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Democrats spar over Blagojevich, black exodus and big bucks in Sun-Times forum

Illinois Democratic Gubernatorial candidates, from left, Bob Daiber, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and Tio Hardiman participated in a forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Ties to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who exactly is to blame for minorities fleeing to the suburbs and the role of big money in this year’s primary remain hot button issues for the six candidates vying to be the next Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, state Sen. Daniel Biss, Bob Daiber, Robert Marshall and Tio Hardiman appeared Wednesday before the Sun-Times Editorial Board just 62 days ahead of the heated primary. The final weeks will be filled with forums, debates, television ads and mailers as the candidates — many with similar solutions to the state’s problems — try to differentiate themselves.

Pritzker, a billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist, has been hit hard as of late by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign over FBI wiretaps of Pritzker’s conversations with now imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Democratic Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker participated in a forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A 60-second Rauner ad — called “I’d Do It” — includes audio of the wiretap, images of Blagojevich and Pritzker and a transcript. The wiretap features Blagojevich telling Pritzker about a scenario in which Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan could become a U.S. senator, and Pritzker could become the attorney general. The Chicago Tribune revealed secretly recorded conversations in 2008 between Blagojevich and Pritzker, taken from federal wiretaps.

Pritzker on Wednesday was asked whether he had “close ties” to Blagojevich.

“First of all Gov. Blagojevich broke the trust with the people of the state of Illinois and he’s in prison where he belongs,” Pritzker said. “I’m proud to have done public service throughout my life. You know, any conversations that I had were about doing public service and any suggestion by Gov. Blagojevich of any contribution I rebuffed.”

But Sun-Times Editorial Page Editor Tom McNamee pushed Pritzker about the snippet used in the ad.

“Can you specifically talk about that one conversation that’s been out there now between you and the governor on the telephone where you said ‘That’s a deal I would take,’” McNamee asked.

“I regret the tone of portions of that conversation but at every point I have tried to focus simply on what’s best for the people of Illinois,” Pritzker said.

“When you said that, what were you saying?” McNamee asked.

“Just that,” Pritzker said.

“You thought it was a good deal?” McNamee asked.

Businessman Chris Kennedy at a forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“No. Only that, you know, my own view is that we need to focus on what’s best for people across the state of Illinois, not what’s best for any individual who serves in office.”

Kennedy, a businessman and heir to the political dynasty, was asked why he has only blamed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and not previous mayors, for what Kennedy called “strategic gentrification.” Kennedy has accused the mayor of being part of a plan to intentionally push black residents out of Chicago — a charge Emanuel has denied. Kennedy’s fundraising chairman is Bill Daley, brother of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

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“Absolutely, I mean, absolutely,” Kennedy said when pressed about whether the issue pre-dated the Emanuel administration. “I didn’t mean to suggest that hadn’t been going on for years.”

Kennedy said there are blighted areas of the city hit hard by all the factors: “A food desert, a pharmacy desert, high crime rates, no access to school over taxation, no access to mental health or hospitals. That’s either happening intentionally, or it’s happening, and no one is intending to fix it,” Kennedy said.

State Sen. Daniel Biss makes a point in the forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“I went through the history of what’s occurred in the city. I didn’t attack the mayor.  I didn’t say that this has happened just in the last seven years but what has happened in the last seven years has amplified some of those factors and certainly hasn’t reversed them,” Kennedy said.

As money continues to play a huge factor in the race — Pritzker has already put in a whopping $42 million of his own cash to try to fend off his opponents — state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, continues to try to relate to voters who he argues are disenfranchised by his rivals’ wealth and notoriety.

As Kennedy and Pritzker argued for a more fair system to evaluate property tax assessments, Biss went on the attack. At issue are reductions on assessments on property that Kennedy and his company are developing on Wolf Point — and a Chicago Sun-Times investigation  that found Pritzker received $230,000 in property tax breaks in 2016 by allowing the house he owns next-door to his Gold Coast mansion to fall into disrepair.

Madison County Schools Supt. Bob Daiber at the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board forum on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“When you again use the system to decrease your own property taxes. When you rip the toilets out of your mansion to decrease your property taxes, that doesn’t take money away from schools. That drives up my property tax bill. That drives up your property tax bills. That drives up every other Illinois homeowners’ taxpayer bill,” Biss said.

“I think the question we ought to be asking ourselves is who do we actually trust to address this problem? The people who have been using the system to their own benefit for years or someone who actually has to figure out how to pay a property tax bill that is a significant portion of his income.”

Madison County Schools Supt. Bob Daiber, the only candidate from Downstate Illinois, Chicago is not the only part of the state experiencing an outflow of residents in Illinois.

Former CeaseFire director Tio Hardiman addressing the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“I’m running for governor of all of Illinois, not the city. And I think that’s what my candidacy has brought into this race. …What has happened is that we have become so economically depressed in this state that jobs mean justice for people, good paying jobs,” Daiber said. “There’s no more economically deprived community in all of Illinois than East St. Louis, the most [economically] deprived place that people continue to migrate from. There’s not a word said about that, and your next governor has got to address this entire state.”

Hardiman, a former CeaseFire director, said he supports a financial transaction tax, which he believes would bring in $3 billion in new revenue to the state. He’s also in support of legalizing small amounts of marijuana, which he said could bring in “a few billion dollars” to help grow the economy.

Burr Ridge physician Robert Marshall participated at the forum Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“For far too long, a lot of the wealthier people have not been paying their fair share in taxes, so these particular taxes can tax the people according to their income status, which is very, very important. We have a $25 million a day pension payment we have to pay every day,” Hardiman said.

Robert Marshall, a Burr Ridge physician who works at Oak Forest Hospital of Cook County, repeatedly took out a map of the state, arguing the answer to the state’s woes is simply to dissolve Illinois politically and then divide it up into three new states. He also accused Pritzker and Kennedy of “using the oldest trick in politics,” by criticizing President Donald Trump and Emanuel. Marshall, too, called “the 600-pound gorilla in the room” the state’s mega pension woes.