At a Halloween party at his friend's house at least 10 years ago, state Senate candidate Hal Patton was photographed dressed in an orange football jersey, wearing a black bandana on his head, and his face painted black.
Patton, the Edwardsville mayor who also has been in public office for nearly 20 years holding positions such as City Council member and Madison County Board member, is seeking the seat currently held by state Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton. Haine is not running for re-election.
In the photo, obtained by the Belleville News-Democrat from Democratic operatives, Patton is smiling while holding a drink at the Halloween party.
Patton confirmed the photo is of him, and said it was taken at least 10 years ago. He said he was dressed as a rapper.
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"There was never any intention for it to be an act of racism or racial commentary. It was a rapper," Patton said in an interview. "At the time, Run DMC and others were rappers. That was the look. I hate to say I regret a Halloween costume, in the sense it wasn’t meant to make a statement about anything in politics or anything in race relations or anything in that nature."
He added, "I’ve certainly live my life above board and with the best principles that you can. I have lots of friends from every race and every country — that is how I’ve always lived my life.”
In a statement to the BND on Monday, Patton further explained the costume, which was worn at an annual couples Halloween party, where couples try to pair their outfits.
Patton's wife work a pink dress and was wrapped in cellophane, to be dressed as a piece of bubble gum. Patton said his choices were to pair as a school desk or as a “wrapper."
He chose a rapper outfit with a microphone and face paint, not as a racial statement, but due to the fact that most rappers are African-American, Patton said in the statement.
"Looking back, it was a bad choice for an outfit," Patton said. "I regret it and apologize to those it offends. I never imagined it would be viewed as a racial image, much less saved by someone for nearly nine years before using it to impugn my character."
White actors in the mid- to late-1800s would appear on stage with their face painted black as way of depicting plantation slaves or free blacks in unflattering ways.
Patton, who said he has worn other costumes of characters, said the disclosure of the photo is a desperate attempt by Democrats to keep him off the ballot or hurt his campaign.
Patton said Democrats in Chicago and Springfield “will do anything they can to try to hold on to that power.”
He said he’s disappointed people would use it manipulate his reputation.
“I’ve never had a racist bone in my body, and have always lived my life in a way I could be proud of, of who I associate with, and how I associate with them.”
In previous campaigns, he said, opposing candidates had thought about using the photo, but never did. He said the use of the photo is “politics at its worst.”
Patton is running as a candidate for a third party, Downstate United. He had sought to be the Republican nominee, but was kicked off the ballot in the primary because he also had signed the re-election petitions for state Rep. Katie Stuart, an Edwardsville Democrat. Signing the petitions of a candidate from another party is not allowed.
To run as a third-party candidate, he needs more than 5,200 valid voter signatures to get on the ballot. He has until June 25 to turn in signatures to the State Board of Elections.
Patton would not share how many signatures have been collected by campaign workers and volunteers on his behalf because the count is changing, but he’s confident he’ll have enough to make the ballot.
“We are doing good” Patton said. “It’s a hard effort, but a lot of people are working their tails off. We’ve got a week to go, but I think we’ll be able to accomplish the goal.”
So far, only Democrat Rachelle Aud Crowe, a Madison County assistant state's attorney, is on the November ballot for the Senate seat.
When asked if he was embarrassed by the photo, Patton turned the attention to Crowe.
“The real embarrassment ought to be on my opponent,” Patton said. “She’s never served a day in office, never been elected to anything. They’re putting her up and paying for her race to run for the seat. It would be nice to hear what she has done, or what she has accomplished, some positive things about her to win the seat, instead of resorting to the dirtiest of politics that they can find, for somebody like myself who has served for nearly 20 years, worked hard to make positive things happen in my community for all the residents.”
Crowe said she has committed her life to public service.
"In response to this photo, Hal Patton has made excuses and deflected by attacking me," Crowe said in a statement on Monday. "There is no excuse for blackface. Patton is circulating petitions to get on the ballot under the 'Downstate United' party, but his actions don't represent Downstate values and only divide our community."
Crowe said she had heard rumors of the photo, but said she did not try to obtain it.
She said she was shocked when she saw the photo.
"I’m not sure why he would ever think that wearing blackface is appropriate - it’s offensive and completely unacceptable," Crowe said. "Blackface is racist, ignorant, and threatens the advancements we’ve made in the long fight for civil rights and equality. Elected officials should be held to the highest standard. They should be dedicated to serving the people they represent, not using stereotypes that divide us. Patton's actions don't represent our community, and are a painful reminder that we have much more work to do in achieving full equality and overcoming harmful stereotypes."
The 56th state Senate District includes parts of St. Clair, Madison and Jersey counties.
On Monday, Kwame Raoul, the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, weighed in on the photo.
"This photo is blatantly racist and deeply offensive. I've spent a lot of time with local leaders in the metro-east area, and I know they have worked hard to promote diversity and inclusion in the region notwithstanding the prejudice of some," Raoul said. "I look forward to continuing that work together."
The following is the full statement that Patton issued Monday:
“Having served the public for almost twenty years as an Edwardsville Alderman, Madison County Board Member, and now as Mayor, I have been on the ballot ten different times and involved in many challenging races. So nothing really surprises me in terms of the nasty tricks opponents will try. Typically, the more desperate the opponent, the lower they will go.
“This particular picture has been threatened to be used in my last three races. It was taken at an annual couples Halloween costume party where husband and wife try to pair their outfits. My wife was set on wearing a pink dress and wrapping it cellophane, those a piece of bubble gum. My choices to pair up we’re going as a school desk or as a ‘wrapper.’ A rapper outfit with a microphone and face paint was chosen, not as a racial statement, but due to the fact that most rappers are African-American.
“Looking back, it was a bad choice for an outfit. I regret it and apologize to those it offends. I never imagined it would be viewed as a racial image, much less saved by someone for nearly nine years before using it to impugn my character.
“Any one the knows me, knows that I do not judge people by their race or nationality. I grew up in household that taught how to love others, not to hate them. My friends, former classmates, employees, dental patients, and current co-workers at the city would all confirm this. In my dental practice I care for people of many different races and backgrounds yet all my employees will tell you that we consider them family. At the City of Edwardsville, we have always hired the best candidate, and I am pleased to report that we have more minorities and females working for us than ever before. In fact, my last three appointments that I have recommended for the city council have been females.
“I am saddened that I need to write about these things, but feel it is important for those who do not know me, to not judge my character from a Halloween costume. Moreover, I am sickened by and worried for the individual or individuals who would keep such a ridiculous picture for nine plus years and use it such a cheap manor. If these persons or anyone would like to discuss any issue with me, I have always made myself available.
“This is the second desperate act taken against me in this election cycle. Clearly, my opponent and her allies will use any methods, no matter how pathetic, to maintain power and control of our political system in Illinois. The more I get into trying to change the dysfunction in Springfield, the more disgusted I get.”