PEORIA – The four Republican candidates for governor tried to woo downstate Illinois voters at the latest in a series of debates Thursday, pledging not to let the state be dominated by Chicago-area clout.
The largely civil 90-minute debate in Peoria was a departure from a more combative forum last week in the Chicago suburbs, which Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner described as a "beat up Brucey" session after his opponents lobbed criticism at him over past campaign donations and a changing position on the minimum wage.
Along with debating the minimum wage and pension reform, the candidates – State Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard, State Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Rauner – differed little in weighing in on how to make school funding more equitable across the state, the expansion of gambling and the start of hydraulic fracturing.
Dillard said that for too long Illinois been run by one party and one city.
"We need to restore the political balance of Illinois," he said.
The Peoria event was one of a handful before the March 18 primary where all four were in attendance. Rauner, who has used his hefty war chest to saturate the airwaves with campaign ads, says he will make only take part in a select few debates. Rutherford, Brady and Dillard have used the debates to compensate for their fundraising disadvantage.
On education funding, each of the candidates said there needed to be better equity in resources between urban and rural and rich and poor districts.
Dillard told the moderators that Chicago's predominance at the state Capitol didn't bode well for other schools cross the state.
Rauner advocated changing the "ineffective and murky" funding formula to make schools more equitable.
Brady said the state board of education should be eliminated, and the state should do away with a number of unfunded education mandates.
And Rutherford said local districts should have more local control over how tax dollars are used.
On hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the controversial method of oil and gas drilling seen as an economic boon to impoverished communities in southern Illinois, all four said they'd support the practice if proper regulations are put in place. State officials are currently are writing the regulations.
All also stated they'd would feel safe drinking the water in that part of the state despite pollution concerns raised by environmentalists.
The candidates also discussed whether gambling should be expanded across the state. Dillard and Brady appealed to downstate agricultural interests by advocating for protecting the horse racing industry from losing more business if lawmakers approve additional casinos.
"I've never believed expansion of gaming is going to solve Illinois' economic woes," Brady said, adding "horse racing, it's an important part of our economy. We must come up with some sort of solution."
Rauner said local governments should be in control of gambling expansion, while Rutherford said he'd be open to discuss gambling as long as any expansion package has appropriate oversight.
All vowed to live in the governor's mansion in Springfield, something incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn and predecessor Rod Blagojevich were criticized for not doing.
"It's more than keeping your underwear at the mansion," Brady jabbed at the Democratic governors, both from Chicago.
In one of the few barbs during the debate, Rutherford pledged he wouldn't have need "training wheels" to start running the state – a veiled shot at Rauner, who has never run for political office before.
"I'm a reasonable Republican. I'm not a Republican with a horn and a tail," Rutherford said.
But Rauner didn't back down, proudly portraying himself as a government outsider.
"I'm the only one who hasn't been in Springfield for decades," he said.