BARTONVILLE — A quintet of Democratic candidates for governor used the Peoria County Democrats' picnic Saturday to stump for votes and offer contrasts.
The event in Alpha Park featured U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos soliciting ideas from the candidates on how to bring jobs to downstate communities and how best to defeat incumbent Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2018.
In a nod to her past job as a journalist, the third-term congresswoman prodded each candidate with a follow-up question to elicit more policies and proposals for the crowd of about 200.
State Sen. Daniel Biss and businessman and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker, considered among the upper-tier candidates in the race, sounded similar notes on infrastructure and jobs.
Both talked about the need for a progressive tax system and their vision of restoring downstate.
"A lot of downstate Illinois is the product of generations of disinvestment," Biss said. The state has "a moral responsibility and an economic imperative to step in" to combat disinvestment with investment.
Pritzker gave the audience a preview of a downstate jobs plan he said he plans to roll out in the coming week, including a package of small-business start-up loans, emphasizing that people who start businesses downstate are likely to hire here and are likely to keep profits in communities here.
He said the state commerce department's technical assistance program is decent but woefully underused and that it's been subject to cuts under Rauner.
Pritzker also said an infrastructure plan is necessary because it's also "a jobs plan."
Biss called for a more visionary effort, beyond roads and bridges, to include housing, schools, deferred maintenance on state universities, waterways and more. He said the funding must also be sustainable rather than lawmakers passing temporary programs every few years with piecemeal funding programs.
The two split over campaign funding, with Biss decrying the influence of money in the race and lumping Pritzker with Rauner in self-funding his campaign.
"Are we having an election or an auction?" Biss asked the crowd.
Pritzker suggested the contest is instead about records and accomplishments, citing work on improving meal programs for poor children and growing businesses.
"This race isn't about money, it's about values," what candidates have stood for and now stand for, he said.
Bob Daiber, the Madison County regional superintendent of schools, said compromise and collaboration are necessary to get anything done in Springfield, and told attendees he was first elected to his county's board in a majority-Republican district.
"I know how to communicate with Republicans," he said.
Daiber also described economic-development efforts in his county that he said have helped it land an Amazon distribution center because of improved infrastructure logistics and speedy permitting — two things he suggested would improve business growth across Illinois.
Daiber defended township government amid a broad push by Rauner to encourage government consolidation. Daiber said that as a former township official, he knows that the institutions can help those most in need, and that township road commissioners are able to pave roads more cheaply than their city and county counterparts.
Tio Hardiman, the former director of the CeaseFire program who ran against Gov. Pat Quinn in the 2014 primary and landed just over one-quarter of the statewide vote, pledged to reduce Chicago's homicide rate by half.
Hardiman again talked up a proposal he raised earlier in the month during a candidate forum for the Illinois Black Chamber of Commerce in East Peoria in which transactions on the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Board of Options are subject to a tax that he would use, among other things, to fund a capital construction program.
Hardiman also said the state needs to do better at educating low-risk prisoners, promising to turn low-security prisons "into institutions of higher learning."
Civil engineer Alex Paterakis said he jumped into the race because "I could not stand Bruce Rauner, I could not stand the Republican Party." Paterakis slammed his party for perpetuating a system that has led to high sales and property taxes and a flat income tax — a combination he said is unfair.
Paterakis also advocated for the legalization of cannabis in Illinois, in part to encourage the cultivation and production of hemp products to increase state tax revenues. And he said he'd like to see Illinois consider a plan to finance college for students coming from families with incomes of less than $100,000 a year, provided the students committed to staying in the Land of Lincoln for several years after graduation.
All declared Democratic candidates were invited. Those who did not attend were Chris Kennedy, state Rep. Scott Drury, Chicago Alderman Ameya Pawar and former Burr Ridge trustee Robert Marshall.
The primary election is March 20.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard