Democratic governor candidate J.B. Pritzker issued a public apology Tuesday, saying he regretted remarks he made about African-American politicians with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich during a 2008 discussion about filling Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
“I regret some of the things that I didn’t say and some of the things that I did, but my heart is in the right place — that I’ve tried really hard through the course of my life to do the right things for the African-American community and for communities across Illinois,” Pritzker said at a West Side restaurant, flanked by black elected officials including Secretary of State Jesse White, City Treasurer Kurt Summers and Aldermen Pat Dowell, Michael Scott and Walter Burnett.
“I’ve been better every day since,” Pritzker added.
The apology came as other Democratic governor candidates contended Pritzker’s comments tainted the billionaire’s candidacy and would jeopardize chances for a Democratic victory in the fall.
Pritkzer’s news conference took place less than a day after the Chicago Tribune published the never-before-publicly revealed conversation on its website. The Pritzker-Blagojevich chat was recorded on secret government wiretaps that were part of the federal corruption investigation of the now-imprisoned former governor. Pritzker has noted he has “not been accused of any wrongdoing.”
During the Nov. 14, 2008, conversation, Pritzker floats White’s name for the Senate vacancy created by Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president.
Pritzker tells Blagojevich a White appointment will “cover you on the African-American thing” and that White is the “least offensive” among candidates for the job. Speaking about other options, Pritzker refers to then-state Senate President Emil Jones as “crass” and then-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. as a “nightmare.” Pritzker and Blagojevich later mimic the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s controversial pastor whose inflammatory rhetoric had become a campaign issue in the 2008 presidential contest.
Standing with White on Tuesday, Pritzker said: “On that call, I was not my best self. I can be better. I have been better and I can do better and I have.”
Pritzker said he regretted not standing up to some of Blagojevich’s comments, but said the then-governor was “a somewhat volatile person and I was trying to navigate that” in the conversation.
Pritzker’s conversation with Blagojevich and his apology Tuesday marked a new phase of the contentious campaign for the Democratic governor nomination.
Race has long been a part of Chicago and Illinois politics, and Blagojevich ultimately appointed Roland Burris, who is African-American, to the Obama vacancy. Still, the Pritzker-Blagojevich conversation offered a blunt discussion of the calculations of racial politics the public does not normally hear.
The Democratic governor contenders are vying for the crucial African-American vote in the March 20 primary. Black voters are a core Democratic constituency and historically have accounted for a quarter to a third of the Democratic primary ballots cast.
Pritzker’s chief Democratic rivals, Kenilworth developer Chris Kennedy and state Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, ripped the Blagojevich conversation.
“Our true character shows when we think no one is watching. J.B.’s conversations with Blagojevich are disqualifying and they’re a reflection of his integrity,” said Kennedy, a member of the iconic Massachusetts political family.
Biss told reporters in Springfield that he considered the conversation between Pritzker and Blagojevich “disgusting.” He said it represents “everything wrong with our politics.”
“This is powerful white men totally unaware of their privilege horse trading people of color to gain more power,” Biss said. “It’s way past time that we lift the veil on this ugly imbalance in power between the wealthy and connected on the one hand and people who have been for way too long taken advantage of by a broken system.”
White, who endorsed Pritzker in August and appeared in a campaign ad, is the state’s highest-profile African-American elected official. On Tuesday, White stood by his endorsement, saying he’s known Pritzker for nearly 40 years. White had stated publicly in fall 2008 that he wasn’t interested in the Senate appointment.
Asked by a reporter Tuesday what he thought of Pritzker describing him as the “least offensive” African-American Senate choice, White said, “I thought that maybe out of all the people that were being discussed, that I was probably the most acceptable one.”
But Jones, the former state Senate president, said it was clear in the conversation with Blagojevich that Pritzker meant “Jesse White is a safe black.”
“A safe black is one that’s not going to make any waves. He’s not going to stand up and fight for anything. He’s going to go along. See, Emil Jones has never been a go-along,” said Jones, who is backing Kennedy for the nomination.
“He’s a one-eyed Jack,” Jones said of Pritzker. “He runs around and says one thing, but the wiretap shows you a different person. It shows you the other side of his face and the other side of his face is what he is.”
Jones, who helped advance Obama’s political career as a state senator, noted Pritzker appeared on Bloomberg News in March 2012 and was asked about supporting Obama’s re-election for president.
“We’ll have to wait and see. I don’t know who the nominee’s going to be on the Republican side,” Pritzker said. Later, he said, “You have to pick, sort of, you know, the best of a, of a mediocre, you know, set of choices.”
On Tuesday, Pritzker said of his 2012 response, “I misspoke and I was trying to be demonstrative of what elections are like.” Pritzker backed Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful bid against Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
The revelations about Pritzker’s conversation with Blagojevich produced no large-scale defections from the candidate, whose willingness to use his personal wealth to self-fund his campaign has resulted in the Democratic establishment coalescing around him.
But three aldermen from the Chicago City Council’s Black Caucus issued a statement saying they were “disheartened” by Pritkzer’s comments to Blagojevich. Roderick Sawyer, Carrie Austin and Dowell said in a statement that they still believe Pritzker is the best positioned to become governor in November but added that “J.B. and all white political leaders must stop looking for ‘safe’ or ‘palatable’ black figureheads, as he apparently sought to characterize Jesse White.”
The three aldermen said they “will maintain our support for his candidacy. But we will also look for clear assurances that his thoughts around matters of race and equity have evolved substantially since those calls were recorded in 2008.” Austin, a co-host of a scheduled Friday rally for Pritzker on the South Side, said she learned Tuesday that the event had been canceled but said she was unaware of the reason why.
After the Tribune published its story Monday night, the Pritzker campaign issued a statement contending that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was “colluding with a newspaper” to weaken Pritzker’s primary bid. Rauner has used portions of other conversations obtained by the Tribune in ads attacking Pritzker, as well as some that were publicly available from the ex-governor’s trial.
At his Tuesday news conference, Pritzker didn’t use the word “collusion,” but he brought up Rauner.
“It’s clear that someone who is supportive of Gov. Rauner, who wants him to win re-election, is responsible for leaking, illegally, these recorded conversations. And, you know, it’s obvious I think that they’re working to use the Chicago Tribune as a channel for leaking that,” he said.
Later, Pritkzer added, “I don’t know who did it or how it happened. But it’s clearly intended to have the effect of, you know, benefiting Gov. Rauner and he’s clearly using it to try to benefit himself in his re-election effort.”
Asked to respond, Bruce Dold, the Tribune’s publisher and editor-in-chief, issued a statement Tuesday night.
“We stand by the integrity and independence of the Tribune’s reporting,” Dold said. “We published this information because it was newsworthy. Beyond that, we will not discuss our sources or methods.”
Monique Garcia reported from Springfield.