By Rick Pearson and Jeff Coen
On a dark, bitterly cold Sunday afternoon a week before Christmas, an under-the-weather U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush delivered a blistering, half-hour sermon in a historic Bronzeville church on why voters should support Democratic governor candidate Chris Kennedy.
"Stand up and vote for somebody who has change in his DNA. He can't help but be about change," Rush said as the more than 100 people gathered inside the city's oldest African-American church clapped and shouted "Amen."
"I'm telling you, if we tied him up and turned him up and turned him upside down, turned him inside out, change is going to come out of him because he has been about change. He's born and bred in change," Rush said as Kennedy joined the Quinn Chapel AME church crowd in laughing.
The rally highlighted the significance African-Americans play in deciding a statewide Democratic primary, comprising as much as a third of the vote.
Kennedy has made courting the black vote the key to his entire campaign strategy. Billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker is opening campaign offices on the South and West sides. Evanston state Sen. Daniel Biss is relying on supportive African-American lawmakers to get the word out. And Chicago activist Tio Hardiman is urging voters to "make history" by electing him Illinois' first black governor, though he has little money to get that message out.
Race and its ramifications on politics have long been a factor in city and state elections, though the voting public rarely gets to hear the calculations in blunt terms. That was the case nearly a decade ago, when Pritzker and then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich discussed the issue in a phone call the government secretly recorded as part of its investigation into the disgraced governor. The conversation has never before been publicly revealed.
Pritzker, who was advising Blagojevich on filling the U.S. Senate seat held by Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, pitched the idea of picking Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, in part because it "covers you on the African-American thing."
In the 2018 governor's contest, the major Democratic hopefuls are white, and each has picked an African-American running mate. The campaigns also are mapping out themes largely focused on issues plaguing minority communities, such as vows to improve educational and economic opportunities and stem gun violence and crime.
The importance of the black vote can't be understated. In the March 2016 presidential primary, exit polls conducted for TV and cable news networks found African-Americans made up 28 percent of the Democratic vote in Illinois. It was that group's overwhelming 70 percent support for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that made the difference in her narrow 2-percentage-point statewide win over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
This time around, the governor's contest has its own set of circumstances involving the core Democratic constituency. Voter turnout generally falls off in non-presidential years -- though the party has been riled up by Republican President Donald Trump -- and questions remain about whether significant enthusiasm exists for black voters to go to the polls. It falls to the candidates to provide that motivation.
Pritzker's strategy for gaining the support for African-American voters is similar to his overall strategy -- coalesce establishment party leaders behind his well-funded candidacy. He has the backing of two-thirds of black aldermen in Chicago and nearly half of African-American state lawmakers.
Pritzker also has the support of Illinois' top statewide black official, five-term Secretary of State White, who appeared in an early TV ad offering a testimonial.
White also was a subject of conversation on a Nov. 14, 2008, call between Blagojevich and Pritzker in which the two discussed possible Obama successors in the Senate and the political optics of appointing an African-American to the vacancy.
Federal law enforcement officials captured the candid talks on secret wiretaps as they investigated Blagojevich and his administration for public corruption. During recent debates, Pritzker has noted that he's "not been accused of any wrongdoing."
On the call, Pritzker brings up a new name as a potential Senate pick.
"I'm sure you thought of this one, but Jesse White," Pritzker tells Blagojevich. "Even though I know you guys aren't like, you know, bosom buddies or anything, it covers you on the African-American thing."
"Correct," Blagojevich replies.
"(White)'s totally, 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., a Blagojevich ally who is now serving as a Kennedy surrogate in the 2018 governor's contest.
"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 continues.
Pritzker notes that elevating White to the Senate would open up another appointment for secretary of state, an office coveted for its patronage jobs. "It'd be a lot less pressure on you. You don't have to put an African-American in that spot," Pritzker says.
Shortly afterward, Pritzker offers the name of one candidate he doesn't want to see get the Senate job: then-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who was angling for the appointment and later pleaded guilty to federal charges of illegally siphoning campaign funds for personal use.
"Oh God, please," Pritzker says of Jackson Jr. "I mean, what a, I mean it would be a nightmare. I hope you don't do that."
"Man," Blagojevich replies.
Pritzker briefly mentions another Senate possibility, Valerie Jarrett, who went on to be a senior adviser in the Obama White House, before moving on.
"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 tells 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 offers a mild "heh, heh," as Blagojevich adds, "How stupid is that?"
"That's good," Pritzker says. "That's good."
"No, (White)'s a good. He'd be a legitimate pick," says Blagojevich, before noting that White had said publicly that he didn't want the Senate seat.
The Tribune asked Pritzker to explain the conversation and its tone following a campaign event in Aurora on Monday.
"All I would say is I think that there need to be more, you know, people of color that serve in public office," Pritzker said. "I mean, I think that's something, I've supported a lot of candidates over the years who are people of color and Jesse White's, I think, a beloved person in the state of Illinois, so I can only imagine that's what I had in mind."
White endorsed Pritzker for governor in August and has appeared in a campaign ad for him.
Later in the recording, Blagojevich jokingly suggests appointing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's controversial pastor whose inflammatory remarks led the then-presidential candidate to disassociate from him.
"I bet ya he'd take it," Blagojevich says.
"Hilarious," Pritzker replies.
"Huh? Would that be f---ing funny?" Blagojevich says.
"Hilarious," Pritzker says again. "Oh my God."
A laughing Blagojevich then makes a reference to one of Wright's more controversial statements.
"Right there on the Senate floor. 'It's not God Bless America. It's God Damn America.' "
"God Damn America," Pritzker replies as Blagojevich goes on to mock Wright and mimic his voice: "Well now, when Barack was at Sunday school I used to tell him ..."
Blagojevich was no fan of Obama, who had eclipsed him as a national political star. Pritzker had backed Clinton over Obama for president.
The Tribune asked Pritzker on Monday about Blagojevich's mimicking of Wright and his repeating it.
"I mean, I don't recall the conversation," said Pritzker, who added that he "was never a fan of what Jeremiah Wright said."
"All I can say is, I mean, I'm somebody who has always stood up for civil rights and somebody who believes strongly that good people should serve in public office," Pritzker said.
Pritzker's ad spending
Democratic rivals have not underestimated the potential resonance of the Kennedy name, particularly in the African-American community. Kennedy's father, the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and uncle, the late President John F. Kennedy, were leaders during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"The Kennedy name is almost universally known among Democrats, and Pritzker is not," Pritzker said in an interview last month, adding that Kennedy benefits from "a 60-year history of positive name recognition among Democrats."
It also was the reason that Pritzker, who is funding his own campaign, decided to begin TV ads last May.
One political strategist familiar with campaign TV advertising, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the early ads were a smart move by the Pritzker camp in reaching out to African-American voters. The strategist noted that industry surveys show older, black viewers tend to watch more TV than other racial and ethnic demographic groups.
Along with TV spots, Pritzker also opened campaign offices centered where African-American votes live, including in the Austin and Chatham neighborhoods in Chicago, Maywood, South Holland, East St. Louis, Rockford and Peoria.
But Pritzker acknowledged his efforts to connect to the African-American community require an educational component, one that's assisted by his financial wherewithal to deliver his message on TV.
"I have a history of being engaged with issues that are important to the African-American community," said Pritzker, who noted his work to assist in early childhood education among "at-risk" children.
He also points to his $100 million endowment of Northwestern's Pritzker School of Law, which includes such social justice centers as the Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Children and Family Justice Center. "Both of which have been fighting the injustice in the system, much of which is directed on being race-based," Pritzker said.
"I think the differentiator in our campaign is that I have real experience affecting in a positive way people's lives across the state and I can point to them and demonstrate them and they're real people," he said.
"People seem to know who I am and what I've stood for. People know that I've had actual real accomplishments that have affected people in the African-American community in a positive way. I think that is a bigger selling point than having a name," he said.
Pritzker has his share of African-American officials backing him, beginning in April with one of his first endorsements -- a one-time potential rival for the nomination, City Treasurer Kurt Summers.
Pritzker now has the support of a dozen of the city's 18 black aldermen, including 6th Ward Ald. Roderick Sawyer, the head of the Chicago City Council's black caucus. Pritzker also is backed by Aldermen Walter Burnett, 27th; Carrie Austin, 34th; and Michelle Harris, 8th, who each have potent political ground operations. In addition, at least 15 African-American state lawmakers have endorsed him.
The Kennedy brand
Kennedy, who has lagged in campaign fundraising and stumbled at times, is counting on his historic family name. How he fares is a test of whether power remains in the Kennedy brand.
The family's role in the civil rights struggle provides the Kennedy name with a special status among older African-Americans who, like the public at large, tend to cast ballots at a greater rate than younger voters.
Along with support from Congressman Rush -- a Rush brother and son have been paid Kennedy campaign workers -- the backing of veteran U.S. Rep. Danny Davis helps the campaign portray Kennedy as a family legacy candidate to black voters.
"One of the best things that we could do was support for governor in the Democratic primary a man whose values have been shaped by being a part of family," Davis said. "A family whose name will always go down in history in this country as being a part of the progressive movement that has brought America out of the past to where we are today."
Kennedy has driven hard to make the case that the struggle for civil rights continues. He's gone as far as accusing Mayor Rahm Emanuel of leading a "strategic gentrification plan" to rid Chicago of blacks to make the city whiter and wealthier -- something the mayor sharply criticized and denied, and opinion writers derided.
Kennedy's also criticized the Democratic establishment by contending homes in poorer neighborhoods are over-assessed while wealthy commercial properties get property tax breaks, spurred by "The Tax Divide" series by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois.
"This resegregation, it's not accidental. It's not accidental," Kennedy said at the Bronzeville church event in December. "It's occurring because of governmental decisions. We're resegregating our schools. We're resegregating our communities, not just on race but economically as well."
Kennedy said Chicago "was the coolest city in America" under Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor. Now, Kennedy said, "the city isn't the pride of America. Nobody looks up to it. It scares people."
His outreach in the African-American community is in many ways political old school, working through black clergy. Kennedy is backed by activist Rev. Paul Jakes, pastor of the New Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church in East Garfield Park; Rev. Walter Harris, who chairs a group of Methodist ministers and is pastor of Carey Tercentenary AME Church in North Lawndale; and Rev. Andre Johnson, pastor at Grace & Mercy Church of God in Christ in South Holland and the senior pastor at Quinn Chapel in Bronzeville, Rev. James Moody.
Beyond that, Kennedy has the backing of prominent black leaders including John Rogers, CEO of Ariel Investments; Lori Lightfoot, who serves as head of the citizen Chicago Police Board; Robert Starks, who helped run Washington's mayoral campaign; state Rep. Mary Flowers of Chicago; and 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale.
For Biss, the outreach to the African-American community is much like his campaign as a whole: seeking support largely from younger voters among the roughly 30 percent of African-Americans who backed Sanders for president in 2016.
Biss touts "progressive reforms that put economic and racial justice first," and says the state has conditioned African-Americans to accept "high unemployment, underfunded schools, and inadequate access to health care and affordable housing as an inevitable status quo rather than a product of institutional racism."
"We've spoken out against school closings in African-American communities, fought for policies to expand access and opportunity -- such as tuition-free college, universal health care and affordable housing -- and released the most comprehensive criminal justice reform platform of any campaign," he said in an interview last month. "And these aren't just policies I've picked up on the campaign trail. These are deeply held values and goals I've worked towards as a community organizer and a progressive state senator."
Biss said one of his earliest campaign stops was traveling door-to-door in the Englewood neighborhood to discuss community issues. He has a South Side field office and said he plans to open another in the south suburbs.
The candidate's endorsements among African-American leaders include U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson, and state Reps. Will Davis of Homewood and Carol Ammons of Urbana.
Back inside the pre-Christmas Kennedy rally at the Quinn Chapel, Rev. Johnson, the south suburban pastor, delivers the sales pitch for his candidate around the two-hour mark.
"Every time I've seen Chris Kennedy, he has talked about how he's going to help the black family," Johnson said. "Now, it's not that I don't want to help everybody, 'cause we are better together, but while I'm stuck in this circle of being black, I need to make the best that I can. And if he can help my black family, he can help your white family."
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