Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner called a Daily Herald and ABC 7 candidate forum a "beat up Brucey" day after his three primary election opponents tried to question whether he could carry the GOP's hopes to win the Illinois governor's office for the first time in a decade.
Rauner, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford are racing toward the March 18 primary election and a shot at Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in November. On Thursday, they appeared together for the first time this year to give their views on business and economic issues -- and to take swipes, mostly at Rauner.
On the issuesState Sen. Bill Brady, state Sen. Kirk Dillard, Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford, all vying for the Republican nomination for governor, spoke to business leaders Thursday at a forum sponsored by the Daily Herald, ABC 7 and the Daily Herald Business Ledger. Here's where they stand on key issues:
Infrastructure: Business leaders need roads and bridges to move their goods and people, and the state's spending in that area is dropping off soon. Paying for a new plan could be hard. Dillard proposes using the sales tax on gasoline to pay for new projects. Brady says the state needs to have smaller proposals approved every year, instead of huge ones every few years. Rutherford mentioned taxing drivers by the mileage they go, not by the gallons of gas they use. And Rauner wants to prioritize money from other areas and negotiate partnerships with companies.
Pensions: Business groups have called for cuts to public worker pension benefits to help get the state's budget deficits under control. Brady was the only one to vote for a massive package of benefits approved by lawmakers last month. Rutherford says it was unconstitutional. Dillard agrees and objected to the relatively short amount of time lawmakers were given to digest the proposal before having to vote. Rauner wants public workers' future retirement benefits moved into 401(k)-style plans.
Minimum wage: Rauner's conflicting comments have raised the issue. After indicating he favored dropping the rate, Rauner says he now supports keeping the state's $8.25 rate, raising it only if it comes with a package of business reforms. Rutherford supports the current wage, and Brady wants a moratorium on raising it until the federal $7.25 wage catches up. Dillard voted for the last minimum wage hike in 2006 and doesn't support changing it now.
Tax incentives for businesses: All four say the state has to improve its economic climate via lower taxes so lawmakers won't have to craft tax deals for companies like Sears and Office Depot to try to keep them to stay. Rutherford says he'll put his running mate to work on the issue if elected.
At the forum in Mount Prospect, Dillard attacked Rauner for his conflicting minimum wage comments and his efforts to get his daughter into an elite Chicago high school.
Dillard argued a Rauner nomination would cause a "constant drip, drip, drip of questions that I think will wash away in a flood any chance our party has" in November.
Rauner shot back that the attacks aimed his way were a result of his position outside state politics as he runs against three candidates with deep histories in Illinois government.
"If it's going to be beat-up Bruce time, could I go last?" Rauner said as the candidates took turns answering questions at the forum.
"The reason I'm being attacked is I've got a message that's resonating with the voters," he said.
Brady argued Rauner isn't ready for a prime-time statewide election, saying he didn't know the difference between playing quarterback for a high school team and Notre Dame University.
"You can't advertise your way out of it, Bruce," Brady said. Rauner has raised millions of dollars for the race -- more than his opponents -- and has blanketed the state with TV ads.
But Rauner later hit Brady with his 2010 loss to the candidates' common enemy, Gov. Quinn.
"You lost to the worst governor in America, and we've gotten a mess as a result," Rauner said.
Rutherford pointed to his victory for state treasurer in 2010, saying he's the only candidate who has won a difficult statewide general election.
Rutherford lashed out at Rauner for suggesting the treasurer had been "AWOL" during negotiations about cuts to public employee pension benefits, unlike treasurers in other states.
"I'm not going to put up with this, Bruce," Rutherford said. "Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island has a different role as treasurer than the investment officer of Illinois."
And Rauner had to answer questions from his opponents about his investment firm's ties to former Rod Blagojevich insider Stuart Levine.
Levine, a star witness at the Democratic former governor's criminal trial, worked for a company that was acquired by Rauner's firm.
"This guy Levine, I don't know. I never met him. I've never interacted with him," Rauner said.
Most of the issue questions at the forum focused on business concerns, including the minimum wage debate that has gripped the governor's race for the last week.
Rauner said in December he'd like to use the federal minimum wage, which is $1 less than Illinois' rate. Later, he said he doesn't favor lowering Illinois' wage.
"The minimum wage is a double-edged sword, and we need to be thoughtful about it," Rauner said.
Brady, Dillard and Rutherford favor keeping the state's $8.25 minimum wage where it is, and both Brady and Dillard pounced on Rauner's inconsistency.
Quinn has already tried making minimum wage a focus of the 2014 campaign, saying he wants to try to raise Illinois' to at least $10 per hour and comparing the four Republican candidates to miserly power plant owner C. Montgomery Burns from "The Simpsons."
As Illinois' unemployment rate remains above the national average and questions about state taxes will linger this year, voters might look to economic issues to distinguish the crop of candidates.
Three of the four Republicans opposed cuts to public workers' pensions approved by lawmakers last month.
Dillard said lawmakers didn't have enough time to digest the deal, struck over Thanksgiving weekend, to vote for it.
Brady, the only supporter, said lawmakers are paid to read bills and could have understood an issue that had lingered in Springfield for months.
Rutherford says the plan is unconstitutional, and Rauner continued his effort to make villains of public employee unions.
"That bill was a Band-Aid on an open wound," Rauner said.
Forum: Rauner calls Quinn 'the worst governor in America'