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Pritzker, Bailey square off in first of two debates, each accusing the other of lying

Nexstar Media Group

NORMAL — In the first of two official debates in the governor’s race this month, Gov. JB Pritzker on Thursday night finally faced the candidate whose victory in the Republican primary election this summer was helped along by $30 million in spending by the billionaire Democrat — whom he’s also spent months labeling “too extreme for Illinois.”

State Sen. Darren Bailey (R-Xenia) used the opportunity to call Pritzker “dangerous” and “an arrogant liar” to the governor’s face. Pritzker accused Bailey of telling “more lies” as the Republican repeated his well-worn criticisms of Democrats’ sweeping criminal justice law passed last year, which is centered on abolishing cash bail in Illinois.

Despite consistent polls showing Illinois voters ranking crime below other issues like the economy and reproductive rights, Bailey and other Republicans running for state office have made their opposition to the SAFE-T Act the centerpiece of their campaigns, with the GOP nominee repeatedly claiming Illinois will experience “The Purge” when the law is fully implemented on Jan. 1.

While some provisions of the law have already gone into effect — including tightening standards for police use-of-force and expands the scenarios in which a law enforcement or corrections officer can be decertified, and thus deemed ineligible for hire in Illinois — the state’s elimination of cash bail doesn’t begin until 2023. Instead of allowing arrestees to post bond in order to get released from jail, the new system instructs judges to consider whether to detain alleged criminals based on the severity of their offense, the risk of an arrestee not appearing for court and the danger he or she poses to an individual or community if they were to be released. That’s not unlike the federal court system, which eliminated cash bail in the 1980s.

But in the nearly two years since Democrats pushed the law through the legislature in the waning hours of the General Assembly’s “Lame Duck” session in January 2021, Republicans have amped up their criticism of the SAFE-T Act, claiming it will have the opposite of its intended effect, in part due to the phrasing within the 700-page law. While Democrats have recently become more public in their acknowledgement of the need for clarification within the law, they’re reticent to identify specific changes they’d make before January.

“Well, I think that there are clarifications,” Pritzker said in response to a debate question about what he’d alter in the law.

But he stopped short of answering the question, instead turning his ire on the GOP.

“As you know, the Republicans have put out a lot of disinformation — a whole list of things that they say are ‘non-detainable offenses.’ There's no such thing under the SAFE-T Act as non-detainable offenses. And again, the goal of [the law] is to keep murderers, rapists, domestic abusers and violent criminals in jail, and a poor young mother who shoplifts diapers and formula would be kept in for months if she doesn’t have the $500 for bail.”

Bailey claimed the elimination of cashless bail will be tantamount to “revolving doors to every jail in the state of Illinois.”

“This SAFE-T Act must be repealed because it will let violent criminals and murderers out of jail before trial,” Bailey said. “Now, Governor Pritzker could have proposed a bail reform for nonviolent criminals. I would have supported that. But he didn’t…And friends, we're going to have the exact same problem across the state that Chicago is experiencing after Jan. 1.”

In reliably blue Illinois, Democrats have tried to wedge Republicans into a corner on the issue of abortion access, using the U.S. Supreme Court’s June repeal of Roe v. Wade to energize both their base and independent voters activated by reproductive rights. GOP candidates, especially in areas where abortion access is a key political driver, have largely tried to avoid the subject — another factor in centering campaign messaging around crime and the SAFE-T Act.

But Bailey has not been shy about his position on abortion as a much more conservative Republican than the brand of GOP politicians who’ve traditionally enjoyed political success in Illinois. Thursday night’s debate featured clips of both candidates played in surround sound for the approximately 1,200 audience members in ISU’s Braden Auditorium. One of those clips featured then-legislative candidate Bailey in a 2017 Facebook live video unearthed this summer, in which the Republican compared abortion to the Holocaust.

Bailey has previously accused Democrats and the media of exaggerating his statement that “the attempted extermination of the Jews of WWII doesn’t even compare on a shadow of the life that has been lost with abortion since its legalization.” But he also defended his statement in August, claiming that Jewish leaders told him he was right. Asked on Thursday to identify those leaders, Bailey refused.

He also acknowledged the limited power he would have as governor to enact policies severely limiting abortions, especially with a Democratically led legislature.

“Illinois has the most permissive abortion laws in the nation,” Bailey said. “Nothing’s going to change when I’m governor. I couldn’t change them.”

Pritzker seized the opportunity to label Bailey as an extremist on abortion, saying the Republican “wants to take away women’s reproductive rights” even in the case of rape and incest.

“You’re so divisive,” Bailey scolded.

Providing more legal protections to out-of-state women who seek abortions in Illinois, as well as healthcare providers who cross state lines to perform abortions was supposed to be one area the General Assembly addressed in a special session this summer, but momentum for that session never came to fruition.

Another policy area that Pritzker and Democratic lawmakers said they’d address in that special session was the state’s gun laws after a mass shooting at the Highland Park Independence Day Parade left seven dead and three dozen wounded. The governor and Bailey sparred over the need to enact more restrictive gun laws, with Bailey claiming the number of shootings in Illinois proved the state’s existing laws aren’t working.

A majority of Illinoisans — and Americans — favor banning assault-style weapons, as Congress did for a 10-year period between 1994 and 2004. Pritzker re-upped his call for that ban on Thursday night, but when asked why Democrats didn’t take up the issue this summer, the governor punted responsibility to the legislature. Bailey, too, demurred to the General Assembly on that question, pivoting instead to talking about mental health, and at one point blaming the influx of migrants at the nation’s southern border.

The debate moved through a series of rapid-fire questions on a variety of topics, but Bailey tried to find moments to attack Pritzker on Illinois’ high property taxes and the state’s reputation as a poorly run government with an unattractive business climate. The governor touted the six credit upgrades Illinois has received from New York bond houses since last year, though the state still has the worst credit rating in the nation.

Pritzker claimed that if Democrats keep improving Illinois’ previously dismal financial picture, eventually the state could see lower taxes, but declined to answer how many years he thought that might take in a post-debate media availability.

Bailey, on the other hand, claimed he could save the state billions of dollars by implementing “zero-based budgeting,” wherein continuing appropriations are nixed and each line item in Illinois’ now $40-billion budget would have to be justified. But the Republican declined to elaborate on what he thought he’d turn up in wasteful spending.

After the hour-long debate, Pritzker took a handful of questions from reporters who tried to pin him down on more specifics left unanswered in the back-and-forth between him and Bailey.

Bailey, however, did not choose to meet the press, instead sending a campaign staffer who briefly addressed reporters left waiting in the so-called “spin room.”

“It is clear the senator won the debate tonight,” Bailey spokesman Joe DeBose said before saying his boss wouldn’t be answering questions.

“I’m just here to tell you that we won and winners don’t need spin,” he said, donning a black cowboy hat as he left the room.

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving to CNI in 2023.