CHICAGO – The investigation that sent former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prison still is causing political problems for Democrats, a decade after the FBI secretly began recording his profanity-laced conversations.
Billionaire J.B. Pritzker, a leading candidate for governor, is the latest forced to do damage control. He’s heard on newly released wiretaps making disparaging comments about prominent Chicago African-Americans in a 2008 call with Blagojevich about filling a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Pritzker, the pick of many in the Democratic establishment, apologized Tuesday at a news conference with several African-American supporters at his side. On Wednesday, his campaign touted an endorsement from Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, who said Pritzker is “a leader who has been there for our communities.”
But the fallout has been harsh. A well-known African-American minister rescinded an invitation for Pritzker to speak at his church. Pritzker’s rivals in the March 20 primary said he’s now unelectable, and a Pritzker campaign field organizer publicly resigned over the comments.
On the recordings, Pritzker told Blagojevich that Secretary of State Jesse White is the “least offensive” of the African-Americans being considered for Barack Obama’s spot in the Senate. He also said former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones is too “crass” to be “Senate material.”
Jones, who’s supporting businessman Chris Kennedy in the primary, refused to accept Pritzker’s apology. His response prompted the Chicago Sun-Times to put Jones’ boldfaced message to Pritzker on the newspaper’s front page: “Shove it up your crass.”
The previously unreleased wiretap recordings were published Monday by the Chicago Tribune and quickly roiled the race.
Pritzker, who hasn’t been accused by authorities of wrongdoing, said he believes someone is trying to hurt his campaign by leaking the audio to the Tribune, which also released wiretaps last year in which Pritzker talks with Blagojevich about a possible appointment to a state office. Pritzker said Tuesday he doesn’t know if other recordings exist with his voice on them.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner already has been attacking Pritzker in campaign ads that feature the earlier audio. Invoking Blagojevich is a strategy Rauner and others have successfully used before.
Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on charges that included trying to trade Obama’s Senate seat for campaign cash. He’s serving a 14-year prison term.
Rauner, a wealthy former businessman, spent millions in 2014 on ads that linked then-Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to Blagojevich and other top Democrats and accused them of cronyism and corruption. Rauner defeated Quinn, who’d served as Blagojevich’s lieutenant governor, to become Illinois’ first GOP governor in more than a decade.
“[Blagojevich] is the gift that keeps on giving for Republicans,” said Pat Brady, a former Illinois Republican Party chairman. “He’s a nationally known figure with a reputation for incompetence and corruption. You could probably link someone in Missouri to him and it would hurt them.”
Even Democrats in safe political territory have seen their careers tainted. Jesse Jackson Jr. became a congressman at 30 and was often mentioned as a possible candidate for Chicago mayor until his name came up in the Blagojevich investigation.
Jackson, son of the civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson, acknowledged he was the subject of a congressional ethics inquiry for his role in trying to succeed Obama in the Senate. He wasn’t charged criminally in the case, although years later he pleaded guilty to using campaign funds for personal items including a Rolex.
Then there are candidates who try to avoid the topic altogether.
One of Democrats seeking the nomination for Illinois attorney general is a lawyer best known for his work as a defense attorney for Blagojevich, although there’s no mention of it on Aaron Goldstein’s campaign website. At candidate forums he instead talks up his experience as a public defender or even a summer internship helping the homeless.
When asked about Blagojevich, Goldstein said his work on the trial gave him a firsthand look into corruption and holding people accountable. He then notes how he ran for a Democratic committeeman, ousting Blagojevich’s father-in-law, Dick Mell.