SPRINGFIELD -- The GOP candidate for Illinois governor broadened his criticism of state agriculture officials Wednesday, saying the department was "full of cronyism" and has "folks running things that generally don't have much expertise."
Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner's statements at a forum coordinated by the Illinois Farm Bureau featuring candidates for governor and U.S. Senate follow comments earlier this month that the agency's director "must have agriculture experience" -- a shot at Agriculture Director Bob Flider, a former Democratic lawmaker who was named to the post after he lost a 2010 re-election race for the Illinois House. Flider had voted, as a lame duck in the House, for Quinn's 67 percent income-tax increase after earlier opposing it.
"The Department of Agriculture has been decimated," Rauner said. "A lot of the folks with deep expertise have left and been replaced by folks who have been there for other reasons."
When pressed on specifics, the Rauner campaign pointed to the department's employment of Shayna Cherry, a former Illinois Department of Transportation employee whose father is an attorney with ties to top Democrats, including Tony Rezko, a former adviser and fundraiser to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Rezko, like Blagojevich, is serving a sentence in federal prison.
Brooke Anderson, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's campaign, responded for the Department of Agriculture. She said it was "false and rather sad that Mr. Rauner would attack a young woman staffer who is doing an excellent job for the state of Illinois."
Cherry didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
Rauner, Anderson added, "is the only one familiar with cronyism and corruption in this race."
Two of Rauner's former business associates were indicted on federal charges earlier this month.
If elected, Rauner pledged to infuse the department with "farmers and farm experts." The self-portrayed government outsider in the nationally watched race stressed the importance of rotating the state's political "crops" and ending Democrats' one-party rule in Springfield.
Quinn, who spoke during a separate, one-hour time slot at the event at a Bloomington farm, used the forum as an opportunity to tout agricultural achievements under his governorship and pledge to increase funding for the agency, juxtaposing himself with Rauner's promise to return Illinois to a 3 percent income tax rate for individuals within four years, down from its current 5 percent.
Once fully rolled back, the move would create an $8 billion annual hole in the budget, the Quinn campaign has said.
"The idea that you pull back and starve a particular agency, not have proper personnel there, that is a very bad formula for success," Quinn said. "Nobody likes paying taxes, I certainly don't. But if you have candidates running for governor that say you can cut the budget by $8 billion, don't expect to have good schools, a well-funded department of agriculture."
Quinn and Rauner are both scheduled to appear at another forum on Thursday in Chicago, hosted by the Metropolitan Planning Council. As on Wednesday, they're both scheduled to address the crowd, but won't face