The frenetic first televised face-to-face debate between Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Republican Darren Bailey Thursday devolved into a battle over who of the two is Illinois’ biggest liar and threat to the state.
The high-stakes showdown at Illinois State University — roughly a month ahead of the election — covered abortion, guns and crime; Pritzker’s handling of the pandemic; and the state’s financial ledgers.
But in showcasing two gubernatorial contenders with polar opposite views on Illinois’ direction, the fast and, at times, scattershot pacing by the debate’s hosts left viewers without answers about where the candidates stood on some of those key issues.
Pritzker portrayed the state as one on the financial rebound that embraces diversity and and entrusts women to make the right decision for themselves when it comes to abortion.
Bailey, who frequently went on the offensive, knocked Illinois as a place where crime runs rampant, businesses are leaving and state finances are in ruin — and he pinned all of that on Pritzker.
“Every word that comes out of this man’s mouth is deception,” Bailey said. “He shorted our pensions by $4 billion every year that he’s been governor.”
“That’s a lie,” Pritzker interrupted as Bailey went on to deride the governor’s financial acumen even more.
“JB’s an arrogant liar,” Bailey said. “This budget, to him, is a shell game, and he thinks that we’re all patsies, because we’re buying it. Well, friends, people are waking up to the truth, and that truth is going to get this man fired this year.”
A few moments later, Pritzker went at Bailey again on the truth.
“I have to say that he’s following in the footsteps of the person he begged for an endorsement from, and that’s Donald Trump,” the governor said. “The truth is that we need a governor who actually stands up for the truth.”
The evening’s back-and-forth unfolded as respected political handicappers like The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter and the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ Sabato Crystal Ball have rated the state’s governor’s race as safely Democratic.
There appeared to be no knockdown moments in this debate, but there was plenty of ambiguity on where the candidates stood on several key issues.
Bailey harangued the governor for signing the SAFE-T criminal justice package that will eliminate cash bail for criminal defendants in January, a step that Bailey says will lead to a flood of dangerous accused criminals being put back on the street.
Asked what changes were needed in the law, the governor only said “clarifications” were necessary but wouldn’t answer specifically.
When asked if he would commit to not raise taxes, Pritzker avoided directly answering, later saying a continued balanced budget could make “tax cuts permanent.” But Bailey wasn’t asked the same question, and escaped the issue altogether.
On the issue of abortion, Bailey was asked whether he’d favor exceptions for rape and incest victims. He avoided answering by casting the issue as beyond a governor’s reach.
“Illinois has the most permissive abortion laws in the nation. Nothing’s going to change when I’m governor. I couldn’t change them,” Bailey said. “JB Pritzker stays up at night trying to dream up new abortion laws.”
But Pritzker accused Bailey of taking an absolute approach to abortion rights.
“Darren Bailey wants to eliminate a woman’s right to choose,” the governor said. “He wants to take away women’s reproductive rights.”
Bailey interjected, “You are so divisive.”
And the governor shot back, “That is precisely what he stands for.”
Bailey in several instances punted responsibility for action to the legislature, such as when asked about whether teachers should be armed or about efforts by Pritzker to ban high-capacity, military-style weapons after the July 4th Highland Park mass shooting.
“Again, it’s the General Assembly that determines that,” Bailey said.
Neither candidate seemed to offer up much of a prescription when asked about the three things that could be done to curb corruption in Springfield.
The governor didn’t offer anything specific, and Bailey suggested stripping accused lawmakers of their state benefits when they are indicted — ignoring that Illinois law requires criminal convictions before pension benefits can be taken away.
At one point during the debate, both candidates were asked their views on the workers’ rights constitutional amendment, which would guarantee Illinois workers the ability to collectively bargain. The governor expressed support, but Bailey hit at unions supporting the measure.
“My message is this: Unions, stay in your lane, and everything will be fine. Leave Mom and Pop and private business alone,” he said.
Pritzker, who was ahead by 15 points over Bailey in one public poll released late last month, repeatedly recited a greatest-hits reel of his time in office, focusing on how he stabilized the state’s finances, safeguarded abortion rights and managed the COVID-19 pandemic, which so far has killed more than 35,000 people.
“Well, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved over the last four years,” Pritzker said.
The debate was a forum for Bailey, a first-term state senator, to allege Pritzker is too far left for most Illinoisans, oblivious to crime and out of touch.
“We’re being crushed by property taxes, crime. We’re being crushed by failed education, and it’s all because JB Pritzker is hellbent on becoming the most radical, leftist governor in America,” Bailey said, before adding later, “This man is dangerous.”
The debate came one week after early voting began in Illinois.
Nexstar Media Group, whose Illinois television affiliates include WGN-TV in Chicago and WCIA-TV in Champaign, hosted Thursday night’s debate. The media organization will hold the second and final face-to-face televised debate on Oct. 18 in Chicago.
Dave McKinney covers Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @davemckinney.