Pritzker: 'We are one Illinois'

In Quincy debate, Democrat counters Rauner’s divisiveness with message of statewide unity and optimism

J.B. Pritzker looks askance at Gov. Bruce Rauner in their third and final televised debate in Quincy. (WGEM-TV)

J.B. Pritzker looks askance at Gov. Bruce Rauner in their third and final televised debate in Quincy. (WGEM-TV)

By Ted Cox

Bruce Rauner charged his challenger with dodging questions as well as taxes, but J.B. Pritzker lashed back that the Illinois governor was actually living in “a state of denial” in their third and final televised debate Thursday night ahead of the Nov. 6 election.

Their head-to-head debate on WGEM-TV in Quincy was their only one taking place outside of Chicago, but was streamed live online.

Rauner stuck to his favorite lines of attack against Pritzker, about taxes, corruption, and the “Chicago political machine,” but Pritzker found a new counterattack, charging that the governor was persistently “bad-mouthing” the state and pitting Illinoisans against one another. In his closing statement, he said, “We are one Illinois.”

And he got off the best line of the night. When Rauner said he wanted “the biggest capital bill in Illinois history” to bolster infrastructure, but that he’d pay for it with federal funding, public-private partnerships, and expanded gambling, Pritzker said, “He’s living in a state of denial. The rest of us are living in the state of Illinois.”

He’s living in a state of denial. The rest of us are living in the state of Illinois.
— J.B. Pritzker

When Pritzker remained consistent on refusing to set figures for a progressive income tax, saying it had to be negotiated between Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly and put to a public referendum, Rauner said, “Mr. Pritzker dodges questions like he dodges his taxes,” a reference to the $330,000 tax break Pritzker earned on a mansion.

But Pritzker too was ready for Rauner’s rote attack, calling it “a desperate rant from a failed governor,” and adding, “He’s got nothing else, just lies and excuses.”

Rauner appeared to be knocked off balance with the opening question, even though it was one he should have expected in Quincy: on the repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans Home.

“I am sorry for your loss. It is deeply painful,” he told families of the more than a dozen people who died there. “No one’s perfect,” he added, while insisting that replacement of the entire plumbing system was underway.

He attacked the “so-called criminal investigation” opened by Attorney General Lisa Madigan on the matter as “a political ploy,” a “shameful abuse of power,” and “a sham,” charging Pritzker with “politicization of the suffering of our veterans.” But Pritzker only said that he was “absolutely” committed to “finishing the job” in renovating the home and keeping it in Quincy.

“The voters can in no way trust Mr. Pritzker on any issue,” Rauner said, a charge Pritzker brushed off as “just ridiculous” and later “just desperate.”

Pritzker came loaded with a response as well, calling it “the height of corruption” when Rauner “put your personal and your business and your political interests above the interests of the people of the state of Illinois,” as at the Illinois Veterans Home and in Rauner’s part ownership of the Sterigenics firm causing a “cancer cluster” in Willowbrook and surrounding suburbs west of Chicago.

On President Trump’s trade wars, which have caused Illinois farmers to see prices drop and income lost to retaliatory tariffs, Rauner granted, “Our farmers got hurt by tariff wars,” but defended Trump’s attack on “unfair trade deals.” He again tried to separate Illinois into downstate and Chicago, saying Pritzker and House Speaker Michael Madigan “care nothing about farmers. They care about Chicago.”

“It’s hard to call out all the lies in that soliloquy,” Pritzker replied, adding, “Our soybean farmers are being harmed.”

Instead, Pritzker repeatedly attacked Rauner’s divide-and-conquer politics, saying, “You also don’t need a governor who’s bad-mouthing the state every day.” He had that message prepared for his closing statement, saying, “Illinois is and can be so much better than it has been over the last four years, whether you live here in Quincy or in Carbondale, Peoria, or Rockford. I think you want a governor who's fighting for you every day, not trying to pit one part of the state against another. In fact, we are one Illinois, so I will be a governor who wakes up every single day fighting to lower the cost of health care for you, making college more affordable, raising wages, and creating jobs.”

By contrast, in his closing statement, Rauner decried “a center of government concentrated in Chicago that doesn't care about central Illinois, western Illinois, or southern Illinois.”

Mr. Pritzker dodges questions like he dodges his taxes.
— Gov. Bruce Rauner

They clashed on business interests, with Rauner saying, “We are hostile on taxes and regulation,” and predicting an imminent “sound of businesses getting flushed down the drain.” He said he’d raise the minimum wage, but only if combined with business deregulation.

Pritzker countered by saying the minimum wage could be raised to $15 an hour, combined with tax credits to protect small businesses. On education funding, he said the state would actually save money by instituting preschool education, which would produce school efficiency down the road, and he suggested raising money by legalizing marijuana — at an estimated gain of $700 million — and “we also should look at sports betting in this state.”

Rauner said business interests were “petrified” by Pritzker, but the Democrat immediately responded, “They’re petrified by the instability you brought to this state.”

Pritzker pointed to how Illinois lost 72,000 college students to the instability in higher education brought on by Rauner’s two-year budget impasse with the General Assembly, and that research shows 70 percent of those students don’t return to Illinois.

Rauner indulged in a few outright lies, calling it “baloney” that state Sen. Andy Manar of Bunker Hill had led the way on reforming the state school funding formula — a bill he sponsored — and saying that workers in Wisconsin earn more than those in Illinois — proven just the opposite in a recent Midwest Economic Policy Institute study. He repeated what the Better Government Association said was a lie: that the middle class would be “crushed” by a progressive tax system.

And he repeated his line from earlier this week blaming “illegal immigration” for causing the unemployment that led to increased gun violence in Chicago, Peoria, Springfield, and other urban centers, in that “violence gets driven by unemployment.” Pritzker countered by saying that Rauner’s cuts to mental-health centers, substance-abuse treatment, and, yes, job-training programs had led to the unemployment that prompted gun violence.

Pritzker also slipped in that he would work to bring “high-speed broadband everywhere in the state of Illinois,” calling it a key to economic development.

According to WGEM-TV’s Gene Kennedy, fringe candidates Grayson “Kash” Jackson of the Libertarian Party and state Sen. Sam McCann of the Conservative Party did not meet the minimum polling support to qualify for the debate.

The election now goes to voters across Illinois to be decided on Nov. 6.