Newly-Released Tapes Turn Campaign for Governor into Debate on Race

Pritzker is forced to apologize for his remarks during a phone call with disgraced former governor Rod Blagojevich. During the call, Pritzker made disparaging comments about African American leaders. NBC 5's Mary Ann Ahern reports.

(Published Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018)

The ongoing drip, drip, drip of FBI tapes for Democratic candidate for Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker continued Monday, as newly-released recordings revealed a conversation with disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich about possible African-American candidates to replace President Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate.

Headlines of the conversation, released by the Chicago Tribune, include Pritzker calling Secretary of State Jesse White the "least offensive" pick, calling former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones "crass," saying that choosing then-U.S. Rep Jesse Jackson Jr. "would be a nightmare," and mocking Obama's controversial former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The Tribune reports that the conversation between Pritzker and Blagojevich took place on November 14, 2008. Blagojevich was arrested by the FBI less than a month later.

In the secretly recorded wiretaps, Pritzker compared White to Jones, saying White is, "totally, you know, uh, he’s Senate material in a way that Emil Jones isn’t, if I may say."

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Pritzker later says that White is the "least offensive" option, adding, "I don’t know how to say it exactly, but Emil’s a little more crass."

A spokesman for White said Pritzker called him on Monday after the story broke, and White, who endorsed Pritzker for governor in August, "is very comfortable with him."

"They had a good conversation, connecting as friends," White's spokesman said, but would not say if Pritzker had apologized for his comments.

As Pritzker discusses other possible African-American candidates in the leaked recordings, he appears to suggest that appointing Jackson would be "a nightmare. I hope you don’t do that," according to the Tribune.

The recording also reveals Blagojevich joking about appointing Wright, Obama’s former pastor whose comments caused controversy for the then-presidential candidate in 2008.

Pritzker bantered with Blagojevich about Wright's remarks like, "God Damn America," as the former governor launched into an impression of the pastor.

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In a statement, Pritzker chose to blame Gov. Bruce Rauner for the release of the tapes - which came several months after the Tribune published recordings in May 2017 that reveal Pritzker and Blagojevich discussing a potential political appointment for the billionaire Hyatt heir.

“On the same day Bruce Rauner released a new attack ad in the Democratic primary with edited audio of illegally leaked calls, the Chicago Tribune has now released portions of calls they’ve chosen to sit on for nine months," Pritzker's spokeswoman Galia Slayen said in a statement.

"J.B. has always made clear how much he admires Jesse White and believes he would have made a great senator for Illinois. Bruce Rauner should spend less time colluding with a newspaper on how to play politics in another party’s primary and more time figuring out how to be in charge and stop failing this state," the statement ended.

But the Rauner campaign responded, "The Pritzker campaign must be panicking because now they’re just making things up."

Pritzker's Democratic opponents took the opportunity to launch their own attacks as well.

"The recorded conversations between J.B. Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich represent everything that’s wrong with the connection between money and power,” state Sen. Daniel Biss said in a statement. “For too long our broken system has allowed the wealthy to have unfettered access to the decision-makers in our government. That’s what breeds corruption. And when that access involves two influential white men making political calculations based on skin color, that’s what perpetuates a racist system," he continued.

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"People shouldn’t be reduced to their race,” Biss' running mate state Rep. Litesa Wallace added.

"Like anyone else, black people have individual strengths and weaknesses, and none of those are predicated on the color of our skin," she continued. "When I hear conversations between the rich and powerful that minimize anyone based on race, or gender, or any other characteristic, it reminds me of the work that remains for all of us. We must stop treating people like commodities and build a world where we have co-governance and a true representative democracy.”

“J.B. Pritzker owes us all an apology,” Biss said. “What J.B. said is racially insensitive at best and at worst reveals an attitude that is disrespectful to African-Americans. He needs to stop blaming others and take responsibility for his actions, not hide behind statements issued by a campaign spokesperson.”

Chris Kennedy’s campaign also released a statement, saying, "Our true character shows when we think no one is watching. JB's conversations with Blagojevich are disqualifying and they're a reflection of his integrity. The language he used to marginalize the African-American community is unacceptable."

"To use the term 'least offensive' to describe anyone, particularly one of our state's longest-serving African-American leaders, is dismissive and disrespectful. J.B. Pritzker should apologize instead of blaming others," he said, while his running mate Ra Joy added, "To hear J.B. Pritzker say the words 'least offensive' to describe black men in America, black elected officials from Illinois, is beyond offensive."

"We are more than a 'thing.' We are leaders, we are voters, we are parents, we are sons and daughters, we are neighbors, and we are trying to overcome generations of racism," Joy continued. "Structural inequities make that difficult, if not impossible, and J.B. Pritzker's demeaning language unravels the progress we've made."

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