The four Republican candidates for governor intensified their attacks against each other during a Thursday night debate as they tried to convince primary voters of their electability come the fall with the primary election less than three weeks away.
The target of many of the barbs was front runner Bruce Rauner, a first-time candidate and venture capitalist from Winnetka. Rivals accused Rauner of practicing “pay to play” politics, of being naïve in how state government works and likened him to Democratic President Barack Obama for threatening to run Illinois by “dictating by executive order.”
But Rauner, whose personal wealth and voracious fundraising operation has allowed him to dominate TV airwaves with ads, did not address the specific criticisms levied by state Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale and Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa — a trio he labeled “career politicians.”
“The attacks against me are coming fast and furious because we’re winning and because we have a message that scares the status quo in Springfield,” Rauner said. “With all due respect to Mr. Dillard as well as my other opponents, they have been part of the problem in Springfield for decades.”
Dillard, who lost the 2010 GOP nomination to Brady by 193 votes, set the tone in his opening statement. Dillard noted that Brady was making his third consecutive run for governor and opined that “the third time is not a charm.” Mocking the $18 watch Rauner has showcased in his TV ads, Dillard said, “like his watch, talk is cheap.” And Dillard discounted Rutherford’s prospects because of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former employee against the treasurer.
Rutherford brought up the lawsuit early during the hour-long forum, denying the allegations but acknowledged “how tough this has made my campaign.”
With Brady and Dillard largely discounting Rutherford as a factor, the two state senators focused their attention on each other and Rauner.
Brady twice invoked Obama, the home-state Democratic president and a former state Senate colleague, in criticizing Rauner and Dillard. Brady said Rauner’s tough talk about using the governor’s executive authority to challenge a Democratic-led General Assembly was “naïve” and threatened gridlock.
“He doesn’t know what it’s like to make the legislature work together,” Brady said. “Look at the catastrophe that’s created in Washington, D.C. with Barack Obama dictating by executive order. Mr. Rauner thinks he can do that in Springfield because he doesn’t have the experience.”
Brady also again questioned Dillard’s ability to “bring the Republican Party together” because of the Hinsdale lawmaker’s appearance in a 2008 presidential TV ad in Iowa attesting to Obama’s ability to work across the aisle.
“He’s not a reliable Republican,” Brady warned. He also charged that Dillard “sold out to special interests for politician interests” by voting against a new state public pension law opposed by public employee unions. Dillard has been endorsed by the Illinois Education Association, which represents teachers outside Chicago.
Dillard reserved his strongest comments to attack Rauner, contending the frontrunner “has a long history of pay to play activity in his personal, professional and political life” involving Stuart Levine, a corrupt appointee of disgraced and imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and donations made to the successful governor campaign of Democrat Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania.
Rauner has said he did not know Levine was being paid by a firm in which GTCR had an ownership stake when Rauner appeared before the state Teachers Retirement System seeking additional investments for educators’ pensions. Levine also sat on the TRS board.
Rauner has defended the donation to Rendell as part of an effort to increase opportunities for charter schools and school choice, though GTCR also saw an increase in investments from the pension fund for Pennsylvania retirees.
As he has done for much of the campaign, Rauner largely stuck to script in vowing to take on Springfield and refusing to engage his opponents’ attacks.
“There’s no there, there,” Rauner said of the criticism. His opponents, Rauner said, are “part of the problem and we have to drive major transformation.”
The debate, taped for a 7 p.m. Friday broadcast by WLS Ch. 7, also was sponsored by Univision Chicago and the League of Women Voters of Illinois. It’s the last televised forum before early voting begins Monday, though there are three more TV debates before the March 18 primary.
At 6 p.m. Tuesday, NBC5 and the University of Chicago will host a debate. At 6 p.m. Wednesday, WGN Ch. 9 and the Chicago Tribune editorial board will host a debate streamed live at chicagotribune.com. And the four candidates will hold their last televised debate at 7 p.m. March 13 on WTTW Ch. 11's "Chicago Tonight" program.