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Perennial candidate asks question that just won’t go away

Illinois Democratic Gubernatorial candidates, from left, Robert Marshall, Bob Daiber, J.B. Pritzker, Daniel Biss, Chris Kennedy and Tio Hardiman participated in a forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Of the six Democratic candidates for governor who appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board on Thursday, Dr. Robert Marshall has the least cause to be taken seriously.

The Oak Forest Hospital radiologist is what we euphemistically call a “perennial candidate,” having previously run for the U.S. Congress and Senate, at least once as a Republican, without ever coming close.

His main campaign proposal for governor is to split Illinois into three separate states, a change from the four separate states he suggested when he last got on the ballot two years ago.

But sometimes it takes the more eccentric candidate to say out loud what others are thinking but are too polite to mention.

OPINION

And so it was that Marshall followed up on Pritzker’s latest fuzzy defense of that embarrassing 2008 wiretapped phone call with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now the subject of Bruce Rauner campaign commercials, with this jarring declaration:

“I assume we’ve all seen that tape. Anybody who is the subject of that tape is unelectable. Mr. Pritzker cannot win … in the general election,” Marshall said.

Whether or not you agree with Marshall’s assessment, and I don’t, he raised the question very much on the minds of many Democrats as they sort through the March 20 primary field for a candidate to take on the big bucks Republican governor.

Dr. Robert Marshall participates in a forum with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

If Rauner spends tens of millions of dollars over the next 10 months to constantly replay excerpts of that tape with its unmistakable sound of would-be politician Pritzker sucking up to sociopathic politician Blagojevich, will voters loathe Pritzker as much as they already do Rauner and afford the Republican a second term?

I doubt that even Pritzker’s Democratic opponents would want it to come to that, although they wouldn’t mind if primary voters took the possibility into account. None of them piled on after Marshall’s comment.

As far as the Blagojevich tape making Pritzker unelectable, the evidence would indicate even Rauner doesn’t necessarily believe so.

RELATED: Democrats spar over Blagojevich, black exodus and big bucks in Sun-Times forum

If he did, why would he be trying so hard to blow up Pritzker’s candidacy at this early stage before Pritzker is even the Democratic nominee?

At the very least, though, the recording is a significant problem for Pritzker, one that he keeps trying to shrug off in the affable style that is nearly as responsible for his popularity with Democratic insiders as his very deep pockets.

In an otherwise strong presentation to the Sun-Times’ Editorial Board, Pritzker stuck to his usual talking points when asked about his relationship with Blagojevich.

“Gov. Blagojevich broke the trust with the people of the state of Illinois, and he’s in prison where he belongs,” Pritzker said. “Sadly, we have a government and once again a governor that’s focused on themselves and not on doing what’s right for the people of the state of Illinois. I’m proud about doing public service. Any conversations I had were about doing public service, and any suggestion by Gov. Blagojevich of any contribution I rebuffed.”

The conversation was actually about Pritzker wanting to be appointed to the office of state treasurer, which he mistakenly thought might be vacated by then-treasurer Alexi Giannoulias taking a job in the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.

Illinois Democratic Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker addresses the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

That was never going to happen, but it gave Blagojevich an opportunity to dangle that possibility and others in front of Pritzker in hopes of squeezing a fat campaign contribution out of him.

To the extent Pritzker “rebuffed” Blagojevich, he did so rather gently, leading to the particularly unbecoming “I’d do it” segment being used in the Rauner television commercials.

I assume that’s why, when pressed about his chat with Blagojevich, Pritzker offered this limited mea culpa:

“I regret the tone of portions of that conversation, but at every point I have tried to focus simply on what’s best for the people of the state of Illinois.”

I would encourage anyone interested to go online and listen to the whole tape and not just that portion being aired by Rauner.

My own take is that it’s less damning in its entirety than portrayed, though hardly reassuring.