If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
A lot of people in politics learned that the hard way after close encounters with former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and now it’s J.B. Pritzker suffering the delayed effects of that annoying itch.
The Chicago Tribune broke a good story Wednesday featuring secretly recorded conversations in 2008 between Blagojevich and the billionaire businessman now running as a Democratic candidate for governor.
The recordings were taken from federal wiretaps during the period investigators suspected Blagojevich of trying to sell the Senate seat being vacated by then President-elect Barack Obama. The Tribune didn’t say how it got the tapes.
It was previously known that Pritzker was one of the people Blagojevich considered for the Senate vacancy, but what we now learn is that Pritzker asked Blagojevich to appoint him as state treasurer instead.
“That’s the one I would want,” Pritzker told Blago.
This was based on his mistaken notion that then-Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias was in line to land a position in the Obama administration, which would have created another opening for the governor to fill.
Pritzker told Blagojevich he was “really not that interested” in the Senate seat, but left the door open, even suggesting it might be politically feasible if he agreed to finish out the last two years of Obama’s term and not run for re-election.
Blagojevich wasn’t interested in that scenario either because if Pritzker left after two years he wouldn’t be in position to help Blagojevich secure his own future.
Pritzker didn’t say anything improper from what I heard on those calls. In fact, he raised several objections to Blagojevich’s request for campaign contributions in the context of the vacancies, albeit rather gently.
“Yeah, I don’t think we should even talk about it, but I understand what you’re saying,” Pritzker concluded after one Blagojevich overture.
But the mere fact that Pritzker was recorded kissing up to Blagojevich at a time when it was well known a federal investigation was swirling all around the governor is not going to be helpful to Pritzker’s campaign, to say the least.
Following a campaign appearance late Wednesday evening, Pritzker blamed the newspaper account on Gov. Bruce Rauner and Republicans trying to “throw the kitchen sink” at him, which even if true doesn’t make it any less a news story.
“It should come as no surprise to you that, first, nothing was said in those conversations that’s untoward in any way,” Pritzker told reporters. “Second, that over decades of my life, I have been doing public service, and the opportunity to continue to do public service as treasurer of the state was something that had been brought up, and so there was a conversation about that. That’s all.”
I can already hear the commercial now featuring Pritzker offering his services to Blagojevich after pitching himself for the treasurer’s job.
“. . . Even if none of those things makes sense for you, I’d love to help you in any way I can, you know, with any decision-making you decide to, you know, that you’re going to get involved in. Um, you know, I, I for whatever it’s worth, you know some of the players I know, um, and I would be happy to act as a little bit as an intermediary with the people that you don’t want to have it, or the people you do want to have it, or whatever. So, I just offer myself and my service to you,” Pritzker told Blagojevich.
Lucky for Pritzker, Blago had other intermediaries.
Remember, this came at a time some Democratic politicians were already distancing themselves from Blagojevich in anticipation of his downfall, although others found the Senate opening too attractive to avoid.
It bears stating that everyone who came in contact with Blagojevich during his time as governor should not be considered radioactive.
Republicans tried to play that game with Tammy Duckworth during her U.S. Senate campaign because of her tenure as his director of Veteran’s Affairs, and thankfully, voters saw through it.
As far as the treasurer’s vacancy that never occurred, there’s nothing wrong with Pritzker offering himself as a candidate on the merits, a businessman for a businessman’s job. Same for the Senate vacancy, although it’s not clear from the tapes who first raised that possibility.
That’s within the legitimate boundaries of politics.
Where somebody can get into trouble is when they start promising something tangible in return, and there is no indication Pritzker ever did that. If he had, I’m sure he would have played a more prominent role in Blagojevich’s trial. As it was, he never even testified.
Blagojevich, as we know, saw the end coming to his own political career and was hoping to trade the Senate seat for a post-gubernatorial payday.
Toward that end, he kept telling Pritzker he was still under consideration for the Senate seat. He even suggested he could appoint Pritzker attorney general if he ended up giving the Senate seat to Lisa Madigan.
I interpreted that as Blagojevich not wanting to give up hope on the guy with the biggest checkbook.
According to the Tribune, it was only in a Dec. 3 call to Blagojevich, six days before the governor’s arrest, that Pritzker said he was “officially” taking himself out of the running for the Senate.
Pritzker did not respond when he was asked Wednesday whether he knew by then that Blagojevich had been wiretapped.
Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout