State Sen. Daniel Biss, the Evanston Democrat among candidates seeking his party's nomination for governor, says his talk in 2013 about how few state workers live in his district was "a sloppy way of making a point about pragmatic reality."
Biss was a sponsor of a pension reform plan passed that year and overturned by the state Supreme Court in 2015 as violating the state constitution by reducing some promised benefits. He now says that was the wrong way to fix the pension problem, and it was a mistake he has learned from.
Back in 2013, he spoke at a Chicago forum titled "Illinois Public Pension Reform: Who's going to pay?" Part of that event was revealed by WCIA-TV this week.
"I don't mean to sound so crass, but everybody in the General Assembly has lots of teachers in their district," Biss said at the event. "I mean, quite frankly, I hope I just do the right thing in all cases, but as a matter of politics, I can get away with really offending state employees, 'cause I don't represent that many of them. Nobody feels politically that it's easy to upset teachers. And I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with colleagues where I say, 'Here's a pension bill I'm advocating. What do you think? I think we really have to do it. I know it's painful.' ... And they say, 'Yeah, but the thing is, I represent a lot of teachers.' Well, you know, we all do. They're distributed everywhere."
Biss, in an interview this week, said having seen a transcript of his remarks, he doesn't think he was advocating for a position, but talking about the process of getting something passed.
"I was just talking about the political challenges that face legislators when thinking about tricky legislation like that," he said. "I think it was a sloppy way of making a point about pragmatic reality. I was not talking about the way in which I value people. I was talking about the way in which legislators grapple with choices when groups are being pitted against one another.
"I understand the impression that it could leave," he added. "I think that's a result of sloppy word choice."
Biss' high-profile opponents in the March 20 contest for the Democratic nomination for governor both criticized Biss for what he said at the 2013 forum.
Galia Slayen, spokeswoman for J.B. Pritzker, said the comments were "just another example of Dan not standing up for the middle class." And a statement from the campaign of Chris Kennedy noted that Biss "led pension reform," and that Pritzker had donated to a pro-pension-reform group that in turn gave $15,000 to Biss. Pritzker and his wife had each donated $10,000 to the group, called "We Mean Business."
"The two of them ignored the state's legal obligation to fund teacher and state employee pensions, in favor of their own political interests," said a statement from the Kennedy campaign.
Democratic governor candidate Chris Kennedy on Thursday night accused opponent J.B. Pritzker…
The Pritzker campaign said his 2011 donation came years before the Biss pension bill existed, and Pritzker expected the political action committee to propose solutions, not cuts to pensions.
Tom Elliott, spokesman for Biss, said "everyone, apparently, except J.B. Pritzker, believed that that organization's solutions was to reduce pensions, and called the other camps' attacks on Biss "absurd."
With just days to go before the election, Elliott said, "It's clear that J.B. Pritzker and Chris are worried about the middle class candidate running for governor."