Illinois' four Republican gubernatorial candidates said Tuesday that they are willing to work with unions if elected but differed on how to approach the relationship during a debate that largely focused on pension reform, taxes, business and briefly on personal issues that have dogged some of them.
Treasurer Dan Rutherford, businessman Bruce Rauner and state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady concentrated their comments on how to defeat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, making only fleeting references to allegations of misconduct and negative ads that have surfaced in recent weeks.
Rauner -- who has been attacked in television, radio and print ads sponsored by unions -- said the relationship between government and unions is one of the most important issues. He has made fighting "government union bosses" a campaign theme.
"I'm not against the existence of unions," Rauner told attendees of the downstate debate sponsored by the Citizens Club of Springfield. "I believe that their power needs to be restricted."
Rutherford said there has to a balance between union positions and nonunionized positions, but there wasn't one yet. The Chenoa Republican has recently faced allegations of misconduct by a former employee, but the issue was mentioned just once in a question.
Brady, who lost the governor's race to Quinn in 2010, went after the governor, who faced a union lawsuit over withholding union employee raises and lost the case in 2012.
"He has failed in developing a relationship with the unions," Brady said, after arguing that he's in the best position to take on Quinn again. "The rematch against Pat Quinn and myself will be a fun one. There's a great deal of buyers' remorse out there."
Dillard mentioned his campaign's Friday endorsement by the Illinois Education Association — the state's largest teacher's union — and said, "Illinois is not Indiana," which has approved right-to-work legislation.
"The best way to get concessions from unions ... is to meet with them, talk to them — not to demonize them," Dillard said.
The debate comes as Illinois' new pension overhaul that cuts benefits for state workers and retirees is undergoing legal challenges from unions. The candidates talked about what they would do with the state's nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability if the law is found unconstitutional.
Brady, the only candidate who voted for the landmark overhaul, said he also would support a defined contribution plan, something Rauner agreed with. Rutherford said he'd bring "all interested parties" to the table to forge a new agreement. Dillard said he'd look to the courts for guidance.
The candidates came to Tuesday's debate exactly one month from the March 18 primary. Quinn faces one lesser-known challenger in the Democratic primary — Tio Hardiman, an anti-violence campaigner from the Chicago area. Quinn has said he won't participate in any debates ahead of the contest.
Most of the questions in Illinois' capital city focused on state government and government employee issues; the Citizens Club is a local civic group.
Only one series of questions delved into issues that have troubled some of the candidates.
Rutherford faces a lawsuit from a former employee in the treasurer's office claiming Rutherford sexually harassed him and forced him to do campaign work on state time. Rutherford, of Chenoa, has vehemently denied the charges. He had said an independent investigation would clear his name but later refused to release the report, citing the ongoing federal lawsuit.
"I would very much like for them (voters) to see it," he said at the debate. "I want to get it out there, believe me."
The treasurer also faces questions about his workplace judgment after it was reported that he shared hotel rooms with his executive assistant, which the treasurer says he did to save money. The issue was never mentioned during the debate.
Rauner was asked about his donation to an elite Chicago school after his daughter gained admission. Rauner, a Winnetka venture capitalist, has said he gave to many schools and the donation was not connected to the admission.
Unlike a few recent debates — one in suburban Chicago last month Rauner called a "beat up Brucey" event — Tuesday's tone was civil.
However, Dillard did tell reporters afterward that he was the only candidate who could beat Quinn.
"These three men are unelectable," Dillard said of his opponents. "For my party to nominate another wounded duck for governor sends this state permanently, permanently down the drain."
Rutherford has pointed out that he's the only candidate to win statewide office. He's also been the only other candidate to raise enough money to compete with Rauner on the airwaves. Brady, of Bloomington, and Dillard, of Hinsdale, have so far lagged in fundraising and have been unable to buy television advertising.
Rutherford was the second candidate to hit the airwaves, but his campaign recently pulled back reserved ad time. He didn't explain why.