CHICAGO (AP) — The top Democratic candidates for Illinois governor went after each other in a spirited debate Wednesday, with billionaire J.B. Pritzker denying claims he used offshore accounts to avoid taxes and rivals Chris Kennedy and Daniel Biss saying he’s unfit to be the party’s nominee.
“You do not want a liar as the governor of the state of Illinois,” Kennedy said.
Biss compared Pritzker, who like Kennedy has not released his full tax returns, to President Donald Trump. He noted Democrats in 2016 railed against Trump for refusing to make his tax returns public and asked: “Do we want this in the Democratic nominee for governor?”
Pritzker, who’s led in polling throughout the race and has the support of many in the Democratic establishment, accused Biss and Kennedy of attacking him because they’re trailing with the primary just days away.
“These attacks are an avoidance of their own records,” he said. “They need to answer for their own records.”
The debate at WTTW-TV was the candidates’ final meeting before Tuesday’s primary, and it was often chippy. At one point, Biss accused Pritzker of using “an unbelievable mess of word salad” to try to distract voters. At another point Kennedy told Biss, “You talk too much.”
The Democratic nominee will face the winner of the GOP primary between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and his conservative challenger, state Rep. Jeanne Ives.
Much of the debate focused on a story published Wednesday by the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper reported it found several offshore shell companies created between 2008 and 2011 that are wholly owned by Pritzker or connected to him. One of those companies is part of a deal to buy city-owned land along the Chicago River and start downtown duck boat tours.
Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, said Wednesday the companies were created by trusts formed decades ago for the purposes of charitable giving.
“I have no control over those trusts,” the Chicago businessman said.
Pritzker also said he listed his assets on the statement of economic interests he filed with the state as part of his bid for governor, and that any distributions from the trusts went to charity, adding: “There’s no tax avoidance here.”
His rivals weren’t buying it.
“Lie, lie, lie, lie, lie,” said Kennedy, a businessman from Kenilworth and the son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Biss, an Evanston state senator who’s campaigned as “the middle-class candidate,” accused both Pritzker and Kennedy of trying to buy the election and said he offered “a different vision of politics.”
But Kennedy and Pritzker criticized Biss’ record in Springfield, noting he sponsored legislation to cut public-employee pensions. It was one of two different votes that Kennedy referenced by saying “there’s nothing worse that a Democrat can do.” Kennedy added Biss was “part of a failed system” in Springfield and said it was time to bring change to Illinois.
Biss has said he made a mistake when he supported the 2013 pension measure, which the Illinois Supreme Court later found unconstitutional, but added: “I’m proud of my record in the Legislature.”
Pritzker also attacked Kennedy for raising tuition five times when he was chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Pritzker said that led to a drop in minority enrollment at the state’s flagship university.
Kennedy responded that the decrease was due to the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and questioned whether Pritzker — whose net worth Forbes puts at $3.5 billion — was aware that the economic crisis had happened.
Three other Democratic candidates who’ve trailed in polling weren’t invited to participate in Wednesday’s forum: regional schools superintendent Bob Daiber, anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman and physician Robert Marshall.