CHICAGO – The only televised debate for the four Republicans seeking the office of Illinois lieutenant governor delved Thursday into the candidates’ diverse backgrounds and the controversies surrounding them and their gubernatorial running mates.
Most of the No. 2 governor candidates are relatively little known statewide, but it’s the first year in Illinois history that they’re running with gubernatorial candidates and their roles have been more in the spotlight.
The 30-minute forum at Chicago’s WTTW-TV focused on issues that have dogged the duos – including lawsuits, union endorsements and big money – ahead of the March 18 primary election.
The candidates are Northbrook attorney Steve Kim, who is running with state Treasurer Dan Rutherford; Wheaton City Council member Evelyn Sanguinetti, who has teamed up with businessman Bruce Rauner; former Long Grove Village President Maria Rodriguez, who is state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington’s pick; and state Rep. Jil Tracy of Quincy, who is Hinsdale state Sen. Kirk Dillard’s choice.
Kim defended Rutherford, a Chenoa Republican who’s had recent troubles on the campaign trail after a former employee filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and political coercion, which Rutherford has denied.
“For me, it doesn’t pass the smell test,” Kim said, describing Rutherford as a friend and mentor. “It’s distracted us from talking about the issues.”
Tracy, who is from Quincy, said she and Dillard are “independently minded.” Dillard picked up several union endorsements – most recently from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the state’s largest public workers union – and been accused by other governor candidates of being beholden to labor.
“Campaign funds don’t control a candidate or the way that they vote,” she said.
Sanguinetti, Rauner’s running mate, is an attorney in addition to serving on the Wheaton City Council who has called for tort reform to prevent excessive jury settlements. She sued several entities in 2007, including the city of Wheaton, after she was injured slipping on a sidewalk. She received a settlement.
Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist, is leading in polls and fundraising
“A city should provide you with at least safe sidewalks, sound streets and good police and fire,” Sanguinetti said. “Tort reform would not have precluded my lawsuit because the case did not go to a jury.”
Brady’s pick, Rodriguez, was first sought out by Rauner’s campaign. Rodriguez said she only would run with Brady, a longtime state legislator. Rauner is seeking public office for the first time.
“You need to have some legislative experience to sit in the governors’ seat at this point in time in Illinois,” she said.
Early voting for primary elections began Monday and runs through March 15.
Lieutenant governors used to run separately in Illinois. However, legislators changed election law after revelations about 2010 Democratic nominee Scott Lee Cohen surfaced, including a past domestic battery charge. He stepped down following pressure from Democratic leaders.
The change has created a new dynamic on the campaign trail, with members of the ticket splitting up their travels and talking more about teamwork. Rodriguez described it Thursday as a “new day” for Illinois politics.
Some have more clearly defined what they’ll be doing in the office, which has few official duties aside from being prepared to take over if something happens to the governor. Dillard has said Tracy will help end regulations he believes hinder business. Rutherford wants Kim to focus on businesses.
Still, the four candidates for lieutenant governor have kept a comparatively lower profile.
The four spoke at a November lunch hosted by the McLean County Republicans. Three candidates — minus Sanguinetti — attended a student-run forum in the suburb of West Chicago last month. Thursday’s debate was their first and only on television.
The team approach has been noticeable on the campaign trail, and all four said Thursday that they likely wouldn’t run on their own under the old law.
The issue of fundraising came up, too.
Rauner has raised millions for his campaign through his personal wealth and contacts and had a heavy presence on TV. The candidates were asked about the impact of that money in the race.
Rodriguez and Tracy questioned the high sum, but said their candidates had deep support to counteract it.
Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, is seeking re-election. His running mate is former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas. Quinn’s Democratic primary challenger, activist Tio Hardiman, has chosen attorney Brunell Donald.