Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard Tuesday defended his endorsement by the state's biggest teachers union and hit back against what he called Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner's efforts to "demonize" them at a debate in Springfield.
"Unions are not inherently bad," said Dillard, of Hinsdale.
The debate among the four candidates for the GOP nomination for governor was the first since Dillard picked up the Illinois Education Association's endorsement.
The endorsement is a controversial and divisive badge among conservatives, especially as Rauner has crafted a campaign around criticizing "government union bosses."
"It's a conflict of interest, and it's a corrupting influence," Rauner said.
Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa and state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington also took aim at Rauner on the issue. Rauner has called public employee unions "immoral," a label Rutherford called "inappropriate."
Brady was more harsh.
"I think it's abusive to use the word 'immoral,'" Brady said.
There's a month to go before the March 18 primary, and as Rauner has dominated the airwaves with advertising, debates can be a key way for the other candidates to get their messages out. They're set to meet in at least three more Chicago-area debates starting next week.
In the last few weeks, the race has been dominated by sexual harassment allegations against Rutherford made by a former employee. Tuesday, Rutherford said he wants to make a taxpayer-funded independent investigation into the matter public but has been rebuffed by his lawyer.
It's unclear whether the report will come out before voters make their picks. Early voting in the primary starts March 3.
Rutherford said after the debate he hasn't seen the report and doesn't know whether it could be damaging to him.
"I would very much like them to see," Rutherford said of voters.
On social issues, Dillard said that, if elected, he has "no plans to modify" the law allowing same-sex marriage he voted against. Brady affirmed his belief local school boards should be able to allow their teachers to teach creation lessons.
"School boards should be able to teach what they want to teach," Brady said.
Dillard criticized Brady over a prominent 2010 campaign issue: legislation Brady introduced after the primary that would have legalized the mass euthanasia of animals in gas chambers.
Tuesday's debate was televised downstate, where in 2010, Brady swept through counties with large margins of support, netting him a primary victory over Dillard by fewer than 200 votes.
Illinois' complex political geography may not play the same starring role in the 2014 election, but the candidates were aware of the downstate audience for Tuesday's event, promising to live in the governor's mansion in Springfield and talking about keeping more state jobs in the capital city.