With less than eight weeks to go before the November election — and polls showing him behind — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday cast himself as an incumbent who has learned from a “painful” budget impasse and has “grown” and “changed.”
It was a reset button speech of sorts. But his Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker called it “thirty minutes of Bruce Rauner admitting to being a failure as governor for the last four years.”
Rauner delivered the speech at the Hilton Chicago to a closed room of about 70 lawmakers and invited guests, where he portrayed himself as a businessman who has learned from his first-term.
The governor called a victory by Pritzker a “return to the status quo: a government controlled by insiders, hell-bent on hiking taxes, with little regard for the consequences felt by ordinary citizens.”
And the governor — who narrowly avoided a primary defeat — asked for another chance.
“I humbly ask for another four years to finish the job we started, to save our state,” Rauner said. “I hope you’ll join me in our fight.”
The exchange of insults comes as a new poll shows Pritzker leading Rauner, 44 percent to 27 percent. Conducted by the Illinois Broadcasters Association, the poll released Thursday night shows Conservative Party candidate Sam McCann with 6.4 percent, Libertarian Kash Jackson with 4.3 percent, and more than 12 percent of likely voters undecided.
Rauner said he arrived in Springfield with decades of experience in the private sector and tried to bring “out of the box” thinking to the state’s problems.
“I brought that mindset to Springfield, and sought to turn Illinois around by changing everything at once. I believed a dramatic aggressive approach could shock state government into shape and bring Illinois back to life,” Rauner said. “While it was true — and remains true — that Illinois needs massive reform to get back on track, I underestimated how difficult change can be in government.”
Of his difficult first-term — amid the impasse, countless squabbles with Democratic leaders and staff purges — Rauner said he’s a “better governor now than when he took office” because he’s learned.
“The disruption, the arguments, the negotiations of the past four years have laid the groundwork for real and necessary change,” Rauner said. “We can continue to move, albeit more slowly than I’d proposed, towards the change that Illinois needs. We can build on the bipartisan successes to move our state forward.”
Rauner said he’s learned “the two most important things for success in public service are courage and understanding,” explaining that it took “courage” to act on issues regardless of the political consequences.
He admitted the budget impasse, which Pritzker and Democrats in the state have pinned squarely on him was “painful.” The impasse is among Pritzker’s biggest focal points in his campaign – highlighting those who were most adversely affected by it.
But the governor said the impasse involved “all” elected officials.
“It kept me up at night worrying about the disruption that many families experienced,” Rauner said. “All of us elected officials let you down in that struggle.”
Rauner tried to paint himself as the antidote to Pritzker, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist. And he spent the latter part of his speech attacking Pritzker.
“I’m here to tell you the truth: Pritzker doesn’t have what it takes,” Rauner said, citing FBI wiretaps featuring Pritzker and imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich; his accusation that Pritzker has offshore bank accounts in the Bahamas to avoid paying taxes and a Chicago Sun-Times report that Pritzker disabled the toilets in a mansion next to his own to lower his property taxes.
“What sort of person would do that?” Rauner said. “His behavior shows him to be a person utterly lacking in the integrity and character we need in public office.”
Rauner said should he win a second-term he’ll commit to freezing property taxes, removing mandates from Springfield and reducing property taxes.
Although he’s often blamed Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan for much of the state’s problems, Rauner mentioned Madigan by name just once during his remarks.
The Pritzker campaign released a statement after the speech, saying in part that “it’s too little too late” for Rauner after “four years of destruction and devastation on Illinois’ working families.”
“Bruce Rauner’s problem isn’t that he had too much courage, it’s that he spent four years refusing to compromise, hellbent on forcing his radical agenda on our state no matter the collateral damage,” Pritzker said in a statement.
“Forcing bipartisan legislators to override your budget veto after two years of pain and destruction is not courageous. Holding our children and their schools hostage to an extremist special interest agenda is not courageous. Waging war on unions and attacking working people is not courageous. This failed governor exhibits the height of cowardice when he spreads lies and says ‘I’m not in charge.”
Speaking to reporters outside his Loop campaign office, Pritzker said he believed the governor was trying to change the minds of voters after the “failures of the last four years.”
Of the attack on his character, Pritzker said “Bruce Rauner has no character,” citing the impasse’s cost on healthcare and mental health care services for working families.
“He’s the man who doesn’t have character in public life,” Pritzker said.
Rauner delivered his speech at the Hilton, which is one of 26 hotels where workers are on strike in Chicago. Thousands of workers are fighting for better healthcare and higher wages.
Pritzker’s campaign sought to make light of the location, asking reporters — many of whom are union members — whether they’d attend the governor’s speech. Several television cameramen opted out.
But two of the hotels on strike are Hyatts, which are owned by the Pritzker family.
Of the Hyatt dispute, the campaign said Pritzker “hopes all parties will negotiate in good faith and that a fair contract can be reached as soon as possible.”
The Pritzker campaign said “JB stands with the labor movement across Illinois in the fight for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.”