QUINCY, Ill. – Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday used the final televised debate with Democratic challenger JB Pritzker to publicly apologize for the first time to families who lost parents to multiple Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks at a state-run veterans’ home.
Rauner’s conciliatory language, occurring early in the hour-long debate and repeated later before reporters, marked the closest thing to contrition from the first-term governor for his administration’s responses to Legionnaires’ outbreaks that have been linked to 14 deaths since 2015.
“To the families here tonight and to the families across Illinois who lost loves ones, I’m sorry for your loss,” Rauner said during the debate. “It is deeply painful.”
The statement came two days after WBEZ met in Quincy with members of five different families whose elderly parents died in the first outbreak, when the state kept a six-day lid on any public notice of a Legionnaires’ epidemic. Nearly universally, the families that are suing the state for negligence ripped Rauner for not apologizing to them for their anguish or displaying any empathy.
After the debate, WBEZ read quotes to Rauner from some of them and asked whether he understood the depth of their sorrow. Appearing tired and speaking softly, the governor responded that he had actually shed tears over the deaths of those residents.
But he did not have an answer when pressed why he is apologizing only now – in the heat of an uphill re-election bid – rather than three years ago.
“I have talked to many of the families, but not all. And, the heartbreaking tragedy of veterans being exposed to Legionella bacteria and some of them dying from it is such a tragedy. I’ve cried about it. I’ve spent much time with the veterans about it, and I firmly believe the team here did everything they could and did a good job in very, very difficult circumstances, and the statements that somehow there was delay or inaction is not right,” he said.
The governor’s statements come on the same day that Pritzker unveiled a television ad featuring the son of one of the 2015 Legionnaires’ victims. Tim Miller, the son of U.S. Army veteran Eugene Miller, claimed in the ad that Rauner was “more interested in protecting his image than he was the heroes who served our country.”
That Rauner agreed to debate in Quincy could either be seen as an act of dauntless courage against that kind of criticism or a campaign miscalculation that could lay bare one of his greatest political vulnerabilities. His administration failed to contain Legionnaires’ from re-emerging at the veterans’ home in 2016, 2017 and again earlier this year despite spending millions of dollars on water-system upgrades. The governor even spent a week living at the home to try to demonstrate it was safe.
During the debate, Pritzker immediately lit into Rauner for his handling of the situation, noting how Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan had launched a criminal investigation into the matter – a probe Rauner dismissed as a “political ploy” aimed at distracting from Pritzker’s own problems.
“It’s our obligation to defend our veterans and keep them safe. That’s not something Gov. Rauner did,” Pritzker said. “As a result of his failures and fatal mismanagement, he’s now under a criminal probe as his administration. It’s a shameful neglect of our veterans who we should be standing up for every single day.”
The governor tried to pivot from the Legionnaires’ issue to a leaked confidential report from the Cook County inspector general that characterized a $330,000 property tax break Pritzker obtained on a Gold Coast mansion he owns next to his home as a “scheme to defraud.” Pritzker has denied wrongdoing but returned those funds to Cook County.
Without offering proof, Rauner predicted Pritzker’s “likely indictment within the next few months.”
“People have gone to prison for far less than Mr. Pritzker has committed,” Rauner said. “Simple fact is four of my nine predecessors have went to jail. Mr. Pritzker has a very good chance of being number five.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Pritzker scoffed.
Later in the debate, Pritzker pulled back the curtain ever so slightly on his push for a new income tax structure to replace Illinois’ existing 4.95 percent rate for individuals. He has proposed different tax rates that would make wealthy Illinoisans pay more than they do now, but he’s refused to outline how high his rates would go or how different people would fare under his plan.
For the first time, he offered a glimpse.
Asked how a teacher in Peoria earning $51,481 would fare under the income tax structure he envisions, Pritzker responded, “That teacher ought to get a tax break.”
But when pressed what specific tax rate that teacher would pay and whether it would be less than the current 4.95 percent rate, Pritzker wouldn’t answer.