LISLE – As candidates were called to the stage for the final debate before the Republican gubernatorial primary, one podium remained empty: that of Bruce Rauner.
For the third of four recent debates, the candidate pegged by many as the frontrunner for the March 18 election was notably absent, this time on Thursday at Benedictine University in Lisle.
Nonetheless, Rauner's presence was felt, as he was the focus of several responses from state Treasurer Dan Rutherford and state senators Bill Brady, R – Bloomington, and Kirk Dillard, R – Hinsdale, during the evening.
"The truth of the matter is, what's really going to count in this Republican primary, is going to be who are the men who are standing before the hot, searing spotlights right here in this arena," Rutherford said. "Who are the candidates that are out there, pressing the flesh, going around as the three of us have done here tonight and talk to you and look you in the eye?"
Brady said Rauner was "dangerous" and an unknown who has avoided questions from the public. Dillard called him the "ultimate insider" for his past campaign involvement and donations and said his lack of experience is not what Illinois needs right now.
The two, who have been fighting for second in recent polls, hammered one another throughout.
Brady said Dillard was "unelectable" due to his history as a lobbyist, senator and alleged supporter of President Barack Obama, claiming he was a proven candidate who could bring the base.
"I've been tested and vetted with over $5 million in negative ads," Brady said. "Yes, I lost by a few thousand votes and Pat Quinn had to spend $50 million of taxpayer money to have a 3 percent higher turnout in Chicago than the rest of the state, but I won 98 of 102 counties. Ladies and gentlemen, that's a base we can build on."
Dillard countered, saying Brady had already proven it wasn't.
"You know, also, Bill, you were the guy who ran against Pat Quinn, who had an approval rating of 28 percent – 28 percent – on election day and you couldn't beat him," Dillard said. "So not everybody can beat Pat Quinn ... you had your chance, Bill. You muffed it and you blew it."
Rutherford was largely spared the sparring during the two-hour debate.
"Whoever selected the stage set-up to put me in the middle – it was probably a very good choice," he said, of his podium between the two senators.
To-do list for their first 100 days as governor
• Rutherford: Executive order to freeze hiring and promotions for state employees, form a performance review committee to streamline and improve government services, introduce fair map amendment
• Brady: Conduct Illinois Auditor General report for fraud and abuse, introduce legislation guaranteeing scheduled tax cuts in 2015, introduce legislation to repeal State Board of Education, introduce legislation to establish fair map and term limits, continue progress on worker's compensation bills
• Dillard: Form a panel of advocate groups and businesses to rewrite the tax code, demand worker's compensation change that allows for causation, place a moratorium on health care mandate and Common Core, use office of lieutenant governor to reach out to businesses to deregulate codes and policies
How to fight poverty
• Rutherford: Vocational technical training and combating recidivism of penitentiary system
• Brady: Improve job climate, deliver tax cut, maintain current minimum wage
• Dillard: Improve unemployment rate, rebalance state funding of public education
How to fund education
• Rutherford: Make early childhood education a funding priority, ensure Chicago and suburban students get same portion of state education funding
• Brady: Eliminate the State Board of Education, provide vouchers to students in certain failing school districts, charter schools
• Dillard: Become a "destination economy," prioritize education funding over Medicaid funding
On income tax
"I don't want this temporary tax increase to stay. ... But I don't know what I don't know until I get there. Will the public pension bill be found to be constitutional? I don't think so. Will Quinn and the Democrat-controlled General Assembly have spending and borrowing in check before I take the oath of office? I don't think so. ... I'm going to be the Republican looking at you right now and tell you the truth: there may need to be some form of revenue, some form, in the mix of everything else that I'll have to do as governor to put Illinois back on the right footing."
"I've called for the absolute implementation of the tax cuts. I'm the only candidate who has said, under no circumstances, will I not deliver on tax cuts as prescribed by law. ... But I've also laid out a plan, long-term as it might be, to eliminate the personal income tax."
"One of the advantages that Illinois always had is that we had a low, flat – and I emphasize flat – income tax. We need a top-to-bottom overhaul of our state's archaic and ancient tax structure, and our tax structure is unfair."