SPRINGFIELD — The latest Democratic gubernatorial debate turned into a clash between state Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, and billionaire J.B. Pritzker on everything from loyalty to House Speaker Michael Madigan to their records on pensions.
The debate, held Wednesday evening at the University of Illinois Springfield, reflected the increasingly tense contest between the longtime frontrunner, Pritzker, and one of his two closest competitors, Biss, with the primary just one month away.
And with businessman Chris Kennedy unable to attend Wednesday's event due to a back injury, it was the aforementioned candidates taking each other on, along with lesser-known candidates Bob Daiber, Tio Hardiman and Robert Marshall III.
A major cloud hanging over the event was the sexual harassment scandal playing out in organizations under Madigan's control. Biss repeated his call for Madigan to step down as state Democratic Party chairman while upping his criticism of Pritzker, widely perceived to be getting behind-the-scenes help from the powerful House speaker, for his initial reluctance to criticize Madigan by name.
“It took J.B. Pritzker a week to get permission from Mike Madigan to even name him in talking about the sexual harassment coverup,” Biss said. “We need someone with independence, and I'm that candidate.”
Biss played up the anti-establishment themes of his campaign by associating Pritzker with Madigan at every turn, going as far as to say that “there's a Pritzker-Madigan wing of the Democratic Party and there's the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that I'm a part of.”
Pritzker, responding to Biss’ criticism, essentially called the state senator a hypocrite for accepting financial support from Madigan in the past while running a super PAC in 2016 that was funded heavily by Madigan allies.
Despite not doing so in his initial statement on the sexual harassment controversy, Pritzker did call out Madigan by name at the debate.
"We need to make sure that there is a fully independent investigation, something that is totally independent of Speaker Madigan's operation and Speaker Madigan himself,” Pritzker said. “We need to make sure that we stand up for the women who come forward in workplaces across the state of Illinois and, in (running mate) Juliana Stratton and my administration, there will be a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment.”
On the Madigan question, Hardiman called for term limits to prevent politicians like Madigan from accumulating so much power. Marshall said Madigan should step down as both party chair and speaker while also using the occasion to tout his plan to break Illinois into three different states.
Daiber, the only downstate candidate in the race, said “don’t be fooled” since Madigan is likely not going anywhere, there probably will not be an independent investigation, and therefore, the next governor will have to deal with him.
“When I become governor, Mike Madigan is going to sit across the table from me and we're going to get along with the business of the state of Illinois,” said Daiber, the regional school superintendent in Madison County.
Another area of contention for the candidates was pensions, an issue prompted by a question on how each candidate would deal with state workers, who have had a rocky relationship with several past governors.
Pritzker criticized Biss for voting for the 2013 pension reform legislation that was later declared unconstitutional by the Illinois Supreme Court, saying it contradicts his "middle class" governor narrative.
“Dan Biss introduced a bill that took pensions away from 450,000 workers across the state, including teachers and nurses. And I don’t think that’s good for the middle class,” Pritzker said. “It’s a contract we make with those folks, and it’s time we stand up to the plate and pay what’s owed to them.”
Biss said the vote was a mistake that he has since learned from, but shot back at Pritzker for donating money to a political action committee that also received contributions from Gov. Bruce Rauner and that pushed the pension reform bill.
“I was a legislator in early 2011 when there was a huge budget crisis,” Biss said. “I was trying my best and fell for a false choice on what this problem was. I’ve learned that lesson, and that lesson is visible in my voting record for years since that time.”
However, when it came to other issues, most of the candidates were in varying degrees of agreement.
Every candidate called out Rauner’s handling of the Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the Illinois Veterans' Home in Quincy, with Biss calling it a “moral failure” and Pritzker deeming it “fatal mismanagement,” adding that veterans should be moved out of the facility while the water pipes are replaced.
When prompted, all of the candidates piled on President Donald Trump, with Marshall urging Democrats to vote out Republicans up and down the ballot.
On healthcare, Pritzker proposed a public option to compete with private insurance, while Biss called for nothing short of a single-payer system.
Regardless of the agreement, candidates noted the clash between Pritzker and Biss was distracting from many issues.
“I do not want this party damaged by a scandal or people bad mouthing the party, and I think that’s what I see going on with candidates,” Daiber said.
Hardiman called for more calm.
“Blessed are the peace makers, and I come from field of peace making. I refuse to go back and forth with people and bash people,” he said. “Because where I come from, when men have a disagreement you go to the back room and you work it out there, and you come back out front on the same accord to some degree.”
The next debate among the candidates will be televised by WLS-TV in Chicago on March 2. The only other downstate debate, which was to be aired on WCIA-TV in Champaign, was canceled after Pritzker declined to appear.
The winner of the Democratic primary on March 20 will go on to face the winner of the Republican primary — Rauner or state Rep. Jeanne Ives — in the November general election.
Watch the debate here, or at this link: