Republican gubernatorial candidates discuss hot-button issues

GOP field talks Trump, Biden, ‘CRT,’ abortion and more

Election 2024
GOP governor candidates Richard Irvin, Darren Bailey, Jesse Sullivan, Paul Schimpf and Gary Rabine are all pictured in Capitol News Illinois file photos.

Abortion, Jan. 6, Donald Trump, critical race theory and whether Joe Biden is rightfully the president of the U.S. were the basis of questions asked to a field of six Republican candidates for Illinois governor Tuesday.

A pair of debates took place on two stages in Chicago due to a scheduling conflict between two TV networks, NBC 5 and WGN.

NBC’s 6 p.m. debate included Aurora Mayor Ricard Irvin, the polling and money front-runner, along with former Waterloo state Sen. Paul Schimpf and suburban attorney Max Solomon. The 7 p.m. WGN debate that followed included Sen. Darren Bailey of Xenia, Petersburg venture capitalist Jesse Sullivan and suburban paving magnate Gary Rabine.

Below is a summary of some of the candidates’ responses to the various debate questions.

On abortion

When pressed by moderator Mary Ann Ahern of NBC, Irvin stuck to talking points from previous media appearances on abortion, stating that he is pro-life but it would be “irresponsible” to comment on a leaked Supreme Court decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade.

“The stand will happen once an actual draft comes down,” Irvin said, which Ahern noted could be after the primary election.

He said the voters he speaks to are “upset about how [Gov.] JB Pritzker has been so extreme,” and he would look to reinstate a requirement that doctors notify parents 48 hours before a minor receives an abortion. He’s also said he’d support exceptions for life of the mother, rape and incest.

Bailey said his only exceptions, in the unlikely circumstance he could work with lawmakers to outlaw abortion, would be for threats to the life of the mother.

Otherwise, his policy would involve making abortion “unnecessary” by getting church groups involved to offer unspecified “options” to pregnant people.

“We’re asking church, civic, religious groups to come alongside and offer options that the pregnant woman may not know or be aware exists,” he said.

Sullivan said that when he heard about the leaked Supreme Court decision, he dropped to his knees and prayed with his family, and he said he would “be the most pro-life governor in the history of the state of Illinois.” His exceptions include rape, incest and life of the mother, he said.

Schimpf said he would not necessarily push for, but would sign, “any legislation” that brings Illinois “closer to the mainstream.”

Solomon said he believes “that life begins before we were formed,” and Rabine said he would allow exceptions for life of the mother. He also suggested increasing the use and funding of ultrasound machines.

“I’m confident that when ... a young lady gets an ultrasound, the odds are over 80% that she won’t get that abortion,” Rabine said.

Any action on abortion would require action from the General Assembly that could very well maintain veto-proof supermajorities of Democrats.

On the economy

Bailey, who served on a Clay County school board for 17 years and voted at least a dozen times to raise property taxes in the district, said that when it comes to education, “money is not the answer.” He said state payments to schools were unreliable at the time he served. In 2017, Illinois adopted a new school funding formula that directed more money to the neediest districts with a requirement of $350 million to be added to K-12 funding each year.

Bailey didn’t identify any cuts to state government but said his plan was to implement a “zero-based budget.”

“That’s how we weed out the fat,” he said. “Literally, in every department, we’ll hire and select men and women of common sense and business sense who will begin to dissect each agency and rebuild it.”

When asked how his governorship would differ from that of former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner should Democrats in the General Assembly not fall in line with his plans, Bailey once again pointed to “zero-based budgeting.”

He also said he’d “cut all unfunded mandates from our communities and our schools.”

Rauner, who came into office with a broad “turnaround agenda” aimed at reforming pensions and busting public employee unions, presided over a two-year budget impasse during which the state spent billions of dollars more than it took in.

Rabine said he believes he could work with lawmakers to avoid an impasse because most lawmakers want what’s best for Illinois.

“I’m a turnaround person in business,” he said. “I’m gonna turn the state around like nobody’s ever seen before.”

Sullivan said all Rauner wanted to do was “fight with Mike Madigan,” and he betrayed conservative principles by signing an abortion expansion.

“Well, I am a downstate central Illinois guy, one of eight kids who grew up working on a farm. I had to split a piece of gum when I was growing up with my mom, you know, because we never could take a full piece for ourselves. And so working together with others is part of my DNA,” he said.

As governor, he said he would replace the Illinois State Board of Education, end COVID-19 executive orders and wield the veto, he said.

“And then, God-willing, we are going to have veto power as governor, then we need to replace out the Legislature with next-generation conservatives who will change the state,” he said.

Rabine said Illinois needs to “crush property taxes to being the average of the country,” although local governments, not the state, levy taxes on property.

“In many cases, the state has had to take on a lot of responsibility from the local community to change it,” he said, without going into specifics.

Sullivan claimed he could save $10 billion in the state budget, citing only a planned hiring freeze, planned pension reforms and local government consolidation.

“I’m going to get out a Sharpie as big as Donald Trump’s and write ‘veto’ across any new tax that comes across my desk,” Sullivan said.

He didn’t directly respond to how he would replace revenue from the grocery tax and gas tax, which he said he would like to repeal. Those taxes fund local governments and road and bridge construction, respectively.

Irvin, Solomon and Schimpf were asked about how they would address a racial wealth gap, and all said they needed policies that lead to economic development for all.

“That’s exactly what we need to do, go around the state – we’re the sixth-largest state in the union; we’ve got to start acting like we’re the Land of Lincoln,” Irvin said. “We’ve got to go around this country, go around this world, identify businesses that are a good fit with Illinois and put them in areas where we need them.”

Irvin spoke in favor of business incentives and getting rid of a sales tax on motor fuel, which is levied on top of the motor fuel tax. His campaign later walked back the statement, saying he supports “capping” the sales tax on fuel.

“I will never agree to raising taxes … but what I will do is work to cut waste, cut duplication of services and grow our economy,” Irvin said, without going into specifics.

Schimpf said he would look to end that “predatory” taxation of sales tax on fuel and would insist on a balanced budget and transparency.

“I will veto any legislation that is not passed in a transparent manner,” he said. “That includes budgets that are drafted overnight and presented to the Illinois General Assembly without time for them to read and review.”

On pensions

Most of the candidates, including Irvin, Rabine and Sullivan, said their solution to addressing Illinois’ $130 billion in unfunded pension liabilities would be a 401K-style plan for new employees.

When asked by the moderator, Schimpf said he was against pulling a constitutional protection clause for pensions from the Illinois Constitution, a move that requires no official action from the governor.

The constitutional protection, upheld by the Supreme Court, states that pensions “shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired.”

“I love it when somebody says the answer to the pension question quickly. That’s not realistic,” Schimpf said. “Look, on the pensions, we need to remember that the reason we have this pension shortfall is because the Illinois Legislature stole from the pension funds.”

He was referencing years of Illinois lawmakers spending money without making contributions to pension funds. In the 1990s, Gov. Jim Edgar signed the current plan, which ramped up pension funding to about 20% of the state’s operating budget in an effort to bring pensions to 90% funded by 2045.

Without going into specifics, Bailey said lawmakers must “come together and come up with a solution, a final fix” to preserve existing benefits for existing pensions.

Solomon said Illinois needs constitutional pension reform, although he said his plan would not “touch any vested pension.”

In 2011, Illinois created a second tier of pension recipients who have lesser benefits than the pensioners who joined state payrolls before that date, including a smaller cost-of-living increase,

On ‘CRT’ and schools

At the WGN debate, Bailey, Sullivan and Rabine were asked to define “CRT,” short for critical race theory.

Critical race theory is an educational framework aimed at analyzing the role race plays in the legal system and American history, but it is not required in Illinois law or statewide curriculum.

A state rulemaking body approved “culturally responsive teaching and leading standards” that call on Illinois colleges and universities, by 2025, to change the way prospective teachers and administrators are trained to make them more accommodating to diverse students.

Those rules, which passed on partisan lines, don’t apply to K-12 curriculum. Republicans have incorrectly cited those standards as being “CRT mandates” amid nationwide Republican scrutiny of the framework.

Rabine, instead of defining the term, described its “biggest problem.”

“From what I see, from again, nephews, nieces and the communities I’m in, is we’re teaching kids to be victims in so many ways, whether it’s their sex, their race, and it’s wrong. We have to teach our kids to be champions and embrace themselves.”

Bailey defined it as a “bunch of nonsense.”

“You know what I see? I see a lot of confusion,” he said. “It wasn’t even supposed to enter our schools until 2027. But, mistakenly, it’s showing up in our lower classrooms and it’s just worksheets that are being purported by the Illinois Education Association. It’s basically an idea that whatever I think, my right could be your wrong. Your wrong could be my right.”

Sullivan cited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“For me, the primary lens you should use to judge a person is not their racial identity. The primary basis that you should judge a person on is the content of their character,” he said. “We need to be doing more civics lessons for our teachers so that we can have a love of our country rather than looking at and saying we have institutional racism built into the design of our country. That is not what we have.”

The NBC debate did not touch on CRT, but Solomon said parents should be writing curriculum, Irvin said parents and local school boards should be writing curriculum, and Schimpf said it should be done by locally elected school boards.

“Parents should not be the ones writing curriculum,” Schimpf said. “They should have the input to hold local school boards accountable, but it needs to be local school boards that decide curriculum.”

Sullivan said the state needs a “parents’ bill of rights” regarding education.

The Republicans, including Irvin, said they also would like to replace members of the Illinois State Board of Education.

Schimpf said he believed school administration should be consolidated rather than consolidating school districts, adding, “children should be one of the priority spending areas.”

The Republicans all opposed teaching “sexuality” in schools in response to questions apparently regarding a recent state law requiring schools that have a sexual education curriculum to abide by National Sex Education Standards, an initiative by nongovernment organizations to provide “guidance on essential minimum core content and skills needed for sex education that is age-appropriate.”

The guidelines, for example, call on students, by the end of second grade, to be able to identify and medically name parts of the human body, including genitals, and be able to define gender, gender identity and gender roles.

But all parents still would have a right to pull their students from sex education courses, and schools that don’t offer sex ed would not be required to do so.

“This is something that if you talk to any police officer, a sheriff of any county, this has been looked upon as child pornography three years ago,” Rabine said, without citing any specifics or evidence.

On Trump, Jan. 6, BLM

At the NBC debate, Irvin, Schimpf and Solomon were asked on a “yes or no” basis whether they thought Joe Biden rightfully won the presidential election in 2020. Schimpf said yes, Solomon said no, and Irvin responded, “Joe Biden’s the president,” answering “yes” only when pressed by the moderator.

Schimpf and Solomon said they did not believe the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was an insurrection. Irvin said he didn’t believe it was a “yes or no” question and instead said those who broke the law should be prosecuted.

On whether they voted for President Donald Trump in 2020, Solomon and Schimpf said they did, and Irvin repeated a talking point that in general elections he votes Republican. Text messages from 2018 obtained by WTTW-TV in Chicago from Irvin to an Aurora city worker showed Irvin calling Trump a “bigot” and “racist.”

Irvin, whose campaign has sent mailers aiming to tie Sullivan and Bailey Democrats and being “never Trumpers,” said once again talking about who he voted for is “exactly what JB Pritzker wants to be talking about.”

When the moderator pressed, Irvin said voters talk to him about crime and taxes.

“What I think voters are looking for is simply candidates that are going to answer questions, and this is not a tough question,” Schimpf said after Irvin’s response. “I voted for President Trump. … I wish he had done some things differently. But I do not regret that vote. He was a better choice than Joe Biden.”

Asked whether they supported Black Lives Matter, Solomon said no, Schimpf said no but clarified that he believes in the statement but not the organization behind it, and Irvin responded that “all lives matter,” and “Black lives have to be included in all lives.”


At the NBC debate, Irvin, Schimpf and Solomon said they would not reinstate mask mandates if an uptick in COVID-19 cases occurred.

Irvin said that as Aurora mayor, his office communicated that businesses should comply with the statewide mask mandate and “no one was ever fired or disciplined for ensuring that we just kept ourselves healthy.”

As to whether they would shut down schools amid a COVID-19 uptick, Solomon said no and Schimpf and Irvin said local school boards should be making those decisions.

At the WGN debate, Sullivan, Bailey and Rabine were asked what they would have done in March 2020 at the COVID-19 outset.

Sullivan said he would have treated the pandemic more like Florida did.

“[Pritzker] harmed our small-business owners. He shut them down without thought. He doesn’t understand how hard it is to set up a business and put your livelihood on the line,” Sullivan said. “Young kids in school, he made our most vulnerable suffer the most.”

Rabine said he would have kept businesses, churches and schools open.

Bailey touted his lawsuits against mask mandates, which catapulted him to statewide notoriety. A Clay County judge ruled in his favor before the decision was thrown out at the appellate level.

“Gov. Pritzker’s tyrannical actions have destroyed lives,” he said. “He’s … destroyed the futures of some of our children in schools. This is absolute nonsense, and it can never happen again.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.