Billionaire entrepreneur J.B. Pritzker sidestepped questions Wednesday about whether Mike Madigan should step down as state House speaker and chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party in light of the party leader’s handling of sexual harassment allegations within his own political organization.

Pritzker, who is backed by unions and heavy-hitting Democrats — many allied with the speaker — was asked twice during a Downstate gubernatorial debate whether he believed Madigan should withdraw from either role.

“He said he was going to answer the question but didn’t, because he hasn’t gotten permission yet from Madigan to answer that question,” state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, quipped.

On his second try, Pritzker still avoided the question, saying an independent investigation prompted by Madigan “will determine who the perpetrators are and who is truly responsible.”

Shaw Decremer became the second Madigan operative to be dismissed this month — his exit coming just seven days after the firing of Madigan’s longtime aide Kevin Quinn after a woman came forward with allegations of unwanted and repeated advances from Quinn, the brother of Ald. Marty Quinn (13th).

“Everybody, I mean, everybody up and down the line, who is responsible should be held accountable,” Pritzker said.

Biss — who has called for Madigan to step down as chairman of the party  — said he has a record of independence from Madigan, calling the Southwest Side Democrat “too powerful,” and a “problem for the state of Illinois for quite some time.”

State Sen. Daniel Biss participates in a gubernatorial debate Wednesday at the University of Illinois Springfield. Photo from screen grab.

“He’s lost my faith in the ability to lead this party, and I think there’s real questions that have been called about his leadership of the House as well,” Biss said.

Pritzker fired back at Biss, saying the Evanston senator was elected with Madigan’s help, accepted contributions from him, ran a super PAC for Madigan and accepted contributions from “Springfield insiders, bankers and lobbyists.”

“I believe we need to stand up for the women who bravely stepped forward with their stories, and we need to make sure there is an independent, fully independent investigation, something that is totally independent of Speaker Madigan’s operation and Speaker Madigan himself,” Pritzker said.

J.B. Pritzker participates in a gubernatorial debate Wednesday at the University of Illinois Springfield. Photo from screen grab.

Madigan has become a troublesome issue for Pritzker. The gubernatorial candidate has been slow to question the behavior of the powerful, but increasingly unpopular, party leader.

Last week, after repeated questioning from reporters, the billionaire finally raised concerns about why it took three months for Madigan to fire Kevin Quinn. And on Tuesday, Pritzker joined in the calls for an independent probe of Madigan’s organization.

Madison County Schools Supt. Bob Daiber, the only candidate from Downstate Illinois, called the whole mess “political nonsense,” and said a governor must work with the speaker, who will likely remain in power when a new governor is elected.

Bob Daiber participates in a gubernatorial debate Wednesday at the University of Illinois Springfield. Photo from screen grab.

“You can say all kinds of bad things about a person, but when you go and sit down across the table and you have to deal with them as a governor, what’s going to be the initial perception for you. Therefore, when I become governor, Mike Madigan is going to sit across the table from me and we’re going to get along with the business of the state of Illinois,” Daiber said.

“We’re going to put this nonsense aside. Because that’s what this is. It’s political nonsense. There’s going to be no independent investigation of this guy. He’s not going anywhere. So don’t be fooled.”

Tio Hardiman, a former Ceasefire director, said it’s the people of Illinois who have kept Madigan in power: “Until the people decide to not vote for Mike Madigan, he’s going to be there. I do believe he should step down but at the same time, term limits is very important because sometimes people become too comfortable with their position and they overlook a few things.”

Tio Hardiman participates in a gubernatorial debate Wednesday at the University of Illinois Springfield. Photo from screen grab.

The hot button issue had some of the five gubernatorial candidates at odds during the third major debate at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Businessman Chris Kennedy did not attend after hurting his back while exercising earlier on Wednesday

An internal poll released by Pritzker’s campaign showed him in second place, with Biss trailing in third. Kennedy’s campaign released links to media coverage of that poll as prove he’s “surging.” It sets the stage for a dramatic finish to one of the most expensive primaries in state history, and one fraught with drama. There are three more televised debates, with just under four weeks until the March 20 primary.

Moderators of Wednesday’s debate at the University of Illinois Springfield also tackled issues especially important in central and southern Illinois, including the minimum wage, agriculture and protecting pensions for state workers.

Dr. Robert Marshall participates in a gubernatorial debate Wednesday at the University of Illinois Springfield. Photo from screen grab.

Pritzker sought to show that Biss, who is running statewide ads declaring he’s the “Middle-class governor,” isn’t what he’s advertising: “Your slogan just doesn’t match your record.” Biss repeatedly called Pritzker the “billionaire,” who’s following a “playbook.”

Meanwhile, Robert Marshall, a Burr Ridge doctor, cited his plan of dividing the state into three portions as a solution for everything from eliminating Madigan as speaker and chairman to solving the state’s pension crisis.