Democratic candidates for attorney general on Thursday agreed on the need to fight public corruption and battle conflicts of interest in Illinois — but some said that needs to start with contributions raised by the perceived front runner that “fly in the face of the campaign finance laws.”

Also coming under fire in the joint appearance at the Chicago Sun-Times was the outgoing occupant of the office, Lisa Madigan. Some of the Democrats vying to succeed her said she was limited in how far she pursued investigations because of her father, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan.

The eight Democrats, who have just weeks to get their messages across before the March 20 primary, appeared before the Sun-Times Editorial Board. Lisa Madigan in September surprised many in announcing she wouldn’t seek re-election.

While some priorities differed, all eight were on board to making changes to the state that would help ensure more public trust in government.

And perceived frontrunner state Sen. Kwame Raoul, who on Thursday received the powerful endorsement of the AFL-CIO, took heat over a contribution from tobacco companies.

Raoul last year received 10 political contributions of $10,000 each from companies including Top Tubes, Republic Tobacco and Top Tobacco. Top is included in a national tobacco settlement enforced by Lisa Madigan that is still being negotiated in Illinois.

Democratic Attorney General Primary Candidate Kwame Raoul. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Sharon Fairley, who served as the chief administrator of the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, argued people “toe the line” they are given, while saying the contributions “fly in the face of the campaign finance laws.”

Jesse Ruiz, former Chicago Board of Education head, chimed in that the matter is still pending with the attorney general’s office.

“It will be most likely still pending when I become attorney general or if you were to be attorney general. That’s an advance bribe,” Ruiz said.

Raoul shot back at the accusation: “Coming from somebody who just stepped off of Exelon’s board and took a contribution.”

“You took Exelon money,” Fairley told Raoul.

Democratic Attorney General Primary Candidate Jesse Ruiz. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“I did, but I’m not pointing fingers,” Raoul said.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn sat in a corner seat with a stack of papers, and in many cases complimented his competitors. He painted himself as the defender of “everyday people,” while citing his work in creating the Citizens Utility Board. Quinn said his campaign theme is “to take on and defend the interests of everyday people.” Quinn is expected to fare well in the primary, based on his name recognition alone.

Raoul said he’d want to be known as attorney general who worked to protect and provide for victims of violence. He said directing resources to victims is part of the office that is “often ignored.”

State Rep. Scott Drury, D-Highwood, who is no stranger to criticism of Speaker Mike Madigan, said the next attorney general must fight a public perception that Lisa Madigan was “saddled with.”

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“One of the biggest knocks on the current attorney general, true or false, is that she was only able to go so far because of who her dad was. And so the reason she didn’t go after public corruption because her dad was Mike Madigan,” Drury said. “You have to ask, when the time comes to actually investigate something of real significance, is the attorney general going to do that or are they going to be criticized with the same accusation that Lisa has been saddled with?”

Aaron Goldstein, a criminal defense attorney who served as one of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s lawyers, said the state must change an “attitude issue.”

“Lisa Madigan came in as attorney general, she said she was going to investigate corruption even if it meant her father, and she never did any of that,” Goldstein said. “She didn’t raise her hands up and say, ‘We don’t have the resources. She just refused to do it. It’s a matter of being proactive.”

Democratic Attorney General Primary Candidate Sharon Fairley. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Fairley, said she finds it “unconscionable” that the Illinois General Assembly left an inspector general’s position vacant for more than two years. And she said she’d propose legislation to help eliminate conflicts of interest. Fairley, too, said she’d seek a special prosecutor to look into Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios “to see if there is criminal conduct.”

Ruiz says he has “stood up to the jeopardy of positions he’s held.” Ruiz said as chairman of the state Board of Education, he was asked to give grants which he believed to be a political favor, which in some cases were illegal: “I stood up and said absolutely not. You can have my resignation, but I’m not doing it.”

Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said he’d work to make economic justice his priority should he win, saying his father is a cashier at Wal-Mart. Mariotti said he wouldn’t be afraid to go after power players in the state should they be accused of corruption: “It’s certainly a priority for me to go after public corruption… I think frankly we have to take a look at everyone and make sure that if there’s any charges, we bring them, and if there are things that are unethical but aren’t criminal charges, we have to shine light on those so the voters can make their own decisions.”

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering said the attorney general’s office must increase its watchdog activities and empower the people through education.

“Let’s talk about the nucleus of the atom, the Cook County Democrats and the questions that come out of that organization,” Rotering said. “I think you absolutely need to take action where action is due and clean this up. We’ve got people who are being put into very real positions of power with conflicts of interest and specifically the tax assessment repeal work has got to stop. That’s just ridiculous. It’s destroying our communities. It’s destroying our city for sure, and it’s creating a patronage system that has deteriorated our state.”

Quinn said he was the first and only assessor or commissioner of property tax appeals to refuse contributions from property tax lawyers: “I think that should be the law,” he said.

“We need a mandatory conflict of interest law in Illinois for the legislature, for the statewide officials. We don’t have that. California does,” Quinn said.