Daniel BissPhoto by Genie Lemieux, Evanston Photographic Studios

On March 2, ABC Channel 7, the League of Women Voters, and Univision Chicago sponsored an hour-long debate among the six Democratic candidates for Governor. The format did not allow for much confrontation. Each candidate was asked to answer the same six or seven questions; they were each asked one question tailored for them; and they each had an opportunity to give a closing summary.

This article summarizes the questions posed and answers given by the top three candidates in the polls: J.B. Pritzker of Chicago, State Senator Daniel Biss of Evanston, and Chris Kennedy of Wilmette.

Question: Assuming the bill dealing with guns passed by the legislature on Feb. 28, becomes law, what else would you do to make schools a safer place?

Mr. Kennedy said, “We need to attack the stream of illegal guns that are coming into Illinois,” but “we also need to provide opportunity to people to be part of the American economy in the 21st century.”

Mr. Pritzker said, “Of course we need to ban assault weapons,” but “We need to fund a budget that pays for services that people need,” mentioning mental health services, homeless shelters, and substance abuse centers. He said this would reduce violence.

Sen. Biss said he has struggled to pass bills in the legislature, like the one passed on Feb. 28, but “there’s much more that needs to be done,” such as a ban on assault rifles for everyone. In addition, he said the Governor needs to work with neighboring states, recognizing the “borders are not impermeable,” and Illinois “needs to be leader for our neighboring states.”

Question: What specific policies would you put in place to encourage more women to get involved in politics?

Each candidate said there should be mandatory sexual harassment training for each State employee, and that the Governor should appoint more women to leadership roles, who would be examples for other women. Sen. Biss said he has supported changing the culture in Springfield during his terms of office there, and that, if elected, he would appoint a majority of women to leadership positions.

Question: How do you plan to bring jobs to Illinois?

Mr. Pritzker said two-thirds of the jobs in Illinois are created by small businesses, and he has a plan to help small business create jobs. He also said he believed Illinois should invest in infrastructure and higher education, and expand opportunities for agricultural products and manufacturing.

Sen. Biss said, “We need someone who understands what ordinary people need … [and] who’s going to level the playing field within the tax system that currently not only pushes middle class families out of Illinois but also makes it harder for small businessmen because we have a tax system written by big business for big corporations. We need to level the playing field when it comes to regulations and most importantly, we need to invest in the public goods – education and infrastructure – that are needed to build a vibrant, high-wage economy in the modern society.”

Mr. Kennedy said the only thing that has worked is “the power of education. Today, jobs move to where the highly educated young people are. If we give the world highly educated young people, the world will give us jobs. It’s not that hard to invest in education, and we are not doing it in Illinois.”

Question: How would you solve the budget crisis in Illinois without simply raising taxes?

Each candidate said the tax system needs to be fixed.

Sen. Biss added, “If we actually have a sustainable budget and a sane government, we will see people start to come to Illinois and invest in Illinois to grow our economy.”

When people ask how to balance the budget, he said, “they are usually talking about cutting programs, which is a mistake in an environment when we are already underfunding education and health care and human services. What we need to do instead is root out the places where the corrupt structure of Illinois government has created silos and fiefdoms inside of government,” which are controlled by people who are acting based on their “political interest and greed, instead of acting in the people’s interest.”

Mr. Kennedy said, “I think we can eliminate levels of government. I think we can eliminate specific constitutional offices and save a lot of money.”

Mr. Pritzker said, “If we create jobs, if we can attract businesses to the State of Illinois, we can bring revenues to the State without raising taxes.” He also said he favored legalizing marijuana, and taxing it.

Question to Mr. Pritzker: Can you work with Michael Madigan hand in hand, or do you believe it’s time for him to step down?

Mr. Pritzker said, “There are things I disagree with him on and things I agree with him on.” As two examples of things on which they might disagree, Mr. Pritzker said he favors imposing a time limit on how long a person can be President of the Illinois Senate or Speaker of the House, and he favors having an independent group draw maps of legislative districts and opposes gerrymandering. He said he could work with whoever was President of the Senate or Speaker of the House.

When pressed if he thought Speaker Madigan should step down, Mr. Pritzker did not give a direct answer. He said, “It took Madigan too long to follow up on the allegations that were made [concerning sexual harassment by a member of Speaker Madigan’s staff]. Mr. Pritzker said he thought the investigation needs to proceed, “including all the way up.”

Mr. Pritzker was not asked about his conversations a decade ago with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich about the possibility of a political appointment.

Question to Mr. Kennedy: How can wealthy candidates identify with a household that is earning $35,000 a year?

Mr. Kennedy said when he came to Illinois, he joined the anti-hunger movement; he served as the Chair of the Greater Chicago Food Depository; and he and his wife have founded Top Box Foods, a non-profit that delivers high-quality, affordable foods to underserved neighborhoods. “That grounds us in the lives of people for whom this economy is not working,” he said.

Question to Sen. Biss. Could you comment on your proposal to tax financial transactions on the Chicago commodities markets and exchanges, and whether that will drive business from the State?

Sen. Biss said, “I would say very simply, our economy has transformed over the last couple of generations and our tax system has not. What’s happened is our financial sector has grown and grown while the rest of the economy has shrunk, and the rest of us are overtaxed because we haven’t figured out how to tax the financial sector. Do I take those questions seriously? Yes. Am I ready to stand with anyone and to work to solve the problem in a way that works? You bet. But to say that we can’t tax the financial sectors is to say we will continue overtaxing middle-class families, and that is something I will never accept.”

Closing Summaries

Mr. Pritzker said, “I’m running for Governor because everything we care about is under siege by a racist, misogynist president in Washington, D.C., and by a local silent partner Bruce Rauner…”

Mr. Pritzker said he worked to expand federal grants for a school breakfast program for kids; he founded “1871,” a tech community that has helped to create 7,000 jobs, and chaired the Illinois Human Rights Commission, that hears claims alleging discrimination. “We need to get big things done in the State: quality education for every child, universal health care, we need to create jobs. I’m going to put Springfield back on the side of the working family.”

Mr. Kennedy said, “As Democrats, the thing that separates us from Republicans is this notion that we believe government can be the people’s ally, that government can educate our children, keep our communities safe, take care of our elderly parents and give them the retirement and health care they deserve. But nobody’s ever going to trust us and believe in that – not Democrats, not Independents, not progressive Republicans – if they believe that our government is designed to enrich a handful of elected officials at the cost of everybody else in our State.

“And unfortunately that’s what’s going on now. The Chairman of the Democratic Party, the speaker of the House, has the largest market share of property tax business anywhere in the State. In that role as Chairman of the party, he helped choose the head of the party in Cook County who chose himself as Cook County Assessor. Now the head of the party appeals taxes to the Cook County Assessor who he installed in that job. That needs to end.”

Sen. Biss said J.B. Pritzker’s campaign is spending $171,000 a day, and for that amount they could buy more than 1,600 CTA tokens. “I think that’s an interesting little example of what’s at stake in this election. You have a profound choice as Democrats of what kind of party we’re going to be. Are we going to be a billionaire’s party, or are we going to be a people’s party? Are we going to say that in an era of Trump and Rauner, we want to do that too? Are we going to assume that money is what it takes to win elective office now, or are we going to build a different kind of movement?

 “I’m running for Governor because it’s time to change what’s possible in Illinois. I’m running for Governor because we have seen incredible potential in this State cast aside by a political system that sets its sights too low. … It’s time to act right.”

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...