Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner admitted he should have settled for “small step wins” during his first two years as governor, while his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker remained elusive on what his proposed sweeping revamp of the state income tax will mean for the middle class.
Those were just a few of the highlights of a contentious meeting Tuesday as the two sat elbow to elbow before the Sun-Times Editorial Board. Rauner and Pritzker frequently interrupted and talked over one another as they haggled over taxes, character and some of the state’s biggest problems.
“Boys, boys. …. You have to take turns here a little bit, OK?” Editorial Page editor Tom McNamee scolded at one point.
RELATED: Read the full transcript of the Rauner-Pritzker debate before the Sun-Times Editorial Board
And as tempers rose, the two were also asked to detail how they handle the stress of politics. Rauner admitted being governor was “tremendously stressful.” And Pritzker spoke candidly about his weight, saying he’s “always struggling with it.”
With Election Day just a month away, the debate was designed to help the Editorial Board take the measure of the two candidates as it decides which to endorse in the governor’s race. Voters will get their last chance to see the two debate on Thursday evening in Downstate Quincy.
On Tuesday, the two men each repeatedly accused one another of lying and breaking the law.
At one point, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell began a question about character by noting that “four of the last nine governors have gone to prison in Illinois for illegal acts” only to be interrupted by Rauner.
“And we could have number five right here,” the governor said.
Some of the testiest exchanges came over the two men’s separate scandals: a Cook County inspector general’s report that called a property tax break Pritzker received in part by removing toilets from a mansion he owns a “scheme to defraud” and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s criminal investigation into the Rauner administration’s handling of a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Quincy.
Each managed to work the other’s scandal into unrelated questions.
“We need real reform,” Pritzker said in response to criticism of his tax plan. “There’s no doubt about it. We do have big differences of opinion about taxes, that’s true. I believe that we need to change the tax system to make it fairer for people —.”
“You need to pay your taxes,” Rauner interrupted.
“You want to lower, you want to lower — Governor, would you stop interrupting?” Pritzker countered.
Rauner blamed the Quincy probe on partisan politics, insisting there was “no criminal behavior whatsoever.”
But Pritzer countered “Gov. Rauner’s administration took six days to let people know. People got sick— 70 people have gotten sick. Fourteen people have died as a result of the mismanagement, fatal mismanagement, at the Quincy veterans. And there was a cover-up.”
Pritzker’s tax plan was also put under the microscope.
The Democrat has been asked repeatedly about what rate he prefers should the state enact his preferred graduated income tax structure — which would tax wealthier residents at a higher rate. And he’s successfully dodged those questions.
At the Editorial Board meeting, Pritzker and Rauner were asked to identify which one of three income brackets a recent Pew Research Center analysis identified for a middle class family of three in the Chicago area. The analysis, which used 2016 numbers, found a middle-class cap of $140,000 for household income pre-taxes for a family of three.
Rauner said he believed middle class income to be anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000. The Republican governor — who is fighting against a tax change — said that in other states with a graduated income tax the middle class pay “six, seven, eight percent — much more than in Illinois.”
“Mr. Pritzker would raise taxes on everyone, and the businesses would flood out of the state, devastation for our jobs in Illinois,” Rauner said.
Pritzker would not give a number for what he considers middle-class earnings, but said it’s a “much broader schedule of income than just that.” The options given as falling within the middle-class range were $120,000 to $130,000; $160,000-$170,000 or $180,000 to $190,000. With Pew’s cap for the middle-class at $140,000, only the first option would be considered middle class.
Pritzker said Rauner and Republicans are framing a tax change as a way to unjustly tax the middle class, and “that’s not true.”
“Most are doing better than the state of Illinois,” Pritzker said of states that have enacted a graduated income tax structure.
“Today, people who are at the middle and at the bottom who are paying taxes are paying 11 and 13 percent in total tax burden,” Pritzker said. “And people at the top are paying about half of that. I just want to make that a little bit fairer. I don’t think it’s right that people at the top pay a much lower rate than people at the middle and at the bottom.”
Rauner said a change in the state’s tax structure “makes it easier to raise taxes on everyone.”
Asked again about why he remains elusive about the middle class brackets, Pritzker later said “it doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t matter because what does matter is that we’re going to have to negotiate this with the Legislature and it’s going to have to go to a referendum of the people of Illinois,” Pritzker said outside the Sun-Times office.
The candidates were also asked about their health, and how they deal with stress.
“Worrying about 12.8 million people a day is tremendously stressful,” Rauner said, while calling it “the most wonderful thing” he’s done in his life.
Rauner listed three ways he works to reduce stress: riding his motorcycle, swimming, as well as skating and rollerblading.
Pritzker listed his ways to decompress as having “great friends” and “great activities.” The billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist said he’s a “decent” tennis player, “although I have trouble I admit getting everywhere on the court — sometimes I miss shots,” Pritzker said. He said he also enjoys lakefront walks.
Pritzker also said he is constantly monitoring his weight.
“I think you know I’ve had a weight problem nearly my entire life. Like a lot of other people, I’m always struggling with it. There’s no doubt about it. I always monitor it because, you know, my father passed away when he was young of a heart problem, and I’m always concerned about it,” Pritzker said. “I have two young children that are teenagers. I want to be well for them. So I’m always constantly keeping an eye on it.”
Rauner — who waged a war with Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan early and is often blamed for the nearly two-year budget impasse — was asked about something he would have changed during his first term. The governor also admitted he was part of the budget impasse, along with “every elected official.”
“That failure to have a budget for years is a act where every elected official let the people down, and I was part of that,” Rauner said. “But you know what? We have to change, and the simple fact is Speaker Madigan had a supermajority during the budget battle. He had the ability to pass any budget at any time, with or without my support.”
As for whether he’d change any of his actions during his first term, Rauner pointed to communication efforts and accepting small “wins.”
“I would look for lots of small step wins in the first year or two, and I would be far more … focused on the effectiveness of communicating to the people of Illinois about how deep our problems are, how broken and how much time it takes to fix the problems,” Rauner said.