SPRINGFIELD — Democrats running for Illinois governor largely avoided sparring with each other in a debate Wednesday, focusing their ire on Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's record on the budget and infrastructure and on President Donald Trump's first year in office.
Presumed front-runner J.B. Pritzker and state Sen. Daniel Biss, whose middle-class populist approach has gained him ground, traded the expected jabs over issues such as each one's past actions to address the state's deep pension debt, a back-and-forth resulting from a question about relations with state workers which drew an angry demand from candidate Bob Daiber that candidates answer the question asked.
Chris Kennedy, often mentioned along with Pritzker and Biss as a top contender, missed the debate at the University of Illinois at Springfield after his physician advised against travel due to a recent back injury.
The primary is March 20. On the GOP side, Rauner faces a challenge from state legislator Jeanne Ives.
Last week's school massacre in Parkland, Florida, prompted Pritzker to call for a ban on assault-style weapons, bump stocks and high-capacity magazines.
Meanwhile, Daiber, an educator from the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, advocated buzzer-activated access to schools and high-tech window film to prevent them from being shot out. Anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman pledged to work with federal and state law enforcement agencies to stem the flow of illegal weapons from other states.
But several candidates, including Pritzker and Biss, singled out Rauner, blaming him for a three-year budget stalemate that decimated programs for mental health treatment and other social services.
"Bruce Rauner has been unwilling to stand up and fund human services that people rely on for help," Pritzker said, "and without them, people become desperate."
Pritzker took the brunt of criticism from the other candidates because he has not said whether long-term House Speaker Michael Madigan, also the Illinois Democratic Party chairman, should step aside over his handling of two cases of campaign workers accused by women of sexual harassment.
"He's lost my faith in his ability to lead the party and ... he's been there too long, he has too much power," said Biss, claiming Pritzker didn't mention the issue publicly for days because he was awaiting permission from Madigan, the longest-serving state House speaker in the nation's history.
Pritzker said an independent investigation that Madigan has approved will identify where blame should fall. He labeled Biss' claim "utterly ridiculous," contending Biss was first elected to office in 2011 with Madigan's help and has taken "tens of thousands of dollars" from Madigan-controlled campaign committees and "from Springfield insiders, bankers and lobbyists."
Daiber called the dust-up "political nonsense" and touted his ability to negotiate with adverse parties.
"There's not going to be an independent investigation of this guy. He's going to be there," Daiber said.
The candidates ridiculed the governor's handling of repeated outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease since 2015 at the Illinois Veterans' Home in Quincy, which has led to the deaths of 13 residents and sickened dozens more. Candidates accused Rauner of being bereft of vigilance and accountability. Biss promised an honest budget "with adequate resources to do the job the state has a moral responsibility to do."
Pritzker said a new, safe residence should be provided at Quincy and criticized Rauner for halting — "because of politics" — progress on a new veterans' home in Chicago.
Robert Marshall, a physician from suburban Chicago, said he would boost state finances by legalizing and taxing marijuana cultivation, approving a land-based gambling casino in Chicago, and installing tolls on the state's 15 interstate-highway entrances "so that the out-of-staters would pay."
Asked how each would deal with Trump and whether it's polite to criticize him publicly, Pritzker, a long-time supporter of Hillary Clinton, said "I've been standing up to him for two years now." He also ripped Rauner, who has rarely mentioned Trump's name in public.
Hardiman said he has no trouble calling out Trump. Biss agreed.
"Many, many states across the country have been leading the resistance to Trump and his stands on women's rights, LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, environmental protection and health care, and Illinois has been silent," Biss said.
Daiber took a more pragmatic approach. "I'm not going to shut the door on any president, like him or not," Daiber said. "When you sit at the table, you talk about issues, you talk about how to compromise."