DECATUR — With less than three weeks until the primary election, gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss said he hopes to continue the upward momentum behind a campaign many initially saw as a long shot to win the Democratic nomination.
“There’s a movement in this state, a real desire to build new policies to actually change what’s possible,” said Biss, speaking to a crowd of roughly 30 people at Doherty's Pub and Pins on Wednesday. “We’re going to organize change whenever possible, we’re going to fight for what’s right, we’re going to build the state we deserve and not accept when people tell us, ‘that sounds nice, but it’s not possible.’”
The state senator from Evanston and former math professor at the University of Chicago has risen in the polls with just 20 days until the primary election. Biss has positioned himself as a middle-class progressive, in contrast to frontrunner opponents J.B. Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune with an estimated self-worth of $3.4 billion, and Chris Kennedy, the millionaire son of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Biss fielded questions for just under an hour on topics that included the need for independently drawn legislative districts, a graduated income tax, support for marijuana legalization and getting Illinois’ finances in order.
In the case of the latter, Biss told a story about the savings that came when Evanston Township was dissolved, saying that lawmakers need to look closer at the savings that could come from merging taxing bodies or sharing services between them.
The event, billed as a “conversation,” impressed audience member Marissa Bratten, 20, who came to the event with her sister, Shanlee. The two said they were glad to see a progressive-minded person speaking in Decatur, and were impressed that Biss answered questions without seeming stiff or sticking to talking points.
“He seemed to really care and pay attention, and he had a real answer and a real solution to everything asked,” said Marissa Bratten.
A poll of registered voters released Wednesday by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale had Pritzker leading the Democratic field by 10 percentage points with 31 percent of the votes. Biss came in second with 21 percent, while Kennedy trailed in third with 17 percent.
Regarding those polled outside the Chicagoland area, Pritzker led Biss by 18 percent, 33 percent to 15 percent.
When asked about the results, Biss said his campaign started running ads in Central and Southern Illinois in recent weeks. He said he was optimistic his message would resonate with those discovering him for the first time.
“We’re pretty excited to see that gap narrow down, and I think we’re going to continue to see that,” he said.
Other Democratic candidates include Madison County School Regional Superintendent Bod Daiber, Chicago community organizer Tio Hardiman and Burr Ridge physician Robert Marshall. The winner of the March 20 primary election will face the winner of the Republican primary battle between incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner, who visited Decatur on Tuesday with a stop at Industrial Electric, and state Rep. Jeanne Ives, who made a campaign stop in the city Feb. 13.
Speaking after the event, Biss called for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan to step down as chairman of the state's Democratic party, citing the recent questions about how Madigan has handled sexual harassment complaints within his political organization. As to whether Madigan should step down as speaker, Biss said he would instead recommend the legislative inspector general do a “full report” on the matter.
The questions began last month after Madigan announced he had parted ways with longtime political worker Kevin Quinn, about three months after campaign worker Alaina Hampton sent the speaker a letter accusing Quinn of sexual harassment. Madigan on Tuesday released a list of nine sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaints he said his office has investigated during the last five years.
“I think what’s frustrating is a lot of what happened wasn’t officially with state employees. That’s because (Madigan’s) political organization is so tied into his work as speaker, and that’s part of the problem too,” Biss said. “You have the political organization, and the property tax business, and his job as speaker all tied in with one another. You cannot really tell who's who and what's what, and that’s bad for the people of Illinois.”