If he’s going to get elected governor of Illinois, Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker will now have to survive a campaign commercial in which he is heard on an FBI wiretap repeating after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich: “God damn, America.”
And that may be the least of his problems to emerge from a newly revealed recording of Pritzker chatting on the phone with Blagojevich in 2008 about his sometimes unfavorable opinion of possible African-American candidates for President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
The immediate question is whether Pritzker’s comments will harm his standing with African-American voters in the March 20 primary election.
Beyond that is the matter of the overall unfavorable impression of Pritzker created by his unguarded phone conversations with Blagojevich in the weeks before the former governor’s arrest, captured in FBI wiretaps obtained and released by the Chicago Tribune.
A previously disclosed recording of Pritzker asking Blagojevich to appoint him state treasurer has already been turned into a relentless bombardment of campaign commercials from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
One thing is for sure: it’s difficult to see how this latest tape will help the billionaire businessman, who has been widely regarded as the frontrunner in the six-way contest.
Even as Pritzker stood alongside some of his key African-American supporters to apologize Tuesday for “some of the things I didn’t say and some of the things that I did” on the wiretap, his opponents moved quickly to seize on the opening.
Particularly problematic for Pritzker was the reaction from former state Senate President Emil Jones Jr., who Pritzker described in his call with Blagojevich as too “crass” to become the U.S. senator.
Jones, who supports Chris Kennedy for governor, refused to accept Pritzker’s apology in an interview with Sun-Times’ City Hall reporter Fran Spielman and suggested Pritzker was a two-faced “one-eyed jack” who had shown his “true colors.”
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In the Nov. 14, 2008 call, Pritzker starts by suggesting Blagojevich consider Secretary of State Jesse White to replace Obama because “it covers you on the African-American thing.”
At the time, it was widely believed Blagojevich preferred to appoint an African-American to finish Obama’s term, in part to solidify his own standing with black voters who thought it appropriate for another black to replace America’s first African-American president.
White’s “totally, he’s totally, you know, uh, he’s Senate material in a way that Emil Jones isn’t, if I may say,” Pritzker told Blagojevich, later describing Jones as “a little more crass.”
He also slammed the possibility of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. getting the spot as an unacceptable “nightmare,” an assessment that most would agree was later borne out by Jackson’s subsequent federal conviction on corruption charges.
But then Pritzker returned to his endorsement of White, calling him the “least offensive” of Blagojevich’s African-American options and touting the opportunity for the governor to then pick White’s replacement for the patronage-rich office.
White came to Pritzker’s defense by joining him at a news conference at a West Side soul food restaurant to tell reporters he was not offended by Pritzker’s comments.
“I know where his heart is,” said White, who described Pritzker as a friend of nearly four decades.
A more spirited defense came from White’s political protégé, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), who said he was a “little perturbed that people are trying to play on the African American community’s emotions and trying to spin this thing like we’re stupid.”
But Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), one of Pritzker’s earliest black supporters, was more cautious, saying he was “disheartened” by the candidate’s “deeply problematic” comments, but still supports him.
Then there’s that little matter of “God damn, America.”
Pritzker didn’t mean it literally when he said it. He was playing along, repeating after Blagojevich, who was joking about how much trouble he could cause by appointing Obama’s controversial former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to fill the Senate vacancy.
But good luck explaining that when the audio eventually surfaces in another campaign commercial.