Rauner, Pritzker go head to head

Top two candidates go at it in second debate, with incumbent showing an air of desperation

 Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker went head to head in the second of three scheduled debates for television. (WLS-TV)

Gov. Bruce Rauner and J.B. Pritzker went head to head in the second of three scheduled debates for television. (WLS-TV)

By Ted Cox

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker went head to head in the second of three televised debates Wednesday at WLS-TV in Chicago.

Polls dictated that Libertarian Party candidate Grayson “Kash” Jackson and state Sen. Sam McCann of the Conservative Party were not invited, as WLS-TV, Univision Chicago, and the League of Women Voters of Illinois Education Fund set a 10 percent threshold of support for the candidates to qualify, and they didn’t make it.

But polls also dictated tactics for Rauner, down 22 percentage points to Pritzker, and a combative governor pounded his “two issues: taxes and corruption,” and persistently interrupted the Democrat in his answers to questions.

“The city of Chicago has been determined to be the most corrupt city in America, and Mr. Pritzker is a fundamental part of that corruption,” Rauner said, repeatedly trying to link Pritzker to House Speaker Michael Madigan as his “puppetmaster,” a timeworn political tactic to divide the state politically.

Pritzker, however, brushed it off as the tactics of desperation, and otherwise more than held his own on the issues.

On the opening question concerning the repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease at the Illinois Veterans Home in Quincy, Pritzker charged, “This was a cover-up all along.”

Rauner tried to explain that, because Legionnaires’ disease is not passed from person to person, it was all right not to immediately inform the public about it.

“It is not about notifying a community or a region or a neighborhood,” he said, and tried to turn the tables on Pritzker, saying, “Shame on you for politicizing the health challenges of our veterans.”

When Pritzker brought up Sterigenics and its connection to higher cancer rates in Willowbrook and surrounding suburbs west of Chicago, again Rauner could only respond that his opponent was “politicizing” people’s pain.

Rauner denied having an ownership stake in the company, saying, “I do not have any economic interest in that company whatsoever.” He allowed that an investment company of his had an ownership stake, but insisted he had divested in Sterigenics in May 2015.

Pritzker pointed out that didn’t explain why Rauner’s Illinois Environmental Protection Agency had dragged its feet on investigations into Sterigenics and initially refused to turn over data on its emissions to Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

“You should have acted,” Pritzker said. “It was an emergency. You said, oh, it wasn't an emergency, not a health crisis.”

On taxes, Rauner’s other pet issue, Pritzker said Illinois has “the most unfair tax system in the nation,” and forced Rauner to defend it.

Rauner repeated lies that a progressive tax would by definition lead to higher taxes for middle-class families, saying, “It’s a green light to raise taxes on everyone,” then tried to turn the issue personal with Pritzker, saying, “He has cheated on his taxes.”

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“It’s a green light to raise taxes on everyone.”

Gov. Bruce Rauner on a graduated tax system

“You’re lying,” Pritzker responded. “You’re not telling the truth.”

Rauner predicted “a giant sucking sound” as businesses went down the drain or left the state from higher taxes, but Pritzker countered, “I really believe that this is about standing up for the working families of Illinois and asking those who can most afford it to step up to the plate.”

WLS news anchor Alan Kreshesky pointedly asked the two billionaires, “Have politics become the rich person’s sport?”

Pritzker pointed out that Rauner had vastly outspent Gov. Pat Quinn in the last election, and said of his own substantial contribution to his own campaign: “Illinois is worth it to wrest control of this state from Bruce Rauner and the Koch brothers’ right-wing network and their desire to lower wages for working families in this state.”

Rauner again got personal, saying of Pritzker: “If he wasn’t a trust-fund baby, he would be nothing.”

Pritzker could get personal, too, suggesting that “Gov. Rauner, in his business, he fired people to make money, to make a bigger profit.”

Rauner pointed to how Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard had found that the Pritzkers had engaged in a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers when removing toilets from a mansion to get a lower tax rate on it as uninhabitable.

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“I really believe that this is about standing up for the working families of Illinois and asking those who can most afford it to step up to the plate.”

J.B. Pritzker on a graduated tax system

“This is white-collar crime,” he said after the debate. “This is serious, serious as a heart attack.”

Yet Pritzker said the tactic was legal and “we followed the rules,” even as he has agreed to repay the $330,000 tax break.

“The governor wants to make an issue out of this, I know,” Pritzker said afterward, “but that’s because he’s desperate. We’re in the final days of a campaign. He’s losing, and he’s looking for anything to attack with.”

On issues from pensions to guns, Rauner insisted, “The only solution is to grow our economy faster than government spending,” and “the best answer to fight a gun is a job.”

But Pritzker pointed to how Rauner’s two-year budget impasse had hurt state colleges and driven Illinois students out of state, adding, “Most of the kids who leave the state to got to school, they don’t come back.” He said his progressive tax was key to funding education, saying, “We need to step up to the plate and pay for schools.”

While Rauner pleaded for another term to get it right, Pritzker pointed to his “unwillingness to work with people” and said re-electing Rauner would only set the stage for more government gridlock.

The gubernatorial candidates will debate again next Thursday in Quincy ahead of the Nov. 6 general election.

Zachary Sigelko of One Illinois put together the two candidates’ comments as they spoke separately in a post mortem session with the media after their first head-to-head debate.

Ted Cox