CHICAGO — The Democratic candidates for Illinois governor fought Tuesday to position themselves as the best person to appear on the November ballot, facing off in a rapid-fire forum over taxes, accusations of pay-to-play politics and who has the best vision for the state.

Businessman Chris Kennedy and state Sen. Daniel Biss went after billionaire J.B. Pritzker in the first televised meeting ahead of the March 20 primary, questioning his ties to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and conversations captured on FBI wiretaps between Pritzker and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Those exchanges already have been featured in ads Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is running attacking Pritzker, who’s spent millions on his campaign and has the support of much of the Democratic establishment.

Pritzker directed his fire squarely at Biss, saying he has supported Madigan and “I don’t think you’re one to lecture here.”

Regional superintendent Bob Daiber, community organizer Tio Hardiman and physician Robert Marshall also participated in the forum at WMAQ-TV in Chicago. Here’s a look at the back-and-forth:


ELECTABILITY

Biss stressed his progressive, middle-class background as he worked to distinguish himself from Pritzker and Kennedy.

He said Democrats must be focused on defeating Rauner and that the “best thing for him in this election is to run against another billionaire who’s Mike Madigan’s candidate,” a reference to Pritzker and his establishment backing. In addition to being the longtime House speaker, Madigan also is chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois.

Pritzker said he disagrees with Madigan on some issues, including supporting term limits for legislative leaders and independently drawn political maps.

“I’ve been an independent leader and an independent thinker my entire life and that won’t change when I become governor.”

He blasted Biss for supporting Madigan in the legislative election for House speaker and for running a super political action committee on Madigan’s behalf.

Biss said he voted for Madigan because his only other option was a Republican, and said he’s proud to have run a PAC that went after Donald Trump and Rauner in 2016. He also questioned why Pritzker was so focused on attacking him during Tuesday’s forum.

“I think it’s because he doesn’t want the voters of Illinois to have a clear choice between a billionaire and a middle-class candidate,” he said.


BLAGOJEVICH QUESTIONS

Kennedy renewed attacks on Pritzker over the recordings of him talking with the now-imprisoned Blagojevich about a possible job, saying Pritzker has become “the poster child for pay-to-play in this state” and that would cause him problems in a general election.

On the audio, Blagojevich and Pritzker discuss the possibility of Blagojevich appointing Pritzker attorney general. Pritzker is heard saying, “That’s a deal I would take.” Blagojevich was later sentenced to prison for corruption.

Pritzker reiterated that he did nothing wrong and “was never accused of anything” and accused Rauner of running the ads to distract from his own “failed record.”

Asked whether he should have known better than to talk to Blagojevich because prosecutors had said the Democratic governor was under investigation, Pritzker said hundreds of people spoke with him, and many more supported him.

“He never would have been governor of the state if people knew what he was doing.”


SIGNATURE ACHIEVEMENT

Each candidate was asked what their signature achievement would be if elected.

Kennedy said he would improve higher education and provide better funding for schools, while Pritzker said he would “put the state back on firm financial footing.”

Biss said he would change the tax system to a graduated income tax, in which higher earners pay a larger percentage in income taxes.

Daiber said he’d bring dignity and cooperation back to the office and eliminate the divide between the Chicago area and the rest of the state.

Hardiman said he’d reduce killings in Chicago by 50 percent, while Marshall pushed his plan to divide Illinois into three separate states: Chicago, its suburbs and downstate.

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SARA BURNETT
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