CHICAGO - Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker finds himself in the center of a new firestorm in the race for Illinois governor. It stems from newly published FBI wiretaps where he and convicted former Governor Rod Blagojevich are heard making disparaging remarks about African Americans while talking about filling the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.
According to the audio published by the Chicago Tribune, Pritzker suggests to Blagojevich that he consider appointing Secretary of State Jesse White to the position.
"Even though I know you guys aren't like, you know, bosom buddies or anything, it covers you on the African-American thing," Pritzker is heard saying.
"Correct," Blagojevich replies.
Referring to White, Pritzker continues: "He's totally, you know, uh, he's Senate material in a way that Emil Jones isn't, if I may say," Pritzker says, referring to former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr.
"OK," Blagojevich says.
"I mean, you know. He's just, I don't know how to say it exactly, but Emil's a little more crass," Pritzker continued.
Pritzker noted how he didn't want to see Jesse Jackson Jr. get the senate seat. He then adds: "But if you're forced to put an African-American in the spot, which my guess is, you're not forced to do anything, but my guess is a lot of pressure to do it, of all the African-Americans I can think that are sort of like qualified and vetted and people will say, 'Oh, that's, you know, that's, that's a pretty good pick,' the one that's least offensive and maybe gets you the most because it gets you that secretary of state appointment is Jesse White," Pritzker says to Blagojevich.
Blagojevich responds, "You can argue he's, you know, he's got a lot in common with Obama, he's black and white. Ha." Pritzker responds with a slight chuckle, "heh, heh." Blagojevich then adds, "How stupid is that?"
"That's good," Pritzker replies. "That's good."
The audio has drawn sharp criticism from Pritzker's rivals in the race for governor as well as members of the African-American community.
"I don't want him to come to me and apologize to me, he insulted my whole community," Jones said Tuesday.
Pritzker said he called Jones to apologize Tuesday morning. He offered another apology to Jesse White.
"On that call I was not my best self. I can be better, I have been better, and I can do better, and I've tried to live up to the values that my parents have taught me," Pritzker said.
"I've had the great pleasure of knowing J.B. Pritzker for almost 40 years. I know where his heart is, I know where he is, I know about our relationship, and I was not offended by it," said White.
The comments are now dividing the African American community.
"I think he gave some good advice as far as supporting Jesse White. I don't know why that's a crime because he suggested and tried to push and lobby for Jesse White, even though Jesse White didn't know he was lobbying for him," said 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett Jr.
"This is a slap in our face, taking our community for granted, playing our community against each other, this is not the kind of leadership we need at this time," said 9th Ward Alderman Anthony Beale.
Pritzker had recently been invited to speak at Sweet Holy Spirit Church, but Bishop Larry Trotter has now dis-invited him.
"For Pritzker to refer to (Emil Jones) as 'crass' is a slap in the face to every African American in Illinois. Just to think we are six days into Black History Month and a candidate for governor thinks it's funny to join in on such derogatory discussions about our leaders," Trotter said.
A spokesman noted that Webster's dictionary defines "crass" as "stupid", "not intelligent," "ignorant," "tasteless" and "tactless."
"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," Chris Kennedy said in a statement, adding, "To use the term 'least offensive' to describe anyone, particularly one of our state's longest-serving African-American leaders, is dismissive and disrespectful. JB Pritzker should apologize instead of blaming others."
Daniel Biss also weighed in.
"The recorded conversations between J.B. Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich represent everything that's wrong with the connection between money and power," 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."
Biss called on Pritzker to apologize.
"What JB 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," he said.
Pritzker's campaign issued a statement accusing Governor Bruce Rauner of colluding with the Tribune:
"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," said Galia Slayen, communications director for the Pritzker campaign. "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."
A spokesman for Governor Rauner's campaign responded, "The Pritzker campaign must be panicking because now they're just making things up."
A campaign spokesman for Jesse White said Pritzker and White spoke on the phone Monday night after the audio became public. White was not offended by the recording and the conversation was described as fruitful.
"He's full committed to JB's campaign and this doesn't give him any hesitation in the least," said Rocco Claps, White's political director, adding White will continue to support Pritzker.