crisis linked to cancer-causing chemicals at a west suburban Willowbrook company that Rauner once had a financial stake in.
Rauner zeroed in on a Cook County inspector general’s report that called a property tax savings Pritzker received in part by removing toilets at a Gold Coast mansion a “scheme to defraud.” The governor tried to paint that report as a foreshadowing of what voters will see out of Pritzker.
The debate comes after a dizzying span of events this week. On Monday, the Sun-Times reported details of the inspector general’s report into Pritzker’s property tax reduction. On Tuesday, Pritzker said he’d pay back the $330,000 as Republicans urged criminal prosecution. On Wednesday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said she’d launch a criminal probe into the Rauner administration’s handling of the Legionnaires’ crisis. Since 2015, 13 residents at the home have died of the severe form of pneumonia, and dozens more have been sickened by it.
Each candidate blamed politics for his own scandals.
Pritzker called the IG report a leaked report meant to harm him.
When the candidates were able to ask each other a question, Rauner pounced on the inspector general’s report, asking if Pritzker believed mail fraud and perjury should be prosecuted.
“Gov. Rauner, this was a leaked memo. A leaked memo for political purposes, and your Republican Party is trying to take advantage of that leak. The fact is that we abided by the rules,” Pritzker said of the tax break.
“You can’t tell the truth,” Rauner interjected, later also telling Pritzker, “Shame on you. Shame on you.”
Apart from the bickering, the debate underscored the many policy differences between the candidates.
Pritzker favors a graduated income tax structure, which would need a constitutional change. Rauner does not. Pritzker favors a gun dealer licensing measure, while Rauner has argued it would create too much bureaucracy. The two also differ when it comes to the death penalty. Pritzker opposes it in all cases, while the Republican governor said he’d support it for mass murderers and those who kill police officers.
The two share vast wealth and are frequently asked about the message their millions send in the political sphere, as well as whether they can relate to the average voter. Rauner reiterated that he didn’t inherit his money, has had “real jobs” and worked for teachers and law enforcement officer to help invest their pension money. Pritzker said he has spent his life “standing up for working families,” and to help expand school breakfast program, to make sure more kids get quality pre-school and childcare and created “thousands and thousands of jobs in the state of Illinois.
Of the $146.5 million he’s doled out to his campaign, Pritzker said it’s “worth it” to wrestle control of the state back from Rauner. The governor in December 2016 wrote himself a check for $50 million, which Pritzker has long blamed for the reason his own campaign warchest exploded to nearly record-breaking levels.
“I believe that with all the money that gets spent in politics, that in this race, Illinois is worth it,” Pritzker said, adding he’s fighting to get back control of the state “from Bruce Rauner and the Koch brothers network and their desire to lower wages for working families in the state.” Pritzker said the governor hasn’t stood up for the middle class “during his business career or as governor of the state of Illinois.”
Rauner shot back that the voters “figure things out” and that the candidate that spends most doesn’t always win.
“I am being challenged by an individual who inherited billions, that’s never had a real job in his life has cheated the tax system to dodge taxes and may very well come under criminal investigation,” Rauner said.
Third-party candidates state Sen. Sam McCann, R-Plainview, and Libertarian Grayson “Kash” Jackson were not asked to participate in Wednesday’s debate. Rauner and Pritzker will face off for their last debate on Oct. 11 in Quincy, sponsored by WGEM and the Illinois Broadcasters Association.