Jim Dey: Rauner ads have Democrats at each others' throats

Jim Dey: Rauner ads have Democrats at each others' throats

Illinois' Democratic gubernatorial candidates have, for the most part, aimed their rhetorical fire at the man they each want to replace — Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner.

But with the March 20 primary election less than two months away, those perceived as lesser candidates last week used a joint appearance before the Chicago Tribune's editorial board to go after the perceived front-runner — billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker.

That prompted a strong Priztker response in which he suggested that rival Chris Kennedy, the former University of Illinois board chairman, is being disloyal to the Democratic Party.

"Did Chris Kennedy just endorse Bruce Rauner?" Pritzker asked in a subsequent press release.

A third Democratic candidate, Evanston state Sen. Daniel Biss, used the opportunity to attack both Priztker and Kennedy. He said "both of them" have benefitted from insider politics.

"And that's what I haven't done," Biss said.

This kind of fussing and feuding among rival candidates is, of course, routine in party primaries. It's all part of one candidate's effort to distinguish himself from the rest of the lot. Right now, they — Kennedy, Biss, Bob Daiber, Tio Hardiman, etc. — are trying to separate themselves from Pritzker, a candidate with a bulging bankroll and strong support from party leaders but otherwise an unknown entity with no track record in public life.

What's ironic is that much of the criticism being leveled at Pritzker in the Democratic Party primary is being generated by Gov. Rauner.

Last week, the Rauner campaign announced that it is "launching an extended television ad featuring all 11 minutes of the FBI wiretap between J.B. Pritzker and disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich" in "every major media market in Illinois." The ads were initially scheduled to run last weekend, but they can be resumed any time.

Blagojevich, one of the most corrupt public officials in state history, is political poison, and the conversation — in which Pritzker and the now-imprisoned former governor talk about politics and Blagojevich dangles political favors before Pritzker in exchange for campaign contributions — won't make the Democratic frontrunner look good.

The advertising has prompted intense discussion about Rauner's motives.

Is he softening Pritzker up for even bigger hits in the general election race?

Is he trying to help another Democrat beat Pritzker in the primary so that Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan can't rely on Priztker's billions of dollars to buy campaign commercials in the fall?

Republicans, not surprisingly, are standing mute on those questions.

"We don't discuss ad strategy," Rauner campaign spokesman Justin Giorgio said.

But just because Rauner's campaign team isn't commenting doesn't mean others aren't delving into the issue.

That's what happened at the Tribune forum when a questioner asked if Rauner is trying to help Kennedy by attacking Pritzker, although that question could have been posed to any of the other Democratic candidates.

Kennedy could have replied that Rauner doesn't consult him on campaign advertising ideas. He could have acknowledged the reality that, in politics, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least until the general election campaign begins.

But Kennedy surprised everyone with an answer that appeared to embrace Rauner's approach.

"I think Bruce Rauner is trying to do what he thinks is best for the state of Illinois. Now we may disagree on what that is, but his willingness to speak truth to power, to take on powers that have been strangling our economy for decades in this state is something that I think he should be applauded for," he said.

Kennedy's political foes in the party and the media moved quickly to express their faux moral outrage for his alleged apostasy.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown conceded the Rauner ads hurt Pritzker and help his Democratic rivals.

"But does Kennedy have to sound so appreciative?" Brown asked.

Sen. Biss chastised Kennedy, stating Rauner "should not be applauded for the lasting damage and harm he's done" to the state.

Pritzker issued a similar statement, suggesting that Kennedy supports the entire Rauner agenda, not just the FBI wiretap ad.

"Throwing bombs and creating crisis is not speaking truth to power, but it's clear that Chris Kennedy has failed to understand that through this campaign," he said.

Despite the pushback, Kennedy is undeterred in his criticism that asserts Rauner's ads attacking Pritzker deserve consideration from Democratic voters.

"JB is the poster children of pay-to-play politics in Illinois, and the FBI wiretaps that feature him begging Rod Blagojevich for political favors prove it. He's everything the Republicans want to run against," Kennedy said.

Those are tough words to be sure. More like them will be flying back and forth as these erstwhile friends fight for the right to take on Rauner in the November election.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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