Indicted former lawmaker on way to winning state House race
(MCT) — Indicted former state Rep. Derrick Smith was on his way Tuesday to writing a new chapter in Illinois political notoriety by regaining his House seat just months after being impeached and expelled over his federal bribery arrest.
Smith declared victory in the West Side race that pitted him against lawyer Lance Tyson, who was selected to run as an independent by some of the same Democratic leaders who helped Smith win the March primary one week after his arrest.
Smith, who has pleaded not guilty, refused to resign or get off the November ballot after his primary victory. That prompted party leaders to back Tyson and the Illinois House to boot Smith on a 100-6 vote, making him the first House member expelled in 107 years.
But with 79 percent of the precincts reporting, Smith had 62 percent to 38 percent for Tyson in the battle to regain his seat.
Smith declared victory at a party attended by only about a dozen people at JLM Abundant Life Community Center. He said he looked forward to working with Democrats in the House and to clearing his name in court.
“I know it won’t be difficult because I have the people behind me,” Smith said, adding “I’ve been a Democrat all my life.”
“I just want to enjoy this moment,” said Smith. “Life is a challenge and I’m up for the task.”
Tyson’s campaign manager, Maze Jackson, said Tyson conceded the race.
“In the African-American community there is a definite favorability for a person who is innocent until proven guilty,” Jackson said.
Neither Smith’s indictment nor his previous expulsion prevents him from being sworn in to office. Much like the legal protection of double jeopardy, the Illinois Constitution does not allow lawmakers to remove Smith again from office for the same charges. Should Smith be convicted in federal court, though, he would have to leave the House again.
Smith’s victory comes in a city that has seen several political resurrections for politicians under federal scrutiny.
Before becoming Chicago’s first African-American mayor in 1983, Harold Washington served 36 days in jail in 1972 after being convicted of failing to file tax returns. U.S. Rep. Dan
Rostenkowski survived a primary challenge in 1994 even though his name had surfaced as part of a federal corruption probe.
Only after Rostenkowski was indicted later in 1994 did he lose in the general election to a Republican, who two years later lost to Rod Blagojevich, who himself is now in federal prison following misdeeds as governor.
Smith was the product of the Democratic organization and his arrest a week before the primary election in March presented a dilemma for party bosses.
The culmination of a federal sting, prosecutors charged Smith with taking a bribe in return for recommending a state grant. Smith has denied the charges and his federal trial is still months away.
Democratic leaders still backed Smith through the primary with the idea they would select his successor for the general election. But after winning the primary with nearly 77 percent of the vote, Smith refused to cooperate with that plan.
So some of those same political bosses who brought Smith to the party did what they could to defeat him. Led by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who was Smith’s mentor and helped get him appointed to a vacated House seat in 2011, they marshaled a ground game to boost Tyson’s candidacy.
The general election campaign quickly turned into one of the oddest battles for a state representative seat in the state’s often sordid history. Democrats, including Gov. Pat Quinn and former Smith friends White and Ald. Walter Burnett, 27th, campaigned hard for the independent Tyson over the party’s chosen nominee.
Tyson "is the only unindicted person running for state representative,” said White, who called Smith's presence in the race a “bizarre scenario” and fodder for late-night TV jokes.
Tyson’s campaign posted black-and-white posters of Smith's photo under big block letters spelling “WANTED,” and handed out brochures reading: “Derrick Smith is so corrupt that even the Illinois Legislature doesn't want him around.”
During the campaign Smith garnered support from many residents who plunked “Vote Derrick Smith” yards signs in front of their homes and flats across the mostly West Side district. He counted a great deal on the fact that he was the official Democratic nominee in a highly Democratic district.
Tyson also tried to promote his Democratic ties. He served as former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's first chief of staff and he even handed out brochures featuring a picture of him with then-state Sen. Barack Obama. Tyson said the snapshot came from a bill-signing ceremony when he served as a Springfield lobbyist for then-Mayor Richard Daley and helped Obama with job-creating enterprise zone legislation.
Tribune reporter John Chase contributed.