Pritzker Betting The Pot On Legalizing Marijuana In Governor’s Race

Photo Credit: Mark Brown

Democratic candidate for governor J.B. Pritzker said Friday he would “intentionally include black and brown entrepreneurs” in running legalized marijuana dispensaries and production facilities as a way to address “historically systemic racism.”

In his first press conference of the new year, the billionaire businessman signaled he intends to make marijuana legalization an even bigger centerpiece of his Democratic campaign for governor.

For Pritzker, the issue has the advantage of differentiating him from one of his main competitors in the March 20 primary, Chris Kennedy, as well as from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Kennedy has taken a more cautious position, supporting marijuana decriminalization but seeking more studies on the effect of outright legalization, while Rauner has said legalizing marijuana would be a mistake.

Pritzker emphasized the benefits to minorities of pot legalization on both economic and criminal justice reform grounds. He also said he would review and commute the sentences of people incarcerated for marijuana offenses.

He seemed to be trying to counter Kennedy’s recent appeal to minority voters by accusing Mayor Rahm Emanuel of attempting to push “people of color” out of the city.

Pritzker sidestepped a question on whether he would establish a specific set-aside for minority involvement in licensed marijuana facilities.

The marijuana issue also allowed Pritzker to remind voters of Rauner’s continued reticence to speak out regarding President Donald Trump, even over federal policies with important implications for the state.

With Trump being the gift that keeps on giving for most Illinois Democrats, Pritzker has moved early and often to cast himself as an outspoken critic of the president and his policies.

In this case, Pritzker called out Rauner over a move last week by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that frees up federal prosecutors to enforce federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized it. Illinois has allowed the sale of medical marijuana under limited circumstances since 2015.

“While Rauner, Trump and Sessions want to take the nation backward, I think it’s time for Illinois to move forward,” Pritzker told reporters outside a medical marijuana dispensary in Uptown. “Our state should legalize marijuana. This is yet another moment our governor should stand up against Donald Trump.”

Rauner regards himself as a very different politician than Trump, but ever since Trump emerged as the Republican nominee for President, Rauner has been reluctant to publicly criticize the man whose Illinois supporters could be essential to his own re-election.

Earlier Friday, Pritzker released a statement slamming Trump for his behind-closed-door comments to U.S. senators referring to African immigrants as being from “shithole” countries. In this case, even Rauner could not stay silent, telling reporters in Rockford that such “language has no place in political conversation.”

It was the first time Pritzker had faced the Chicago news media in nearly a month, although his campaign has kept up its relentless attacks on Rauner without him.

The Pritzker campaign swears its candidate wasn’t hibernating in some rose garden during that time. He’s been making public appearances all along, they said, just not announcing them to the press.

Plenty has happened in the meantime: the emergence as a campaign issue of 13 deaths from Legionnaires’ Disease at the Quincy Veterans Home, a stinging commercial from Rauner using an FBI wiretapped conversation between Pritzker and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Kennedy’s accusation that Emanuel had pursued “racist” policies.

Pritzker continued to shrug off the wiretap, reiterating that he did nothing wrong and arguing Rauner started running the commercial to distract from his “mismanagement” of the Veterans Home.

That could be, but Pritzker surely knows his conversation with Blagojevich is going to be campaign fodder all the way through the election, every bit as much as his plans for Illinois.