SPRINGFIELD — — Illinois' four Republican gubernatorial candidates said Tuesday that they'll be willing to work with unions if elected but differed on how to approach the relationship during a downstate debate that largely focused on pension reform, taxes and just briefly on the personal issues that have dogged some of the candidates.
Treasurer Dan Rutherford, businessman Bruce Rauner and state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady kept the debate focused 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 in the state.
"I'm not against the existence of unions," Rauner said. "I believe that their power needs to be restricted."
Brady, who lost the governor's race to Quinn in 2010, went after the governor, who faced a 2012 union lawsuit over not paying raises and lost.
"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."
The others said they'd communicate with unions.
Dillard's campaign hoped to pick up momentum from a Friday endorsement by the Illinois Education Association — the state's largest teacher's union.
"State government has become incredibly unionized," Dillard said. "The best way to get concessions from unions ... is to meet with them, talk to them — not to demonize them."
Rutherford said there has to a balance between enough unions positions and nonunionized positions, but there isn't one yet.
The debate comes as Illinois' new pension overhaul that cuts benefits for state workers and retirees is undergoing legal challenges from unions.
The candidates came to Tuesday's debate exactly one month from the March 18 primary. The debate was sponsored by the Citizens Club of Springfield, and many of the questions focused on state government and government employee issues.
Only one series of questions delved into issues that have troubled some of the candidates.
Rutherford has been dogged by 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 on the matter 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. "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 that he gave to many schools and the donation was not connected to the admission.
Until now, Rutherford has 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.
Quinn faces one lesser-known challenger in Democratic primary — Tio Hardiman, an anti-violence campaigner from the Chicago area.