CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker warned that his Republican opponent is a far-right politician who would take the state backward, while state Sen. Darren Bailey asked voters to consider whether the Democratic incumbent's first term has improved their lives as the two candidates met for an online forum Friday.
The event hosted by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors largely focused on questions of public safety, economics and abortion rights that have already dominated the campaign for months.
The Democrat is heavily favored in the race and spent millions on attacks against one of Bailey's competitors in the June GOP primary. Bailey, a state senator from Xenia, dramatically increased his statewide profile in 2020 by becoming a top critic of Pritzker's approach to the coronavirus pandemic — including refusing to wear a mask during legislative sessions.
The two candidates' sharpest disagreements Friday came over a criminal justice package that in part eliminates cash bail while permitting judges to hold people charged with a variety of offenses until trial.
The broad package, known as the SAFE-T Act, also focused on law enforcement accountability. But the bail changes have been the source of widespread misinformation and accusations on the Illinois campaign trail this fall.
Bailey, who has called Chicago a "hellhole" and once supported a resolution seeking to make the city a separate state, repeated his demand that it be repealed or risk the rest of the state experiencing "the same havoc as what's happening in the city of Chicago." He also reiterated his support for eliminating the state's gun licensing system, saying it doesn't stop people from using guns illegally now.
Pritzker said he is open to considering some changes to the criminal justice package but accused Bailey of lying about its impact as a campaign tactic.
Pritzker, a frequent critic of former President Donald Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, repeatedly described Bailey as an extremist in line with Trump. He suggested the Republican would do away with some of Illinois' most progressive pedigrees, including protection of abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision.
Bailey brushed off a direct question about whether he would sign an abortion ban into law, arguing that Democrats' hold on Illinois' Legislature is unlikely to change. He instead accused Pritzker of "fear mongering" on the issue.
"Nothing is changing," Bailey said, adding that his focus would be on crime, business and education if elected governor.
Bailey rarely shied away from touting his support for Trump or his views on gun rights and abortion during the primary. But he softened his argument to replace Pritzker as the general election nears.
"People want their families and their friends and their businesses to be able to stay here and thrive in Illinois," he said. "That's not happening. And it's gotten much worse over the last four years."
The state's newly shored-up financial status also dominated the 45-minute forum. Pritzker touted improvement in the state's bond rating since he took office and four years without the devastating budget stalemates that helped the Democrat defeat Republican Bruce Rauner four years ago. He warned that electing Bailey could undo that progress.
"Illinois is finally heading in the right direction," Pritzker said. "We've accomplished so much together ,and we have much more work to do."