SPRINGFIELD — For the second time in a little over a week Gov. Bruce Rauner scrambled Tuesday to clarify remarks that have drawn him heat in situations with racial overtones.
Late Tuesday night, Rauner sought to undo the damage from a statement his newly revamped communications office issued earlier in the day, when a top spokeswoman said that the governor would not offer an opinion on a cartoon some called racist — because he is “a white male.”
Democrats blasted Rauner all day — with one lawmaker accusing the governor of “cowardice” and Mayor Rahm Emanuel declaring that Rauner should be “embarrassed for turning a blind eye to what is plain for everyone to see.”
The governor sought to fix the gaffe Tuesday night.
“Earlier today an email went out from my office that did not accurately reflect my views,” Rauner said in the follow-up statement. “I can understand why some people found the cartoon offensive. And I believe we should do more as a society and a nation to bring us together, rather than divide us.”
“There are many passionate people engaged in public policy debates, and different people react differently,” Rauner said. “It is not my place to comment on every cartoon or picture that comes from people outside the governor’s office or to tell people how they should feel.
“I urge everyone to put this behind us so we can focus on solving the very real challenges of education fairness and economic opportunity facing our state.”
The flap had been simmering since last week when the Illinois General Assembly first denounced the cartoon by the Illinois Policy Institute.
The cartoon by the conservative think tank — which has seen former staffers move into key roles in the governor’s office after an administration purge — depicted a black child in a Cubs cap begging for money for school from a wealthy white man. The cigar-smoking man was showing one pocket empty and the other stuffed with tax-increment financing money.
Legislators decried the cartoon as racist on the Illinois House floor last week, and the think tank later removed it from the institute’s website.
The flap reignited Tuesday afternoon, when the governor’s office finally responded to continued requests for comment on the image. Rauner’s office has said for days that he hadn’t even seen the cartoon.
“The governor would never try to talk anyone out of their reaction to any piece of art, political or nonpolitical, right or left, good or bad,” Patrick said in a statement. “The governor has great respect for the black caucus and members of the General Assembly who voiced concerns about the cartoon.
“The governor’s office has also heard from members of the black community who found truth in the imagery and do not find the cartoon offensive. Here is where things stand: The cartoon was removed days ago. And the governor — as a white male — does not have anything more to add to the discussion.”
The governor was one of the few politicians who didn’t seem to have an opinion.
State Rep. Jaime Andrade denounced the cartoon on the House floor last week, drawing a bipartisan standing ovation when he described it as “s—.”
State Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, called it a “Sambo” cartoon. State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon, agreed, tweeting “Cartoons don’t make racism any more palatable @illinoispolicy should delete their cartoon and apologize. That has no place in policy debate.”
The initial “white male” response from Rauner’s office on Tuesday did not go over well with Mitchell.
“Wait what? So being a white male removes @GovRauner from a position of moral leadership? This is more disgraceful than saying nothing,” Mitchell tweeted.
Mitchell later released a statement calling the governor’s refusal to comment on the cartoon “as a white male,” a “display of cowardice.”
“Is Governor Rauner’s identity as a white male more important to him than his job as Governor?” Mitchell said. “Will he no longer comment on issues affecting non-white Illinoisans? Will he no longer stand against reproductive rights for women, since he’s a male?”
Emanuel also chimed in.
“The cartoon issued by the governor’s allies at the Illinois Policy Institute is unambiguously racist,” Emanuel said in a statement. “We can give no quarter to racism, and there can be no justification for leaders unwilling to stand up and call out racist acts. For a man so eager to speak his mind so often, the governor’s silence is deafening.”
Last week, the Illinois Policy Institute defended the cartoon, which was intended to depict how Chicago siphons money from education with TIF funds. The think tank denied that it was racist, but removed it from its website, saying it was distracting from the debate over education funding and “the failure of political leaders to address the root cause of our struggling education system.”
Even after the institute removed the cartoon, NBC5 Political Reporter Mary Ann Ahern kept the issue alive on Twitter, repeatedly questioning whether the governor had seen the cartoon and what his reaction was.
Patrick finally responded Tuesday.
“Charges of racism must be taken very seriously,” she said. “The tragedy in Charlottesville and its aftermath serve as sobering reminders that even today, some remain who would use violence and hate to divide us. We must never relent in working toward a future built not on what divides us, but what unites us.”
But she scolded the media and politicians for focusing on the cartoon.
“The fixation on this cartoon and the governor’s opinion of it has been disappointing,” Patrick said. “What the media and political class should be concerned about is ensuring schools open on time and stay open with a fair funding formula. Now is the time to come together to do what’s right for all of Illinois’ children.”
It’s the second time in little over a week that the governor has stumbled and had to clarify remarks — with a magnifying glass on his office amid his new staff.
Last week, he condemned the Charlottesville, Virginia, attack as “racism, hatred and violence” as “appalling” and “completely beyond anything that America should be about.” But the governor hesitated in calling it “terrorism.” He only did so hours later — after saying he consulted with law enforcement — concluding the Charlottesville tragedy was “absolutely an act of domestic terrorism.”
Two days later the governor was more firm in his response, saying he vehemently disagreed with President Trump’s remarks that “there’s blame on both sides.”