The first gubernatorial debate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker was all about proving who’s the bigger liar between them.
On Wednesday, the two front-runners for the state Executive Mansion sunk even further by arguing who between them was the biggest criminal during the WLS-Channel 7-League of Women Voters debate, their second face-to-face matchup of the fall campaign.
There’s less than five weeks left of this campaign before voters get to pick a winner. Their choices are Rauner, Pritzker and two third-party candidates left off the stage for the second debate: Conservative Party candidate Sam McCann and Libertarian Kash Jackson. The election is November 6.
But the toxicity of Wednesday’s debate, stacked mostly at the beginning of the hour-long program, appeared to do little to change any of the fundamentals that surprisingly have cast the incumbent governor as the underdog. A poll released Tuesday by Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute had Pritzker leading Rauner by a 49 to 27 percent spread.
On Wednesday, blows were landed, but there were no knockouts, no gaffes and just a handful of takeaway moments.
The debate started with WLS Political Editor Craig Wall pressing Rauner on a WBEZ report that outlined how the governor’s office itself influenced the slow release of public information at the onset of a 2015 Legionnaires’ disease outbreak at the state-run veterans’ home in Quincy.
“Was there a deliberate attempt by your administration to hide what was happening at Quincy?” Wall asked.
“Absolutely not,” Rauner answered. “Our team did everything they could to make sure our veterans were kept safe and their health care was kept protected.”
Wall pressed Rauner on why the administration decided to let six days lapse at the beginning of the 2015 epidemic before telling residents, their families and the public. Twelve residents and a veterans’ spouse died then, and public-health and water-safety experts have told WBEZ the delay in information worsened the impact of the epidemic.
“The team determined the right time. We needed to get all the facts, make sure that there was no panic or inappropriate misinformation put out,” the governor said.
Rauner didn’t directly address a criminal investigation that Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan is now overseeing into potential missteps in how the public was notified about Legionnaires’ outbreaks at the home.
Pritzker had his best moments of the debate when he pounced on the Quincy issue, calling the administration’s slow and incomplete release of information “a cover-up.”
“He failed,” Pritzker said of Rauner. “For three years, he failed to protect them. Fourteen people died.”
Rauner lashed back at Pritzker, accusing him of “politicizing the health challenges of our veterans.”
Rauner aimed to score points off one of Pritzker’s new political soft spots: this week’s leak of a confidential report written by Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard, who condemned a six-figure property tax break Pritzker obtained as a “scheme to defraud.”
For months, Pritzker has been on the defensive about the manner in which toilets were ripped out of a neighboring Gold Coast mansion that Pritzker and his wife owned and were renovating, saving the couple more than $300,000 in property taxes on the basis of their claim the home was now “uninhabitable.”
After the opening question about Quincy, the debate panelists then turned to Pritzker to justify the artful way in which he achieved tax savings.
“We followed the rules,” Pritzker said.
But Rauner said the report “exposed the truth” about Pritzker and points to possible “criminal behavior, tax fraud, mail fraud and perjury. This is the fundamental self-dealing that’s rotted our state at its core.”
There has been no evidence any law-enforcement agencies are investigating. But Pritzker this week said he’d refund the $330,000 back to the Cook County treasury.
Asked Wednesday if that wasn’t an acknowledgment of impropriety, Pritzker answered, “We’re in the last 34 days of a campaign, and I don’t want to distract from us talking about the real issues affecting working families across the state of Illinois. That’s why I repaid that.”
Rauner kept trying to hit Pritzker for his ambiguous plan to shift the state’s flat 4.95-percent income tax rate to a multi-rate graduated tax where wealthy Illinoisans would pay more than those making less.
Details never did get pried loose from Pritzker, but Rauner reverted to his favorite topic – toilets – in delivering what may have been the line of the night.
“If Mr. Pritzker gets in office and implements his tax plan there’s going to be a giant sucking sound, and it won’t be from his toilets. It’s gonna be the sound of businesses going down the drain in this state,” Rauner said.