Illinois Statehouse News | Analyst

GOP candidates duke it out in debate

2014-02-24T00:00:00Z GOP candidates duke it out in debateKurt Erickson Lee Springfield Bureau nwitimes.com
February 24, 2014 12:00 am  • 

For a man who probably would be better off if voters just forgot about his recent problems, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford again shined a spotlight on his own campaign woes during a debate in Springfield on Tuesday.

Rutherford, among four Republicans vying to replace Gov. Pat Quinn in the Executive Mansion, reminded everyone that he's been the focal point of the race in recent weeks because of allegations he sexually harassed one of his employees.

“I see Illinois now in the worst blood sport I’ve ever seen it,” Rutherford told the capital city audience. “This is not easy to stand up and run here in the state of Illinois.”

Rutherford has vehemently denied all of the allegations against him, but, perhaps just as disastrous for his chances, he has been unable or unwilling to offer more proof of his innocence.

Hoping to clear his name, the Chenoa politician initiated an internal investigation and said he would share the results once it was completed.

He then scuttled the idea of releasing the taxpayer-financed report publicly because, in the interim, the former employee filed a salacious federal lawsuit.

During the debate, Rutherford said, “I very much would like (voters) to see it. In fact, when I made the announcement we were going to release it, that was totally the intent. What happened … was the fact there was a federal lawsuit filed.

“I’m working it through. I want to get it out there. Believe me," he said.

Rutherford added even more confusion to the mix when he did an about-face on his earlier claims that fellow candidate Bruce Rauner was behind the allegations.

“I do not have direct proof of that,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford wasn't the only guy in the crossfire in the debate, as the candidates tried to position themselves with a month to go before voters head to the polls.

State Sen. Kirk Dillard, of Hinsdale, reminded voters that state Sen. Bill Brady, of Bloomington, sponsored legislation in 2010 that would have allowed mass euthanasia of rabid dogs at animal shelters.

“That began the drumbeat that made him a vulnerable candidate,” Dillard said.

Brady swiped back, reminding everyone that Dillard appeared in an ad supporting Barack Obama.

“Senator Dillard’s ad for Obama, saying he’d serve our country well as president of the United States, is a non-starter among most Republicans and, frankly, independents,” Brady said.

Rauner apologized for giving conflicting answers about whether he used his clout with then-Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan get his daughter into a prestigious Chicago magnet school.

“Frankly, my memory is not clear, and I honestly thought I hadn’t talked to Arne," the super-wealthy hedge fund manager said.

“Arne Duncan and I would talk regularly, because I’m very involved and have been for 25 years in school reform in Chicago, very involved in charter schools, vouchers, school choice. So, I talked to Arne regularly. I don’t really recall much of the conversation that my wife and I had around the time of our daughter’s application to Walter Payton College Prep. The important issue we did not ask for any special treatment,” Rauner said.

Brady got in his licks with Rauner too.

“And with all due respect to Mr. Rauner, his support of Rahm Emanuel doesn’t serve well with Republicans in a primary,” Brady said. “It doesn’t work to win elections.”

With Rutherford's stumbles, Rauner's Democratic ties and Brady's failure to raise much money, Dillard has tried to gain the upper hand, saying he's the only candidate who can win in November.

“My point is these three men are unelectable,” Dillard said. “For my party to nominate another wounded duck for governor sends this state permanently, permanently down the drain.”

After the debate, Rauner didn't stick around for the traditional post-game analysis with members of the press. Instead, just as former Gov. Rod Blagojevich used to do, he left the downtown theater through a back door.

By Friday, Dillard had received a $50,000 contribution from the state's largest teachers' union, helping him to finally get up on the airwaves.

Brady continues to lag in the money department. He's reported just $18,000 in large contributions since Jan. 1.

Even with his problems, Rutherford has managed to collect about $48,000 in contributions since his office woes became an issue.

Money isn't an issue for Rauner. On Tuesday, his 58th birthday, the political newcomer gave his campaign a half a million bucks.

The opinions are the writer's. Kurt Erickson is the Lee Springfield bureau chief. He can be reached at kurt.erickson@lee.net or (217) 782-4043.

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