Tuesday, February 18, 2014

GOP candidates square off
during Springfield debate

By Jamey Dunn

Republican candidates for governor traded barbs at tonight’s debate but avoided attacking state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, who has been battling sexual harassment allegations.

Hinsdale Sen. Kirk Dillard was the most aggressive when it came to criticizing his opponents. When candidates were given an opportunity at the end of the debate to make clarifications, Dillard took the time to list why he believes the other Republicans would not do well in the general election. He brought up venture capitalist Bruce Rauner’s business connections to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s crony, Stuart Levine, who is currently serving time in federal prison. Levine was a key witness for the feds in the case against Blagojevich and others charged with political corruption. He received a shortened sentence as part of a plea deal.

“He’s very very much someone with a pattern of pay-to-play politics in his personal, professional and political life,” Dillard said of Rauner after the debate at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield. Dillard also noted Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady’s very conservative social views and a recent story calling into question whether Brady took a vote on a tax issue that benefited members of his family. “I only bring up things that have been on the front page of statewide newspapers,” Dillard said when asked by reporters about going on the offensive.

Brady reaffirmed during the debate that he does not support abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, and that he does support allowing school districts to opt to teach creationism. But he said those issues are not the focus of his campaign. He also said that as governor, he would not have the power to end abortion in the state. “I do also realize there’s something called the U.S. Constitution,” Brady said “No governor in this country can eliminate a women’s right to choose, but I am not going to back away from my pro-life beliefs. I believe government has an obligation to protect innocent human life.”

After the debate, Brady dismissed Dillard’s negative comments as “desperate.” “He’s at the bottom of the polls. He’s got a fledgling campaign that’s just not getting off the ground, and he’s going to try to bring up things whether they make sense or not,” Brady said.

While Brady and Dillard were critical of each other and Rauner, they avoided beating up on Rutherford, who is facing a harassment lawsuit. Edmund Michalowski, who worked for Rutherford from 2011 until he resigned this month, is suing Rutherford and his chief of staff, Kyle Ham. Michalowski alleges that both men pressured him to do campaign work on state time, including fundraising for Rutherford. He also claims that Rutherford sexually harassed him by groping him and offering him advancement for sex. Rutherford has denied all the allegations and called into question some of the timeline presented in the case. He has also accused Rauner of being behind the allegations, which come at a politically inconvenient time for Rutherford. However, Rutherford, who is from Chenoa, said during the debate that he has no proof that Rauner is involved.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Brady said after the debate. “If Dan Rutherford‘s innocent, this is a bizarre and terrible situation. If he’s not innocent, it’s a bizarre and terrible situation.”

Rauner, who is leading in the polls, refrained from going negative and generally ignored the comments that his opponents made.

In a segment of the debate that ran counter to many conservative talking points, three of the candidates spoke positively about public employee unions. “Illinois is not Indiana. We’re not Wisconsin. We are a state that has a proud organized-labor history,” Dillard said. The Illinois Education Association, a teacher’s union, recently endorsed Dillard. He noted that endorsement during tonight’s debate. Dillard said the way to get fair deals with unions is to talk with them, not to “demonize” them.

 “Certainly public and private sector unions have done a lot to assist in enhancing the quality of life for the people they represent,” Brady said. “They’ve been a pillar of our country, and they’ve been important to us.” Brady said that unions “provide for” the “skilled workforce” that is needed to run state government.

“I happen to believe in the right to collectively bargain, both in the private sector and in public sector,” Rutherford said. Dillard, Brady and Rutherford all agreed that as the percentage of union employees has grown, some jobs in state government have been unionized that should not be.

The venue of the forum may have been a factor in the praise. According to statistics from the city of Springfield, state government is the largest employer in the city by far. In fact, the state workforce has nearly as many Springfield residents as the rest of the top nine largest employers in the area.

Rauner, who frequently derides “union bosses” in his campaign ads, said, “I’m not against the existence of government unions, but workers should be free to choose whether to be in a union or not.” But Rauner also said: “When a government union boss has power with taxpayer-funded union dues to influence politicians through campaign cash and campaign workers that are free but actually paid or by taxpayers ... it’s a conflict of interest, and it’s a corrupting influence. And the result of it is, spending goes up, taxes go up and businesses leave our state.”

Rauner, who is from Winnetka, was the only of the four who did not stick around to talk to reporters after the debate. Rutherford fielded questions about his legal troubles. Most of the queries pertained to why he would not release the results of an independent investigation he initiated when he first went public with the fact that he was being accused of improper behavior by an employee. The treasurer vowed to make the findings of the investigation public but then did not because he said his lawyers advised him not to as long as he is the subject of a federal lawsuit. “I am absolutely not frightened,” Rutherford said of the findings of the investigation. However, he says that neither he nor his campaign advisers have read the report. “I have not read. I have not asked for it. No, I am not going to read the report right now.” He admitted that the suit has cast a shadow over his bid for governor. “I will say that our candidacy has a challenge, and I understand that. I would be better off, I believe, if this report was released.”

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