In the first televised gubernatorial debate of the fall campaign season, the common goal among the four candidates who shared a stage Thursday wasn’t so much solving Illinois’ fiscal problems.
Instead, it seemed all about proving who was the biggest liar.
In the role of underdog, incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner slashed his way through the hour-long NBC5/Telemundo Chicago debate, accusing Democrat J.B. Pritzker of wanting to raise taxes, questioning his character and saying he was unqualified to hold office.
To many of the attacks, Pritzker hit back at Rauner for lying, and the Democrat excoriated the governor for his role in a two-year budget impasse that crippled the state’s social-service safety net and gutted universities.
Conservative Party candidate Sam McCann and Libertarian Party candidate Grayson Kash Jackson played the role of spoilers in the debate, with McCann also characterizing Rauner as a liar.
Amid all the scattershot, here are four takeaways from what can only be described as a feisty first debate performance by those looking to lay claim to the keys of the Executive Mansion in Springfield.
Rauner the aggressor
Rauner entered Thursday’s debate looking to land a knockout blow against Pritzker, who has led the governor by 17 and 16 percentage points in two polls commissioned by Chicago television stations since late August.
Rauner hit Pritzker on his ties to longtime Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and for refusing to divulge the true financial hit that would result from Pritzker’s murkily defined call for a graduated income-tax system. Despite being pressed, Pritzker wouldn’t outline specific tax rates in his plan.
“Carol, Mr. Pritzker is dodging your question because he doesn’t want to tell the truth to the people of Illinois. He is proposing a massive new income tax hike on all of the people of our state. He doesn’t want to talk about it because the truth is so painful and politically unpopular,” Rauner said, addressing NBC5 political editor and debate moderator Carol Marin. Rauner favors keeping the state’s flat income tax.
A multimillionaire himself, Rauner also ridiculed Pritzker’s “inherited” wealth, saying the billionaire Democrat had gone through life without having “done an honest day’s work.”
Rauner’s constant barbs undoubtedly carried some sting, but they didn’t appear to result in any memorable stumbles by Pritzker that had potential to live beyond a 24-hour news cycle.
Still, Pritzker was on the defensive for much of the night. But the Democrat landed some blows of his own against Rauner, blaming the governor for the two-year budget impasse, lying about his role in the stalemate and focusing on a dearth of legislative wins.
“You’ve accomplished nearly nothing and failed as governor,” Pritzker said.
The Democrat also hit Rauner for repeatedly claiming he had safeguarded the Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy from Legionnaires’ disease, only to see new outbreaks arise. In all, 14 residents’ deaths were tied to Legionnaires’. “He lied about the Quincy veterans’ home where he covered up his fatal mismanagement,” Pritzker said.
McCann the spoiler
Sam McCann, a Republican state senator running for governor under the third-party banner of the Conservative Party, has been a political thorn in Rauner’s side for years. McCann has positioned himself politically to the right of Rauner as an opponent to abortion rights and a backer of President Donald Trump.
Conventional political strategy normally would see Rauner ignoring McCann entirely given that he’s polling a distant third in the four-way race, drawing only in the single percentage points. But the governor instead put their bad blood on public display by complaining to Marin that McCann had “been given far too much air time in this discussion.”
McCann shot back, “Get used to it, brother. Get used to it.”
Rauner then accused McCann of getting tacit financial and political support from House Speaker Madigan. The back-and-forth continued, with McCann calling the governor “a liar and a thief.” Rauner didn’t miss a beat: “Mr. McCann, are you getting paid on a per interruption basis by Madigan or in a lump sum?”
Kash Jackson's pocket change
At the end of June, Libertarian Kash Jackson reported having only $985 in his political fund. So when the focus Thursday night turned to the effects of runaway campaign spending by Pritzker and Rauner, Jackson scored the laugh of the night:
“You two gentleman spent what, $200 million to get on this stage? Who’s the fiscally minded guy? I’m spending less than $1,000 for a percent in the poll.”