SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, who swept into office four years ago as a self-made millionaire and an outsider promising fiscal austerity, lower taxes and clean government, is struggling in a Nov. 6 re-election bid against Democratic challenger J.B. Pritzker, who contends the Republican has accomplished none of those.
Facing voters a second time after a two-year budget standoff that led to billions of dollars in debt and an income-tax increase, Rauner has switched gears. He humbled himself last month in an unorthodox address promising voters he will be less confrontational and more understanding of his political opponents’ views if given a second chance. But this past week he released an edgy, contentious TV ad called “An Unholy Union” in which a character officiating at a wedding between Pritzker and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan declares that Illinois will be negatively impacted by a Pritzker win — only he uses a bleeped-out word.
The tough-talking Rauner, a former private equity investor known for his open-collared shirts, giant belt buckles and Harley-Davidson motorcycle, finds himself in danger of becoming only the third Illinois governor since 1900 — after Democrat Edward Dunne in 1916 and Republican Richard Ogilvie in 1972 — to serve one four-year term but lose re-election. Polls have shown him trailing Pritzker by double digits. Only two incumbents have lost by more than 10 percentage points since the 19th century — in 1948 and 1960.
“We went 736 days without a budget, there was $16 billion of a bill backlog that he built up, $1 billion in late-payment fees that are owed because of his intransigence,” Pritzker said, referring to Rauner’s yearslong battle with Madigan. “He’s been a failed governor.”
It’s been a battle of wealthy titans spending their way through potentially the costliest gubernatorial campaign in U.S. history, eclipsing the $280 million spent for California’s race in 2010. Combined, the candidates have raised $243 million. Pritzker, the 53-year-old billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune, has put up $161 million of his own money, the most ever by a U.S. gubernatorial candidate. Overall, Rauner, 61, has raised half of what his opponent has.
A focal point of debate is taxes. Pritzker promises to overhaul the state’s income-tax system to allow for a graduated tax rate that requires the wealthy to pay more. But he says the specific rates would be a matter for negotiations with the Legislature.
Rauner, who promises to roll back the income tax increase that lawmakers adopted last year to fund the break-through budget, calls Pritzker’s plan a tax increase and asserts that Pritzker plans $11 billion in new spending.
“He talks about getting big things done,” Rauner said. “It will be big spending, big tax hikes, and big corruption by empowering Speaker Madigan. This is devastation for the state.”
Both promise increased education spending. Rauner takes credit for a school-funding overhaul producing $1.4 billion more annually, which Pritzker says was the work of Senate Democrats. And they’ve proposed billions of dollars for infrastructure work, which Pritzker would partially fund by legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana.
Rauner’s all-or-nothing gambit to disrupt what he saw as the status quo in the state capital of Springfield failed when it ran into Madigan, the longest-serving speaker of a statehouse in U.S. history. The Chicago Democrat waited out Rauner’s demands for his conservative agenda in exchange for a budget deal and got one in 2017 without him, leaving the governor with nothing.
Since then, Rauner has played catch-up. He ran ads highlighting a leaked FBI wiretapped phone conversation in which Pritzker sought a political appointment a decade ago from now-imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Rauner also pounced on a report last month from the Cook County inspector general that Pritzker and his family engaged in a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers by ripping toilets out of a Chicago mansion they were renovating to make it technically uninhabitable and save him $330,000 in property taxes. Pritzker has paid the money back but denies wrongdoing.
“I’ve worked hard for four years; we’ve made progress on jobs, education, health care, and transforming the state,” Rauner said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but we can’t give up.”
But Rauner also has a scandal of his own. Democratic Attorney General Lisa Madigan opened a criminal probe into the Republican’s handling of a Legionnaires’ disease crisis at a state-run veterans’ home in Quincy that’s contributed to the deaths of 14 people since 2015. Critics allege that 12 of those deaths occurred that summer after Rauner’s office failed to promptly notify people about the crisis. Rauner says his public health and veterans’ administrators followed protocol and expert recommendations.
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