With his focus on term limits and "union bosses" in Springfield, Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner has tried to make his Republican primary campaign for governor a referendum on often-maligned state government.
But his opponents, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa, are trying to counter with their experience in state politics, arguing it takes someone who already sports the cuts and bruises of government battles to be a Republican executive in a Capitol controlled by Democrats.
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The battle over independence and experience is set to play out until the March 18 primary and was on display at a forum last week sponsored by the Daily Herald, ABC 7 and the Daily Herald Business Ledger.
"We've got one of the most corrupt legislatures in America, and I'm sick and tired of it," Rauner said. "I ain't a politician."
The Illinois General Assembly counts Dillard and Brady as members and Rutherford as an alumnus.
"I want eight years and out for everybody in Springfield," Rauner said at the forum.
All three had retorts, needling Rauner over his wealth, campaign inexperience and lack of elective office on his resume.
From Dillard: "I think that the state has a history of not electing people who somehow appear out of touch. And I'm not putting down Mr. Rauner's incredible wealth. But there will be questions about how he uses his money."
From Brady: "Bruce, to be candid with you, you don't know the difference between running quarterback for Joliet Catholic (high school) and Notre Dame."
From Rutherford: "If I was king of the forest, things would be different. But a governor is not king of the forest. You have to work with people to bring about a consensus."
The difficulty governors can have compromising with lawmakers has been on display in recent Illinois history. Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich criticized lawmakers for spending like "drunken sailors" and couldn't earn enough trust from them to get the massive construction spending plan he craved.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn last year cut off lawmakers' pay because they hadn't yet sent him legislation to cut public workers' pensions. They eventually prevailed in court and Quinn got his legislation but not without quiet -- and sometimes public -- grumbling from the unpaid officials.
Still, if voters' frustration with state politics leads them to a name they've not seen on ballots before, Rauner could be their candidate. And he's spending money on television ads before his opponents have had a chance to catch up.
"He'll shake things up in Springfield," one spot says as Rauner sips on a milkshake.
The other candidates have shot back, accusing Rauner of trying to buy the election and poking fun at the ads' "hammer and shake" theme.
"I'm going to have a relationship, not a hammer and shake relationship, with the members of the General Assembly," Rutherford said.
Trying to push back against Rauner's outsider message by calling him an insider, Dillard and Brady have pressed Rauner over his investment firm's ties to Blagojevich trial star witness Stuart Levine, Rauner's friendship with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his efforts to get his daughter into an elite Chicago school.
"Bruce Rauner is the ultimate insider," Dillard said right after the candidates forum. "I think normal people don't pick up the phone and call the secretary of education to get their daughter into the most exclusive public high school."
The winner of the March primary likely will face Quinn in the fall, and despite his criticism of lawmakers, Rauner briefly acknowledged at the forum he'd have to play ball if elected, calling working with them a "priority."
"I'm a consensus builder. I'm a salesman. I'm a deal-doer." Rauner said.