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First Televised Illinois Gubernatorial Debate Mostly Predictable Political Theater

I didn’t learn much from watching the first formal televised debate in the Illinois gubernatorial election Thursday evening. In fact, it was pretty much exactly what I expected.

In one corner we have a billionaire, in another corner we have a billionaire, and in the other two corners we’ve got two guys with less money but further to the right of the billionaire that’s spent four years in the executive mansion defundin’ social services and breakin’ unions.

If you asked me a few years ago if the first question at a gubernatorial forum would be related to toilets, I’d have thought you to be ridiculous. But the opening question—directed towards Democratic nominee J.B. Pritzker—was about him disabling his toilets to lower his property taxes, although apparently true, is a wornout trope in 2018.

Pritzker’s plumbing problem is one of a handful of incumbent Republican governor Bruce Rauner’s standard talking points, with the top one being House Speaker Michael Madigan, who Rauner didn’t waste any time bringing up. When moderator Carol Marin—who did an incredible job of corralling the candidates given their penchant for meandering around her questions—reminded the governor about comments he made about not being in charge of state government, Rauner dove right in to his favorite talking point, saying Illinois is “under the stranglehold of Mike Madigan.”

Rauner, of course, has been in charge of the state for four years, but he’s spent that time setting up his key campaign platform— blamin’ the boogeyman for not being able to fully make the state swallow a Koch brothers-approved raid of public coffers with a side of union busting.

Pritzker meanwhile, served up his usual campaign talking points as well, lambasting Rauner for cutting mental health and substance abuse services and generally being what he’s for months said is a “failed governor.”

Pritzker was given a pretty golden opportunity to really take Rauner to task over the misinformation and general paranoia Republicans and their allies have spread about a graduated income tax, but muddled his way through. The rhetoric coming from the right about switching the state’s tax code from a flat one to a graduated one—where the wealthy pay more in taxes than middle and low income people—has made Chicken Little folk tales look rational. The only way to dispel this would be to float a few theoretical rates, even though the state would need to pass a Constitutional Amendment to change the tax code first.

Marin pressed Pritzker hard on a rate proposal after he went through a lengthy attempt at a runaround about the middle class and other states.

“Do you not want to give a rate?” Marin asked.

“I believe it’s something we’ve got to negotiate with the people’s representatives and the legislature,” Pritzker responded. “And remember it’s got to go to a referendum of the people of Illinois before it could become part of our Constitution anyway.”

Image via screencap of NBC5 livestream.

All of that was pretty predictable and I’d have been asleep on my couch the first 10 minutes in if it weren’t for the fact that the four candidates kept me awake by trying to hurl insults over each other’s talking points. In another timeline that might also be ridiculous, but this is 2018 America where a candidate’s chances of holding high office somehow increase by the volume of terrible tweets they can produce.

Rauner went after downstate Republican Sam McCann—who’s running to the right of the governor, presumably to try to cash in on the Trump style campaign rhetoric Republican Jeanne Ives challenged Rauner with in the primaries—calling him a “phony candidate.”

“You’re a liar. You’ve been lying to the people of Illinois from the very beginning,” McCann retorted. “You said you had no social agenda, and all you’ve been able to accomplish is to make yourself the most progressive liberal governor the state of Illinois has ever had,” McCann added.

This prompted one of the more funny barbs Rauner got in, asking McCann if he was “getting paid on a per-interruption basis by Madigan or a lump sum?”

McCann continued to serve up red meat, saying that he wishes Chicago would work with President Donald Trump on combating violence, and accusing his opponents of not having fervent enough loyalty for the President.

McCann wasn’t the only one trying to play to or at least appease Trump loyalists and other far right conservatives. When Marin asked Libertarian candidate Kash Jackson, a 20-year veteran of the United States Navy, about whether or not he supported Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel in protest of police brutality and systemic racism during the national anthem he said he supported the NFL player’s right to free speech, with a ‘but.’ Jackson added that he “may not agree with what Kaepernick did,” and “may not agree with what he’s doing or why he’s doing it.”

Outside of what sounded like a very loud dog whistle, Jackson took both Rauner and Pritzker to task for both being billionaires who are out of touch with the needs and concerns of everyday Illinoisans, pointing to the incredible amount of money the pair have poured into the election.

“I spent $25,000. You two gentleman spent what? Two-hundred million to get on this stage?” Jackson said. “Who’s the fiscally minded guy?”

That bit of decently executed political theater was also pretty predictable.

And that in the end—predictable— is what the first gubernatorial forum was mostly. I’ll give props to campaign staff for making sure their candidates know what the common folk pay for a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, but about the only new thing I learned was that all four could tip their barbers better.

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