Each painted the picture of himself he wanted voters to see:
The true “progressive.” The one with values. And the one who can defeat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner come November.
During Wednesday night’s final televised debate before next week’s primary, billionaire entrepreneur J.B. Pritzker tried to look ahead to November while fending off his rivals’ attacks; state Sen. Daniel Biss touted his record in Springfield as proof of his progressive values; and businessman Chris Kennedy defended his statements and policy positions, while vowing to be an honest and untethered candidate.
There were no pleasantries or how-do-you-dos. The three major candidates — excluded were former Ceasefire Director Tio Hardiman, Madison County Schools Supt. Bob Daiber and Burr Ridge doctor Robert Marshall— took rapid-fire shots at each other.
“It seems to me once again you don’t know who Dan Biss really is,” Pritzker said about the senator from Evanston criticizing state House Speaker Mike Madigan — but voting for him as speaker, accepting Madigan’s money, and helping to run a super PAC for him.
Biss called the attack “bananas,” reiterating that he has worked with Democrats and will continue to work with Democrats if elected.
“The only person on this stage who voted for Mike Madigan is saying that,” Pritzker said of Biss.
That prompted moderator Phil Ponce to ask Pritzker to describe his relationship with the speaker, whose powerful allies and unions are supporting Pritzker’s campaign: “You know what? He’s the chairman of the Democratic party. That’s the relationship. I’m a candidate for governor, and as Dan Biss has said, in the general election as Democrats, we’ll all end up running together.”
Biss blasted both Kennedy and Pritzker for tax breaks the two received. His campaign has been running a digital campaign called “The Billionaire Playbook” that targets Pritzker, Rauner, Kennedy and President Trump for allegedly “putting profits over people.”
“We should let these two guys keep arguing until 8 o’clock about who is scamming the tax system worse,” Biss said about halfway through the hour-long debate.
And Kennedy chimed in “Oh, my Gosh” after Pritzker said he wouldn’t take a position on Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios’ re-election race, while also comparing Pritzker to someone lying on a job interview. A defiant Kennedy also asked Pritzker to take down a TV ad that asserts that Kennedy supports taxing retirement income — a claim Kennedy has denied.
“We’re interviewing for a job to be the next governor for the state of Illinois, to work for the people of Illinois, to work for the voters of Illinois. I’ve hired a lot of people and I can tell you just one piece of advice to the voters of the state,” Kennedy said. “You should never hire someone who lies to you during a job interview. If they’ll lie to you to get the job, they’ll lie to you to keep the job. And you do not want a liar as the governor of the state of Illinois trying to keep that job.”
Pritzker accused both Kennedy and Biss of attacking him with just five days ahead of the race: “It’s clear they’re behind, and this is how they intend to run the rest of the campaign.”
Pritzker, however, has been running anti-Biss ads for weeks, and also has three ads currently criticizing Kennedy.
Pritzer was forced to defend himself against a Chicago Tribune report that claimed Pritzker and his brother control several offshore companies created between 2008 and 2011 — suggesting that Pritzker may be avoiding paying taxes. The story claims one of Pritzker’s offshore companies is part of a venture that plans to buy land along the Chicago River to launch boat tours downtown.
“There’s nothing new in that story in the Chicago Tribune. I’ve said all along there were trusts created generations ago. I don’t receive any distributions from those trusts, and all the distributions go to charity. And on my statement of economic interest, all of the assets that are owned by the trusts and by me individually as well as our charitable foundation are listed,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker said he has “no control” over the trusts.
The three took on a more personal question to round out the hour-long debate. Asked for an example of a formative life experience, Pritzker spoke of losing his mother at 17 and her struggles with alcoholism: “I watched her struggle with addiction. And I don’t want others to have to go through that. And I want to live up to her values, the things that she set for us about fighting for social and economic justice, equality and inclusion.”
Kennedy spoke of the pain of losing his father, former U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
“I think about my father’s death at an early age, and I know that the bullet that kills the father wounds the child,” Kennedy said, adding his siblings have struggled with substance abuse and mental illness. “Somewhere in all of that there’s empathy that comes from people who are not going to be able to make it on their own and we have a role as a big family and as a government to reach out to folks who are suffering.”
Biss spoke of a more lighthearted moment — meeting his wife Karen in 2005 at a Texas airport: “It changed my life completely.”