ILLINOIS (CN) — Democratic Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker met his Republican challenger, state Senator Darren Bailey, for their first gubernatorial debate Thursday night on the campus of Illinois State University.
The contest focused primarily on crime, state spending and property taxes. While the candidates both touched on abortion access — a presumed focal issue leading up to the hour-long debate — neither stayed on it for very long.
Instead, Pritzker repeatedly touted what he said were his administration's accomplishments since he took office in 2019, such as the legalization of recreational cannabis use and the passage of an omnibus green energy bill. He also voiced support for strengthening worker protections and unionization rights should he win re-election, as well as working toward a state ban on assault rifles.
Bailey, Pritzker's last surviving GOP challenger following the June primaries, in turn accused the incumbent governor of driving business out of the state, being too soft on crime, particularly in Chicago, and of being a "radical leftist" and a member of the "political elite."
A major point of contention that came early in the debate was the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, aka the SAFE-T Act, which passed the Illinois Legislature in January 2021, and which Pritzker signed into law that February. The Act abolishes cash bail in Illinois starting Jan. 1, 2023, and is supported by numerous civil rights organizations across the state who say the cash bail system unjustly keeps poor, disproportionately Black and brown people locked up before trial despite their constitutional right to the presumption of innocence.
However, the Act has faced stiff opposition from law enforcement, and from Illinois Republicans like Bailey who represent the state's whiter, more conservative regions south and west of Chicago. Bailey said he would repeal the Act if elected, claiming Pritzker's support for it was akin to "attaching revolving doors to every jail in the state."
Bailey, who won the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police's endorsement over his opposition to the SAFE-T Act, further claimed the bill was written without police involvement.
“The SAFE-T Act was concocted at 4 a.m., in the wee hours of the morning, without any police involvement at all," Bailey said.
Pritzker responded by emphasizing his support for police, and by re-framing the SAFE-T Act as a tough-on-crime measure. He said that it would end the ability of wealthy individuals "to buy their way out of jail" and contribute to a more equitable basis for public safety.
"Everyone deserves to feel safe... in their communities," Pritzker said.
Also on the topic of equity, both men demurred when asked how they would create economic equity in the state amid ongoing inflation. Both wages and property taxes are major concerns for Illinoisans; while Pritzker signed a law in 2019 mandating the state minimum wage reach $15 per hour by 2025 — higher than any state's current minimum wage and the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour — Illinois also has the second-highest property tax rates of any state in the union. surpassed only by New Jersey.
In 2020, Pritzker supported a referendum that would have changed Illinois from a flat tax to a graduated tax system, only for more than half the state's voters to reject it that November. On Thursday night, the incumbent said he would not try to institute another graduated tax system if re-elected. In the absence of such a system, he said only that he would work "to close corporate loopholes" to bridge the gap between the state's rich and poor.
Pritzker also avoided answering specifically how he would balance property tax relief with funding the state's social services and infrastructure spending, saying his focus was on "balancing the budget."
"Balancing the budget, having a surplus as I have achieved over the last two years, allows us to reduce the burden on local property tax payers," Pritzker said.
Bailey, when debate moderators confronted him with his no vote on the $15 per hour minimum wage proposal in 2019, admitted he opposed the raise but said he had no plans to overturn it if elected. He instead blamed Pritzker for mismanaging the state's finances, citing it as a cause of current economic woes.
"This guy's had four years. We should be better off today and we're not," Bailey said.
Bailey later earned the night's only bout of jeering when he denigrated labor unions as a cause of economic hardship, saying they should "leave private businesses alone."
"My message is this: unions, stay in your lane and everything will be fine. Leave mom and pop and private business alone," Bailey said, amid boos from the crowd.
Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor, almost 14% of all workers in Illinois are unionized.
When the topic of abortion did briefly come up, Pritzker said he did not support extending abortion access through the entire length of a pregnancy. Instead he said he supported the state's current laws, enacted under his watch in 2019, which guarantee the right to an abortion up to the point of fetal viability. After that point, usually reached around 24 weeks into a pregnancy, an abortion may only be performed in Illinois if the pregnancy endangers the patient’s life or health.
"I think the law that we have in place now, that I signed into place, that protects a woman's rights to choose, is what we should keep in place," Pritzker said, while also accusing Bailey of wanting to overturn the state's abortion access laws.
Bailey, who in the past has made no secret of opposing abortion, denied Pritzker's claims Thursday. He said "nothing would change" if he was elected, adding that with a Democratic majority in the state legislature he likely couldn't change the state's abortion laws if he wanted to.
"Those issues are dividing us," Bailey said. "My focus is going to be crime, taxes and education... those are the issues that unite us."
Bailey's newfound neutrality on abortion did not stop debate moderator and Chicago WGN-TV Anchor Tahman Bradley from confronting the state senator with a 2017 video in which he claims abortion has caused more deaths than the Holocaust.
"The attempted extermination of the Jews in World War II, it doesn't even compare to a shadow of the life that has been lost with abortion since its legalization," Bailey said in 2017, adding this past August that some "Jewish leaders" agreed with him.
Bailey maintained his 2017 statement is true "when you compare the numbers," but declined to answer Bradley when the moderator asked which Jewish leaders, specifically, agreed with him.
"I'm not going to put anybody on record," Bailey said.
Moderators closed the debate by asking the candidates what their "walk-up" song would be were they members of a baseball team going up to bat. While Pritzker couldn't think of one, Bailey said his song would be "Hard Workin' Man" by the country group Brooks & Dunn.
"I'm going to represent every hard-working person out there," Bailey said.
Another televised debate between Pritzker and Bailey is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 18 in Chicago. It will be the final gubernatorial debate before Election Day on Nov. 8.
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