QUINCY, Ill. -- Gov. Bruce Rauner and challenger J.B. Pritzker went head-to-head during the last televised Illinois gubernatorial debate Thursday evening in Quincy.
A major issue downstate is the Illinois Veterans Home where 14 residents have died since 2015 in Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks. During the first outbreak in August 2015, the Rauner administration waited six days before notifying veterans’ families, the Quincy home staff and the public.
The delay is the subject of a blistering new TV commercial by the Pritzker campaign. Tim Miller’s father, Eugene Miller, is one of the veterans who died during the Legionnaires' outbreak.
“Gov. Rauner was more interested in protecting his image than he was the heroes who protected our country,” Miller says to the camera in the ad.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, has opened a criminal probe, but Rauner insists his administration did nothing wrong and he calls the Quincy investigation a move to distract voters. The panel of journalists at Thursday's debate got right to it by asking Rauner about the probe.
"Our veterans are are here. It’s heartbreaking. To the families here tonight. I am sorry for your loss. It is deeply painful. I pledge that we will do everything to keep our veterans safe," the governor said during the debate.
Pritzker argued that action was not taken immediately and that in the course of three years, 14 people died and 70 got sick.
Rauner pivoted from Quincy to questions about Pritzker’s $330,000 property tax breaks that involved removing toilets from his Gold Coast mansion. Pritzker has repaid the money, but the issue is being examined by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
"The voters cannot in anyway trust Mr. Pritzker on any issue," Rauner said. "A bank robber that gets caught and returns the money is still a bank robber. These are serious white collar crimes. Four of my five predecessors went to jail, Mr. Pritzker has a chance to be the fifth."
The candidates also clashed over Pritzker’s proposed graduated income tax to shore up state finances.
"We have been having people leave Illinois if not for immigration, legal and illegal. If they can go, they go," Rauner said. "We deserve better than this—not tax hikes."
Pritzker defended his proposal, but once again declined to reveal his tax rates.
Later, after Rauner voiced frustration that House Speaker Madigan blocked his agenda, Pritzker unloaded.
"He is living in a state of denial the rest of us are living in the State of Illinois," he said.
The Rauner campaign released two of its own videos on Quincy following the video featuring Miller. One video features a veteran pro-Rauner vet, Buzzy, who recalls the governor’s stay at the Quincy Home.
“He wanted to be one of the men, drinking the same water,” the ad says.
At a news conference before the debate, Rauner made this false claim: “There were no delays. Immediate action was taken and if there were any change of the health status of a veteran, family members were immediately notified.”
However, e-mails show there was a delay. The state did not notify the families of the veterans living in the home and it also did not notify staff.
“Notifying the general public is a different issue because there is no, this is not contagious, it’s not infectious,” Rauner said. “It can’t spread in the community, it can’t spread from family to family can’t spread from one individual to another so that’s not the priority. The priority is keeping the veterans and the staff safe.”
With a month left to go, polls show Pritzker leading big, one survey has his advantage at 20 points.
The debate aired at 7 p.m. on Thursday. There were topics covered Thursday that sometimes don’t come up — such as agriculture and immigration. Rauner won applause from the downstate audience when he repeatedly discussed Chicago corruption.
After the debate, Rauner told reporters he’s cried over the deaths at the Illinois Veterans Home and he does not believe he’s trailing by 20 points as a recent poll suggests.