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Emails, texts show playful exchanges between political blogger, Pritzker staff over Confederate Railroad cancellation

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Thursday, August 8, 2019  |  Article  |  By Greg Bishop | The Center Square

Governor (44) , State Fair, Fairs
An Illinois politics blogger who receives tens of thousands of dollars from state government agencies wouldn't comment on whether his post about Confederate Railroad and subsequent texts to the governor’s staff had anything to do with the abrupt cancellation of the band’s performance at the DuQuoin State Fair.

Rich Miller writes the Capitol Fax blog, a subscription-based newsletter and website. In fiscal year 2018, Miller received $35,736 from state government. He received $34,791 in fiscal year 2019. So far for the fiscal year that started July 1, he’s received $1,500, according to the latest public records. Most of the payments to Miller were line items of $500 from various state agencies throughout the year, including the General Assembly. Miller sells both subscriptions to and advertisements on Capitol Fax.

The Center Square obtained text messages and emails to and from Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office through the Freedom of Information Act. Those messages show on June 17, the same day Miller posted a blog questioning the band’s scheduled performance, Miller sent a text to the governor’s deputy press secretary, Emily Bittner.

“[C]an you explain to me why a band called Confederate Railroad is playing at the [DuQuoin State Fair]? lol,” Miller wrote. “[A]nd is the governor going?”

Bittner responded: “Oh dear.”

“[O]h yes,” Miller texted.

Bittner then emailed a team within the governor’s office: “I’m getting some questions from Rich about whether it’s appropriate to have a band named Confederate Railroad at the Du Quoin state fair.”

The band’s performance was subsequently canceled June 23, the day before tickets were to go on sale.

John Homan, managing editor of Southern Illinois Local Media Group, with newspapers serving Marion and DuQuoin, emailed Miller July 8 and said it seemed Pritzker’s administration was “swayed” by Miller’s blog post. Miller downplayed that, but then forwarded his email thread with Homan to the governor’s staff with the message “fyi” and “lol.” 

When asked by The Center Square, Homan responded to Miller sharing their private communication with the governor’s staff.

“Mr. Miller has the right to say what he wants and I may not have chosen that route but that’s his decision and I’ll just let it go at that,” Homan said.

Miller didn’t directly respond to messages seeking comment as to whether it was appropriate for him to share with the governor's staff the private correspondence he had with Homan. He did, however, question whether his post and text to Bittner prompted the cancellation of Confederate Railroad's performance at the fair.

“Do you believe that if I hadn’t asked a question to the governor’s comms director that the band would’ve played the gig, even though this governor has gone out of his way to show he is an anti-racist since those embarrassing Blagojevich tapes surfaced during the campaign?” Miller replied in an email to The Center Square.

During the 2016 campaign, FBI wiretaps of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich recorded Pritzker talking about some African-American lawmakers he said were “crass” when discussing who should be appointed to Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat after Obama won the presidency. During the conversation, Pritzker called Secretary of State Jesse White the "least offensive" of the candidates for the job.

Other text messages between Miller and Bittner obtained through FOIA show Miller sharing various Facebook groups that opposed the cancellation, along with news coverage about the decision. Some of the messages between Miller and Bittner were redacted before being released to The Center Square.

The Center Square is challenging those redactions with the Illinois Attorney General Office's Public Access Counselor.

Another text exchange with Bittner includes Miller quoting a comment from a social media post about the cancellation. 

"'One good thing came of it: bringing slaves over your family and heritage grew up here and now you're free. Their own people sold them to colonists. If you want to blame anyone, blame yourselves.'," Miller wrote. 

"I just read that," Bittner responds. "Disgusting. Am very close to having something for you." 

"Ok," Miller responded. 

A followup message from Miller is redacted. 

Bittner responded: "Ok am w gov."

A later exchange has Miller saying "tfw [that feeling when] you have to say 'i am not a racist." 

Bittner responded: "'You say two racist things and the evil media tags you as a racist!'"

"[I]nfighting has begun," Miller responds. 

He continued to share links to Facebook with Bittner. 

A later exchange had a redacted comment from Miller followed by three lines of text from Bittner that said: "Off the record." The rest of that message was redacted.

Another followup message from Miller was also redacted as was a multiline response from Bittner. The governor's office cited multiple exemptions in the state's Freedom of Information Act for redacting the exchanges. The Center Square is challenging those redactions.

Communications with the governor’s office obtained through the state's open records law also show the anger some felt after Confederate Railroad was pulled from the DuQuoin State Fair lineup.

Amid a flurry of press inquiries to the governor’s communication staff in the wake of news spreading that Confederate Railroad was canceled, Oakland Mayor Bob Michaels emailed the governor’s office expressing his opposition to the decision, especially since Snoop Dogg was allowed to perform in Springfield.

“I’m appalled by the fact that you are pulling Confederate Railroad from the state fair yet Snoop Dogg is allowed to perform,” Michaels wrote July 10. “I’m a mayor in a small town downstate, but of course you don’t know we exist.”

Reached for comment, Michaels said he didn’t buy the governor’s response that Snoop Dogg’s artwork depicting President Donald Trump dead was “political satire” while the Confederate flag was a symbol of hate.

“People have a right to either purchase tickets or not purchase tickets,” Michaels said. “I don’t think the governor should be taking on the role of deciding what we do and don’t buy tickets for.”

Other messages obtained through FOIA show a request from Pritzker’s Deputy Chief of Staff for External Affairs Sean Rapelyea to the Business Leadership Council in support of the governor’s quote “bold action.”

“The Governor of Illinois will never support a band that promotes a hateful symbol rooted in division, violence, genocide, and a defense of the institution of slavery,” he wrote. “A response supporting his bold action would be much appreciated.”

Business Leadership Council Executive Director Karen Riley responded “it takes bravery to admit a wrong and correct it.”

“Solid move by the Governor to lead the State that he envisions,” she said.

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