State Treasurer Dan Rutherford got the biggest laugh at Thursday’s GOP gubernatorial debate, talking about how he might use an assault weapon to “mow down” tree-eating beavers outside his rural home Downstate.
And state Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, delivered perhaps the best zinger in saying Bruce Rauner has more “friends” in the federal hoosegow than Illinois has governors now outfitted in prison garb.
But it was Rauner, in fending off any knockout blows and avoiding any major gaffes, who appeared to walk away the victor from the seventh and final Republican gubernatorial debate before Tuesday’s primary.
Rauner entered the WTTW-Channel 11’s “Chicago Tonight” debate as the clear frontrunner sitting more than 20 percentage points ahead of his next-closest rival, Dillard, in polling earlier this week.
And there was little that occurred during the fast-paced, hour-long confrontation moderated by host Phil Ponce that threatened to shake up the generally established order among the candidates in this fast-concluding primary.
They all seemed to agree that Illinois should avoid a graduated income tax. They split over whether the state should let a 2011 temporary income tax hike lapse in January, with Rauner and Brady saying yes and Rutherford and Dillard saying they weren’t sure. And they all agreed about the religious principle of creationism.
Ponce’s questions also focused on many of the same perceived candidate weaknesses that came up in earlier debates — from Rauner allegedly clouting his daughter into Payton College Prep High School; to Dillard, with his vote against pension reform, being a hero of the public-sector unions; to Rutherford’s handling of sexual harassment claims against him and not releasing a taxpayer-funded investigation into them; and to Sen. Bill Brady’s voting for a special taxing district in which his family may have had an indirect interest.
Dillard minimized Rauner as a mere “money speculator” who made millions from “pay to play.” The state senator zeroed in on a now-defunct Detroit imaging company, Lason Inc., that Rauner’s investment firm once owned.
Rauner’s firm, GTCR, sold its stake in the company for a profit shortly before Lason went belly-up in an accounting scandal that caused investors and banks to lose close to $285 million and that resulted in three executives of the firm to wind up in prison for their roles in the company’s collapse.
“He has more business friends in federal penitentiary than we have governors there, and that ought to be a red flag,” Dillard said.
Responding, Rauner acknowledged problems at Lason.
“When you finance 400 companies, very rarely, but occasionally, some executives behave badly and they need to be prosecuted and sent to jail,” Rauner said. “And we cooperated with that. Our track record of success in business is fantastic. We did a great job for our investors.”
Fittingly, one of the more intriguing questions of the night focused on what regrets the candidates had about themselves.
“I’m not a politician. I don’t have any regrets about the process,” Rauner said, serving up an answer that seemed rooted in the knowledge he’s leading in the horse race.
Rutherford’s answer to the question reflected a certain weariness from the past six weeks in which his promising campaign was effectively politically torpedoed by allegations he sexually harassed a former underling in the treasurer’s office — a claim Rutherford has denied.
“How much time do you have?” the treasurer answered to Ponce’s question about regrets, drawing uncomfortable laughter from his rivals and members of the audience.
“I think it was probably bringing people in to places of trust and confidence and finding that I did not make a good selection,” Rutherford continued.
Both Brady and Dillard turned reflective about the 2010 election.
Dillard said he regretted not trying to get GOP challenger and fellow DuPage County resident Robert Schillerstrom’s name removed from the Republican gubernatorial ballot after he dropped out of a race Dillard would later lose to Brady by 193 votes.
“I’d be governor today,” Dillard said.
And Brady brought up Gov. Pat Quinn’s controversial $54.5 million Neighborhood Recovery Initiative anti-violence grant program that was launched a month before the 2010 general election in what Republicans believe was a lavish, get-out-the-vote operation by the governor, a claim Quinn denies.
“We should have nailed him,” Brady said.
Brady and Dillard sniped at one another, as they have in past debates, but both saved most of their broadsides for Rauner.
Brady ridiculed how little Illinoisans really know about Rauner beyond the glitzy television commercials his personal fortune has paid for and portrayed Rauner as an inexperienced, political clone of Mayor Rahm Emanuel or, worse, Rod Blagojevich.
“I’m afraid he’ll run government like Rahm Emanuel or Rod Blagojevich, and I’m really worried about the fact his only real connections and experience are with Rahm Emanuel, made him $16 million, same donor base. We really don’t need a state that’s run from City Hall,” Brady said.
Rauner was asked to explain his relationship to Emanuel, with whom he has vacationed and hired briefly at the investment firm Rauner once led.
“I’ve known him for many years. I’ve worked with him when he was in the private sector a little bit. And I’ve worked with him on school reform while he was mayor in Chicago. The mayors in Chicago control the schools. My wife and I have dedicated much of our life and our financial resources to school reform and I’ve worked with the mayors to do that,” Rauner said.
“We disagree on most things. He wants a graduated income tax. I do not. He believes in the Affordable Care Act coming out of the federal government. I do not,” Rauner continued. “We fight on most things.”
The night had its share of comic moments, too, led by Rutherford’s response to Ponce’s question about whether they could see any legitimate purpose, besides target shooting, for any Illinoisan to want to use an assault-style rifle.
“Actually, yeah,” said the treasurer, who lives in rural Livingston County outside Pontiac. “My back 24 acres, I have creek down there, and if there’s a beaver that’s mowing down my trees, I’ll shoot him.”
“You’ll mow down the beaver?” Ponce asked.
“I’ll mow down the beaver,” Rutherford said. “That’s my right as an American.”