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The race of a generation is on

Quinn, Rauner will give voters a clear choice for governor

Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Gather ’round. Then look, to the degree Earth’s curvature permits, at what once was the proud, prosperous, promising state of Illinois – 55,519 square miles of rich opportunity and national leadership.

Today you see the diminished remains of that strength, that greatness. Today you also see a race for governor that will focus on how to restore the Illinois that was.

With Tuesday’s primary election past, we know this much: Come January, either Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn or Republican challenger Bruce Rauner will take his oath of office and begin to shape Illinois’ next 4 years and beyond.

What a rich choice for voters who will decide who should lead their state. Not in decades has an Illinois race for governor been the clash of styles and policies that this general election campaign of 2014 will be.

This year’s contest will feature two energetic candidates with wildly different worldviews. It has the potential to rivet political junkies and excite otherwise nonchalant voters.

We hope it also engages young people, from grade schoolers on up, who someday will inherit whatever is left of Illinois’ fractured economy and governance.

Quinn, now in his sixth year as governor, will have to answer for that economic torpor, even if the public policies that have enabled it aren’t entirely of his making.

As an insider, Quinn is an outsider: He has butted heads with other Democratic leaders who, in turn, dismiss him as weak, easily distracted, and irrelevant to their political machinations.

Quinn can, though, boast of successfully chiding those fellow Democrats to pass pension reforms, and of challenging clouted, Democratic-leaning unions in his attempts to close some obsolete state institutions.

We have no idea how much that history will resonate in this campaign’s sharp debate about taxes and spending. Quinn succeeded in raising the individual income tax rate by 67 percent. Now he has to say whether he wants that rate to begin falling, as current law dictates, or keep it intact, or ask for even more.

Rauner has antagonized the unions with his accusations that they run Springfield. He intends to change that. He intends to let income taxes roll back and curb state spending. He’ll now face more pressure to say what, exactly, he would cut.

Voters who dislike people of self-made wealth may reject Rauner. Quinn will criticize him as a loathsome 1-percenter, although there’s humor here: Rauner either sabotaged or intensified that attack – each of us can decide which – by volunteering, “Oh, I’m probably 0.01 percent.”

No surprise, Quinn has already launched an advertising campaign focused on raising the minimum wage, an issue that Rauner fumbled during the primary campaign.

Rauner, though, has growing evidence that the status quo Quinn oversees dooms Illinois to miserable job growth.

Monday brought the grim news that this state now has the nation’s second-highest jobless rate.

Tuesday brought more grim news: Illinois’ sales tax scheme – the combined rates charged by state and local governments – now ranks in the top 10 nationwide.

The nonpartisan Tax Foundation, a Washington research institute, also says Illinois’ business tax climate – a measure of the many taxes employers pay – languishes at 31st-best.

No wonder so many companies do their hiring anywhere but in expensive Illinois.

Thus, what has to be the central question to the two candidates in this campaign: If we’re ever again to see that proud, prosperous, promising state of Illinois, how will you lead us in that direction?

This is it.

Rauner vs. Quinn.

The governor’s race of a generation is on.

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