CHICAGO (AP) — The race for Illinois governor is shaping up as a battle of vastly different visions on how to revive a lagging economy in one of the Midwest’s last Democratic strongholds, and the candidates wasted no time Wednesday shoring up those distinctions.
While incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has increased taxes and pushed for raising the minimum wage, the Republican nominee — multimillionaire venture capitalist Bruce Rauner — wants to curtail government unions and run President Barack Obama’s home state like a business.
Rauner’s win in Tuesday’s Republican primary against three other candidates sets up a November matchup with Quinn that’s expected to be one of the hardest fought and most expensive in the nation. As Republicans attempt to reclaim the state’s top office for the first time in more than a decade, labor unions — traditionally aligned with Democrats — are trying to avoid the kinds of blows they’ve felt under GOP governors elsewhere.
Quinn, who is seeking a second term, began airing his first campaign ad focused on Rauner’s changing stance on minimum wage during Tuesday’s primary. Quinn wants to raise Illinois’ $8.25 wage to at least $10. Rauner said he’d like to lower then later said he’d raise it under the right circumstances.
“This is a billionaire with nine homes, nine mansions, calling for a reduction in the minimum wage,” he told reporters Wednesday. “He has a lot of explaining to do.”
But Rauner disagreed.
“America is not about class warfare and it’s about opportunity. And that’s why I’m running,” he told Chicago’s WLS-TV Wednesday. “Since when in America is it bad to be hard working and successful? It’s a great thing. I’m proud of my track record. And I didn’t inherit a nickel. I made it through a lot of hard work.”
Rauner — who said the fall election is going to be “very, very tough” — has labeled as role models Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, both of whom pushed anti-union policies. Those comments prompted organized labor to spend millions trying to derail a Rauner nomination.
The Winnetka venture capitalist, who sunk more than $6 million of his own money into his campaign to defeat three veteran lawmakers during his first bid for public office, targeted the “career politicians” and government “union bosses” he says have caused Illinois’ woeful financial situation.
Rauner has called Quinn a failure and said he wants to “bring back Illinois” by giving working families a chance to increase their income, get a good education and raise their families in prosperity. He has said he’d do that by lowering taxes, cutting spending and making Illinois friendlier to business.
“It’s a choice between failure of the past and a new day, a bright future,” Rauner said in his Tuesday night victory speech at a downtown hotel.
At a union hall a few blocks away, Quinn renewed his call for a higher minimum wage, calling working people “the real everyday heroes,” after easily winning his party’s nomination against a lesser-known challenger.
Republicans see Quinn as vulnerable because of the state’s budget problems, a 67 percent income tax hike he pushed for and signed, and the Midwest’s highest unemployment. Rauner frequently calls the Chicago Democrat “the worst governor in America.”
But Quinn, who served as lieutenant governor to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, later convicted of corruption, points to the bleak situation he inherited when he took office five years ago — when the state was in a recession and had one governor in prison and another on his way.
He says he’s gotten Illinois back on track, passing a massive capital construction bill he says created hundreds of thousands of jobs and approving legislation to address Illinois’ worst-in-the-nation state pension shortfall. He’s also expected to tout the approval of legislation to allow gay marriage.
“We know in this election campaign it’ll be a tough fight,” Quinn said Tuesday. “And I’ve been in a lot of tough fights.”
Illinois’ influential labor unions are expected to continue their attacks on Rauner in the general election.
Their efforts appeared to help make it a tighter-than-expected race Tuesday between Rauner state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who picked up the endorsement of three of the state’s largest public-employee unions. Dillard bested Rauner in several counties that are home to a large numbers of state workers.
Ed Kline, a farmer from LeRoy, said he was turned off by Rauner’s spending. He cast his ballot for Quinn.
“I think he’s honest and he does the best he can do with what he’s got to work with,” Kline said.
But other voters responded to Rauner’s outsider status and his push to establish term limits for legislators, a move he says will help root out corruption.
“I’m all about voting out the old guard,” said Kevin Yessa, 53, of Downers Grove.
Associated Press reporters Chacour Koop in Downers Grove and David Mercer in Normal contributed.