Gov. Bruce Rauner framed his re-election battle as a fight against taxes and corruption and dubbed third-party candidate State Sen. Sam McCann “phony,” while Democrat J.B. Pritzker kept up a campaign theme of calling Rauner a “liar” and “failed governor” at the first televised governor’s debate on Thursday night.
The candidates were also asked a number of questions about their wealth and whether they could relate to average Illinois voters — they were even asked if they knew how much some food items cost. Libertarian candidate Grayson “Kash” Jackson noted that neither major party candidate has a “clue” what most people in the state are going through.
Pritzker, who has been ahead in recent polls, was quickly asked about a Chicago Sun-Times report that Pritzker disabled the toilets in a Gold Coast mansion next to his own to lower his property taxes by $230,000. The tax reduction is a central theme of Rauner’s campaign, who is seeking to paint the billionaire philanthropist and entrepreneur as a tax cheat.
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“Who unhooks all their toilets?” moderator Carol Marin asked Pritzker at the debate sponsored by NBC5 Chicago, Telemundo, the Union League Club of Chicago and Chicago Urban League.
‘Do you not want to give a rate?’
Pritzker said he sought to have a property tax reassessment, as most homeowners do in Cook County. He said he no longer receives the tax deduction. When asked if the toilets have been re-connected, Pritzker said he has “restarted that renovation project.”
Pritzker was also asked about the graduated income tax he supports that would tax wealthier residents at a higher rate, but the Democrat declined to specify what rate he favors.
“So to the rate? Do you have a number that you favor?” Marin asked.
“This is what you should know. That the middle class should get a tax break. That is critically important to me. And remember that most states in the United States have a progressive income tax system and they’re doing far better at job creation,” Pritzker responded.
Marin implored, “Do you not want to give a rate?”
“I believe it’s something we’ve got to negotiate with the peoples’ representatives and the Legislature. And remember it’s got to go to a referendum of the people of Illinois before it could become part of our Constitution anyway,” Pritzker said.
Although the two-year state budget stalemate — which Democrats blame on Rauner — is a focal point of Pritzker’s campaign, the word “impasse” wasn’t mentioned until about 40 minutes into the hour-long debate.
Pritzker brought up the budget battle in response to a question about funding MAP grants for college students. He told Rauner the state budget agreement, which leaders finally reached after two years without one, happened “in spite” of the governor.
“You are a failed governor. You have failed every single year of your term,” Pritzker said.
‘You’ve got it all backward, governor’
Rauner, in turn, accused Pritzker of lacking integrity and being unworthy to hold the state’s top office. But Pritzker double-downed with what he believed to be the reason for a spike in violence in some areas of the state.
“When you cut mental health services, when you cut substance abuse treatment, that is what helps to increase violence on the streets. And you don’t understand that,” Pritzker told Rauner. “You know, people who want to get jobs, who want to get trained and you cut funding for people who would get skills training. I mean, I think you’ve got it all backward, governor.”
Rauner then offered one of many critiques of Pritzker’s family wealth.
“Mr. Pritzker, you know it’s easy for you to sit on the sidelines and criticize when you haven’t done an honest day’s work in your life,” Rauner said. “Mr. Pritzker. Mr. Pritzker. You are not addressing the core issues that we need to fix: pension reform, job creation, corruption.”
McCann, a Republican state senator from Plainview who is seeking to draw in conservative voters in the state, made sure voters knew he’s a President Trump supporter. He accused the other candidates of not supporting the president, and highlighted his pro-life view.
Rauner quickly called him a “phony candidate.” McCann has received financial support from the Operating Engineers Union Local 150, which has also endorsed Pritzker. The union’s support for McCann is largely viewed as a way to steer votes away from Rauner, who has been dubbed one of the most vulnerable governors in the country.
But McCann repeatedly uttered “get used to it,” when he was accused of being a fake candidate.
“He has received funding from Mike Madigan for his campaign. He was put on the ballot by Mike Madigan’s attorney,” Rauner said.
“You’re a liar,” McCann responded. “You’ve been lying to the people of Illinois from the very beginning. You said you had no social agenda and all you’ve been able to accomplish is to make yourself the most progressive liberal governor the state of Illinois has ever had. You’re a liar and a thief.”
“Are you getting paid on a per interruption basis by Madigan or a lump sum?” Rauner asked the senator. Rauner said McCann had one purpose of being on stage: “to help Pritzker be victorious for Mike Madigan.”
“We’re here to take both of you out,” McCann said to both Pritzker and Rauner.
Most expensive race
Seeking to determine whether the enormously wealthy front-runners could relate to average voters, Marin asked Rauner the price of a gallon of milk and Pritzker the price of a loaf of bread. Both passed the test.
But libertarian candidate Grayson “Kash” Jackson — a U.S. Navy veteran — sought to draw a big contrast, painting himself as the every man.
“The fact that we continue to elect people like Bruce Rauner. No offense sir, but you and Mr. J.B. Pritzker have no clue what it is for people like me to live in the conditions that we live in. Where we have to struggle every single day to pay our taxes,” Jackson said.
Jackson also highlighted the millions both Rauner and Pritzker have poured into their campaigns. The race is on pace to becoming one of the most expensive gubernatorial elections on record.
Marin asked both Rauner and Pritzker if the amounts they’ve contributed to their own campaign is “embarrassing.” Pritzker has given himself $126 million — although some of that has been spent on supporting other Democrats in the state. Rauner has given himself $95 million, with some money going to support Republican candidates.
Pritzker replied that the race is about “values.” Rauner, too, said the election is about values. Both did not address the millions they’ve doled out.
But Jackson drew laughter when he talked about the thousands in his campaign fund. He has about $10,000 cash on hand, records show.
“I spent $25,000. You two gentleman spent what? Two-hundred million to get on this stage?” Jackson said. “Who’s the fiscally-minded guy? I’m spending less than $1,000 for a percent in the poll. You guys are spending $400,000.”
Pritzker and Rauner will face off again on Oct. 3 in Chicago, at a debate sponsored by ABC7 Chicago, Univision and the League of Women Voters, and Oct. 11 in a Quincy forum sponsored by WGEM and the Illinois Broadcasters Association. Pritzker and Rauner are also set to appear together before a meeting of the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board on Oct. 9.