Illinois governor candidates JB Pritzker & Darren Bailey clash in first gubernatorial debate

NORMAL — Debate season is officially underway in the Illinois governor race, with both Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and Republican state Sen. Darren Bailey alleging lies Thursday from their opponent on seemingly every topic.

Thursday's one-hour debate was the first time the candidates shared the stage at the same time, although previously taking part in a forum with the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors Association and the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable.

Under the bright lights, the candidates did not shy away from theatrics — often talking over their opponent and Bailey at one point revealing a paper for Pritzker to sign vowing not to seek higher office if selected for another four-year term. There has been speculation of a Pritzker presidential campaign after he made visits to New Hampshire and Florida, but the governor denied those allegations and said he would support President Joe Biden in 2024.

Held at Illinois State University, many of the prominent themes of the campaign season reasserted itself starting with the SAFE-T Act before progressing to the budget, education, abortion and more.

SAFE-T Act, gun violence and law enforcement

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois had a murder rate of 11.2 per 100,000 residents in 2020 which is among the highest in the country.

Republicans have claimed the SAFE-T Act, a 764-page bill signed into law by Pritzker in 2021, would further exacerbate this status. The legislation has already made reforms to use of force standards and requires all law enforcement departments to have body cameras by 2025, but its most-noted provision is the end of cash bail.

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Cash bail ends in Illinois effective Jan. 1, 2023, and unlike Republicans, Pritzker says the provision will make Illinoisans safe under the new system. He is also in favor of making assault weapons illegal in the state.

"The criminal justice system that Darren Bailey and Republicans are standing up for is one that allows murderers and rapists and domestic abusers to buy their way out of jail," the governor said, adding the act has the support of victim rights organizations throughout the state. "That's unsafe for our families, for our neighborhoods."

Republican gubernatorial nominee and state Sen. Darren Bailey delivers his speech after winning the 2022 primary election.
Republican gubernatorial nominee and state Sen. Darren Bailey delivers his speech after winning the 2022 primary election.

Bailey again repeated the claim that 100 out of 102 state's attorneys are opposed to the act and touted his endorsements from law enforcement. He is in favor of a full repeal of the SAFE-T Act, but did say he would have supported bail reform for non-violent offenders.

The present alternative, the Xenia Republican said, creates a "revolving doors" system for criminals to avoid pretrial detention.

"The SAFE-T Act was concocted at 4 a.m., in the wee hours of the morning, without any police involvement whatsoever," he said, a claim denied by Pritzker.

Pritzker was asked on multiple occasions both during and after the debate in the spin room whether he support any further reform to the legislation, which has already been done so twice. Clarifications, he said, are needed but would not specify exactly what was needed when questioned by WCIA-TV news anchor Jennifer Roscoe.

"I think every law that gets passed is one that deserves to be examined to see whether there should be amendments or updates," he said following the debate, mentioning one such reform introduced by Champaign Democrat state Sen. Scott Bennett.

The endorsement of Bailey by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police earlier this year marked the the first time the group endorsed a governor in a general election. Still, Pritzker attacked his opponent's record when it comes to funding these departments.

A total of $2 billion to police and municipalities has been provided during his administration, the governor said. Claims that he is "defunding" police are not true, but rather Pritzker said it was Bailey's voting record of opposing increased hiring of law enforcement that would be defunding.

Budget

Republicans, in their long-seated opposition to the SAFE-T Act, introduced a new angle to their position earlier this week saying it would increase property taxes.

Regarding property taxes, which covers 60% of public school funding, Bailey suggested a zero-based budget as a solution. Under the current administration, he claims how Pritzker has used the budget has led to businesses such as Caterpillar and Tyson Foods leaving the state.

"When there's a problem, JB just happily throws cash at the problem without any accountability or transparency," he said, mentioning specifically the governor's police funding methodology.

The governor painted a rosier depiction of the state's economy, championing the Rebuild Illinois infrastructure plan and tax relief initiatives such as the freezing of the gas tax and tax rebates. Other companies have set up shop in Illinois as well, Pritzker said, including Amazon and the number of small businesses is on the rise.

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"If we keep balancing the budget, we can make tax cuts permanent," he said, listing a closing of corporate loopholes bringing in $700 million to the state.

The candidates were also asked on the status of prior legislation, both those that passed and failed. For Bailey, the question was whether he would support the repealing of the state's $15 minimum wage.

While not agreeing with it, the senator's response did not suggest any changes on that front.

"People have made their adjustments to the $15 minimum wage," he said, although this will not be the state minimum wage until 2025.

The governor was asked whether he would take up the progressive tax initiative, a measure that ultimately failed in the 2020 election. In response, Pritzker said he would not revisit it in another term.

Abortion

Since the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision, access to reproductive health services has been a topic of growing concern for voters in Illinois and nationwide.

In the time following, Pritzker called for a special session to be convened — which has yet to happen — and comments from a 2017 Bailey Facebook livestream resurfaced. Made during an eventual successful run for the Illinois House of Representatives, Bailey compared the lives lost to the Holocaust to the number of abortions since the 1973 legalization through the Supreme Court's Roe decision.

Although first issuing a statement saying he did not intend to "diminish the atrocities of the Holocaust," Bailey has since gone on to say Jewish leaders were in agreement with the sentiment. WGN-TV news anchor Tahman Bradley asked the Republican to identify any specific leaders who told him this several times, but the candidate declined to name names.

Pritzker again promoted the Reproductive Health Act, legislation he signed into law in 2019 that permits any individual to make "autonomous decisions about the individual's own reproductive health." Under Bailey's leadership, he warned that this right could be taken away.

"Nothing is going to change when I'm governor," Bailey said in response. "I couldn't change them if I could."

Who won the Illinois governor's debate?

Much public speculation has been made regarding the debate's winner and, perhaps not surprisingly, it depends on who you ask. Bailey's response in the spin room following the conclusion of the debate was quite brief and did not come directly from the candidate.

Strolling into the room, cowboy hat and all, was Bailey's communications director Joe DeBose, who addressed reporters for no more than 30 seconds.

"We won and winners don't need spin," DeBose said.

Pritzker's post-debate media availability was longer and he appeared in person. He continued, as both candidates did during the debate, alleging their opponent was untruthful.

"Darren Bailey, frankly, was lying about so many things during the night," he said. "You couldn't take the time, I couldn't, to correct every mistake, every lie that he was putting forward and so I had to ignore a number of them."

The most recent polls were all gathered prior to Thursday's debate, but all indicate that Pritzker has the lead. Even two polls sponsored by the People Who Play by the Rule, a political action committee created by Dan Proft and funded by right-wing activist Richard Uihlein, show the Democrat with five- and eight-point leads.

Pritzker also has a 15-point lead in a poll conducted by Emerson College/WGN-TV/The Hill.

The second and final debate is scheduled for Oct. 18 in Chicago.

This story has been updated to correctly report Gov. JB Pritzker's stance on assault weapons.

Contact Patrick Keck: 312-549-9340, pkeck@gannett.com, twitter.com/@pkeckreporter

This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Pritzker vs Bailey debate: What to know after first IL governor debate