CHICAGO — President Donald Trump's decision Tuesday to free former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich from prison may give him a smidgen of credibility with the state's black community.
The ex-governor's case has earned him a healthy dose of sympathy among many African Americans, and his release after serving eight years of a 14-year sentence comes after months of prodding by Rev. Jesse Jackson — who sought a full pardon and remains a popular figure in Illinois.
“Everyone knows 14 years was way beyond the sentencing norms,” said Delmarie Cobb, a longtime political operative who served as Hillary Clinton's Illinois press secretary in 2016 and worked on Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign.
“He didn’t do anything. People go up for murder and don’t get 14 years,” she said, echoing the reasons Trump gave for commuting Blagojevich's sentence.
Jackson’s team declined to comment Tuesday, but Democratic state Rep. Kam Buckner was among those to praise Blagojevich's release while slamming Trump.
“There’s no question Gov. Blagojevich had strong, favorable numbers in African American communities. These are communities that have been over-penalized, over-policed and over-incarcerated and would have empathy [for a commutation]," he said over the phone. "But this president has made it clear to African Americans and the entire world who he is. I don’t think this one act throws anyone off the scent of what his agenda is."
Blagojevich, a Democrat, was convicted in 2011 by a federal jury on more than a dozen counts, including an attempt to sell the Senate seat vacated when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, and was often used to lampoon the machine politics the state has long been known for. But Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has internally championed pardons and commutations, reportedly suggested pardoning Blagojevich would appeal to Democrats.
And despite the political scandal that ended his career more than a decade ago, what black communities also remember about Blagojevich was how he helped diversify the government workforce.
“There are people who feel comfortable with our community and look comfortable with our community, and it’s not a put-on or strained. And that was Blagojevich,” said Cobb, who argued there are some African Americans who believe Blagojevich got such a long sentence because he was friendly to the black community.
Democratic state Rep. LaShawn Ford echoed the sentiment, saying Blagojevich wasn’t just good at schmoozing, he endeared himself to the African American community for hiring black people in his administration and pushing for policies that benefited minorities.
“He hired a lot of African Americans, he supported early childhood education programs that created jobs and allowed parents to go to work, and you saw blacks get contracts to agencies more than you ever did before and maybe even since,” Ford said. It wasn’t about campaign photo ops, he said. Blagojevich earned a reputation for follow-through.
Len Goodman, Blagojevich’s attorney, confirmed with POLITICO that Trump’s team relayed in a phone call that Blagojevich’s sentence was commuted. But he doesn’t know when the former governor will be released.
Many of the state's top Democrats were outraged by Trump's decision. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker found Trump's actions particularly offensive after his own calls to stamp out corruption in a state swirling with federal investigations and indictments against a sitting Chicago alderman and recent members of the state Legislature.
"Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated," Pritzker said in a statement. "President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believes this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time."
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, also a Democrat, said commuting Blagojevich's sentence was always going to be controversial and found it more so under Trump.
“With the challenges we have with ongoing public corruption, Blagojevich is a real touchstone for a lot of people about what is wrong in Illinois politics and it’s unfortunate that this has happened with this president,” she told reporters in Springfield, Ill., Tuesday.
Still, Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, appeared to sympathize with Blagojevich over his lengthy sentence, saying: "14 years is a long time, I think the longest public corruption sentence ever handed down."
Under a different president, she said, freeing Blagojevich might ring with different meaning.
"If the president was somebody who stood for integrity in government, recognized and respected the rule of law and wasn’t constantly trying to undermine the Department of Justice, federal judges and playing favorites with people who have been convicted of serious crimes," Lightfoot said, "I think an action would have a lot more credibility than this one will ever have.”
Even though commuting Blagojevich earned Trump some praise, the ex-governor's supporters say the president's negatives far outweigh any positives.
“It doesn’t change things,” Ford said. "If he really wanted to help, he’d do better by his judicial appointments.”
Democratic state Rep. Chris Welch, who represents suburban cities west of Chicago, wished Blagojevich and his family well.
“The sentence was too long,” he said in an interview. “Remember he’s still a convicted felon who will never serve in elected office again. Deservedly so. Further, I don’t know any black people in my district who will vote for Trump. He should take Rod’s place in that cell.”