3rd GOP governor debate full of heated moments

Republican governor candidate Kirk Dillard, fresh from getting the backing of the state’s largest public employees’ union, found himself the target of barbs Wednesday night questioning whether he could stand up to labor if elected.

But Dillard, who is looking to use union support to establish himself as the alternative to wealthy front-running candidate Bruce Rauner, lashed back at his rivals. The state senator from Hinsdale likened electing Rauner as governor to “putting a rat in charge of the cheese.” And Dillard incorrectly contended that opponent Bill Brady’s home building business was “bankrupt.”

The increased intensity of the campaign was on display during the second televised debate in two nights for the four Republicans seeking the right to challenge Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in the November general election. The wide-ranging and snark-filled forum, held with less than two weeks until the March 18 primary, was co-sponsored by the Tribune and took place at the WGN-TV studios on Chicago’s Northwest Side.

Prior to the debate, Dillard became fully established as the choice of public employee unions in the GOP governor primary when he was endorsed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ Council 31. Dillard previously had won the backing of the state’s two major teachers’ unions, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

That drew fire from Rauner, who has made attacks on public employee unions a staple of his first-time bid for public office.

“Why are you running in the Republican primary? I think you should be running in the Democratic primary,” Rauner asked, the first time in several debates that he has sharply directed criticism at a rival.

“The government union bosses are at the core of our spending problem in Illinois. It’s a conflict of interest for the taxpayers. Those are the exact same groups that supported Pat Quinn, supported the Democratic Governors Association and helped get us into the financial mess we’re in,” Rauner added.

Brady, a state senator from Bloomington who was the GOP’s unsuccessful 2010 nominee for governor, ripped Dillard’s vote against a law aimed at curbing the growth in government worker pension debt after Dillard earlier had voted for a similar measure. Brady voted for the new law.

“Many people on the campaign trail say you sold out the taxpayers to the unions. You’re also seeing that you’re getting their support,” Brady said. “How can you sell out the taxpayers...when this state is crumbling with the loss of jobs because of our fiscal irresponsibility?”

But Dillard defended accepting the union support and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations. He said Rauner, a venture capitalist from Winnetka, “doesn’t quite get it” and doesn’t realize “a third of the people of these unions that he likes to demonize are Republican primary voters.”

Then Dillard attacked Rauner for connections to Stuart Levine, a corrupt figure in the investigation that brought down former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Levine was a consultant for a health care firm in which Rauner’s company later made an investment. Levine also sat on the board of the state Teachers Retirement System, the pension plan for teachers outside Chicago, when Rauner’s firm was looking for additional investment business.

“How can you call yourself an outsider when you paid the biggest, most infamous mastermind of political corruption in Illinois, Stuart Levine, who sits in a federal penitentiary today,” Dillard said.

“Isn’t it a conflict of interest to take $50 million of moneys from the Teacher Retirement System when Mr. Levine, your employee, is sitting on the board?”

Rauner said his GTCR equity firm “didn’t hire” Levine. “We didn’t pay him directly, had no involvement with him whatsoever. He apparently sat on the teachers’ retirement board. We were not aware of that fact.”

But Dillard said it was “mind boggling” that an “Ivy League-educated businessman of some means” didn’t know Levine sat on a board from which he was seeking additional investment business from teacher pensions. “I don’t believe that answer one iota,” Dillard said.

Brady questioned why GOP voters should look at Rauner, “someone they didn’t even know four months ago” until Rauner began spending millions of dollars on TV ads. And Brady questioned whether voters should consider Dillard because of his pension vote.

“Voters really need to look at what candidate they can trust who’s been consistent. I’m a reliable Republican who has been consistent on my issues,” Brady said.

Brady and Dillard got into a dust up when Brady questioned Dillard’s math over savings Dillard said occurred by voting for a Blagojevich-backed bill to refinance the state’s pension obligations.

“Bill, that’s why your business is bankrupt,” Dillard said.

“Wait a second, you want to get into a lawsuit?” Brady shot back. “My business isn’t bankrupt. It’s been through some tough times but it’s not in bankruptcy.”

Treasurer Dan Rutherford, stung by a former employee’s lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and being forced to do political work on state time, spent much of Wednesday night watching from the sidelines.

“I’m having a great time,” said Rutheford, who denied the allegations during the debate. “I just wish I had the concession for the peanuts for this circus.”

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mcgarcia@tribune.com