Rauner on defensive during governor debate

Bruce Rauner (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)

SPRINGFIELD — Bruce Rauner marked his 58th birthday fending off criticism from Republican governor rivals of his vilification of “government union bosses” and apologizing for how he initially characterized an effort to get his daughter into an elite Chicago high school.

The front runner ahead of the March 18 primary election found himself on the defensive Tuesday during a forum sponsored by the Citizens Club of Springfield.

Rauner, a first-time candidate, apologized for originally telling some reporters he never contacted then-Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan for attempting to get his daughter into an exclusive school, then later acknowledging he had.

“Frankly my memory is not clear,” said Rauner, who maintained he had not asked for special favors to get his daughter into Walter Payton College Prep.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, the unsuccessful 2010 GOP nominee, stood by his support of allowing local schools to teach creationism but said social issues won’t decide who will be the next governor.

And state Sen. Kirk Dillard, the runner up in the last Republican governor primary, sought to position himself as best equipped to defeat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn this fall, taking a broad swipe at this year’s field that also includes state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.

“My point is these three men are unelectable,” Dillard said. “For my party to nominate another wounded duck for governor sends this state permanently, permanently down the drain.”

Armed with a wide fundraising advantage and a 20-percentage-point lead in a recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll, Rauner found himself the target of criticism for his extensive attacks on public unions as part of his massive and expensive TV ad campaign.

Rauner replied to a question about a June interview with the State Journal-Register in which he was quoted that even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a pro-union Democrat, thought government unions “shouldn’t exist” and are “immoral.” The candidate backtracked somewhat.

“I’m not against the existence of government unions but workers should be free to choose whether to be in a government union or not,” said Rauner, a venture capitalist from Winnetka.

Still, he maintained there were big differences between public employee unions and private-sector unions.

“When a government union boss has power with taxpayer funded union dues to influence politicians through campaign cash, campaign workers that are free but actually paid by government taxpayers inside the government, it’s a conflict of interest and it’s a corrupting influence. And the result of it is spending goes up, taxes go up and businesses leave our state,” Rauner said.

The three opponents saw an opening.

Dillard, of Hinsdale, noted his recent endorsement by the Illinois Education Association and the union’s president, Cinda Klickna of Springfield, an English teacher, in chiding Rauner. “I don’t think she is a union boss. She is an English teacher,” Dillard said.

“We are a state that has a proud organized labor history. I will tell you though that the best way to get concessions from unions and keep them from killing the goose that laid the golden egg is to meet with them, to talk to them. It’s not to demonize them,” he said.

Brady said public unions are “not immoral.”

“Unions,” he said, “serve their constituency, the people that they represent. And certainly public and private sector unions have done a lot to assist in enhancing the quality of life of the members they provide for. They also provide for a skilled workforce.”

Rutherford said he supported “the right to collectively bargain, both in the private sector and the public sector” and “to suggest that public employee unions or their leadership are bosses and immoral is inappropriate.”

Brady lost four years ago to Quinn amid concerns from some voters he was too conservative. On Tuesday, Brady reaffirmed his belief that local “school boards ought to be allowed to teach what they want to teach,” including creationism. And while Brady said he was “100 percent pro-life,” he said no governor would have the right to overturn constitutionally protected abortion rights.

Rutherford had to deal with continued fallout from a federal sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by former top aide Edmund Michalowski. Rutherford has strongly denied the allegations and said his office found no merit to the claims. He also has brought in two consultants and two private attorneys to help him deal with the matter, including a former IRS agent hired to conduct a review. But while Rutherford had predicted that review would soon provide more clarity, so far there has only been more confusion.