CHICAGO -- Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner offered conflicting statements Tuesday on a political cartoon critics have called racist, first saying he didn't have anything to add to the discussion "as a white male" before walking it back hours later.
The first-term Republican had repeatedly said he hadn't seen the image, which depicts a black Chicago schoolchild begging for money from a suit-clad white man who has cash stuffed in one pocket. The cartoon was circulated online last week by the Chicago-based Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank Rauner has links to.
Lawmakers widely criticized the image, with Republicans and Democrats standing up in opposition on the Illinois House floor last week. The image, meant to illustrate inequity in school funding, was removed hours later.
Rauner's spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, said in a Tuesday afternoon statement that the governor has respect for lawmakers who have concerns, but he's also heard from black residents "who found truth in the imagery and do not find the cartoon offensive."
"The cartoon was removed days ago. And the governor - as a white male - does not have anything more to add to the discussion," Patrick said in a statement first sent to Chicago's WMAQ-TV. "The fixation on this cartoon and the governor's opinion of it has been disappointing."
However, by evening, Rauner issued his own words saying the earlier comments from his office "did not accurately reflect my views" and he could "understand why some people found the cartoon offensive." He then added that it wasn't his place to "comment on every cartoon or picture that comes from people outside the governor's office."
Reaction to Rauner's response, particularly the initial statement, was swift, with some saying it raised more questions.
"It is both a display of cowardice and a stunning abdication of moral leadership by the governor," said Rep. Christian Mitchell, a black Chicago Democrat. "Is he saying his being a white male is more important than his role as governor? Is he saying he will no longer comment on issues because he's a white male?"
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a onetime chief of staff under former President Barack Obama, called the cartoon "unambiguously racist" and that Rauner should be "embarrassed for turning a blind eye to what is plain for everyone to see."
Critics said the cartoon was reminiscent of racist stereotypes found in imagery of past decades, with many calling it insensitive in the wake of the deadly attack at a white nationalist rally in Virginia.
Patrick said Rauner "would never try to talk anyone out of their reaction to any piece of art, political or nonpolitical, right or left, good or bad."
Rauner, a wealthy businessman, donated to the Illinois Policy Institute before he became governor. In recent weeks, he's also hired top aides who worked there, including the former president as his chief of staff.
Rauner is running for re-election next year.
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