The voters went with State rep Derrick Smith, largely on the grounds that any Democrat, even a corrupt one, was better than a Republican in this day and age.
The voters went with State rep Derrick Smith, largely on the grounds that any Democrat, even a corrupt one, was better than a Republican in this day and age. Credit: Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun-Times

It’s hard to say exactly when the Democrats first started making the mess in the Tenth state legislative district that blessed us with indicted former rep Derrick Smith. How much time you got?

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll go with February 2011, when state senator Rickey Hendon claimed exhaustion and abruptly quit—one step ahead of a federal corruption investigation that’s since led to the indictments of several former aides and allies.

To fill Hendon’s vacancy, the Democratic committeemen from the wards in his west-side district convened for the first of what’s become more than a year of backroom meetings.

One of the leading candidates to replace Hendon was Patricia Van Pelt Watkins, an activist who ran an admirable campaign in the mayor’s race against Rahm Emanuel. I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say it’s too bad she didn’t win. Or maybe I’m just speaking for myself and a few hundred thousand public school parents, teachers, and children.

In any event, the committeemen selected Annazette Collins, whose singular achievement is that she spent ten years as the Tenth district state representative doing whatever house speaker Michael Madigan asked. Which makes her like most other Democrats in the house.

Why Collins over Watkins? Because Illinois secretary of state Jesse White wanted her, and as the 27th Ward committeeman he had the most weighted votes to cast. And why did White want Collins? Well, largely because moving her up to the senate would create another vacancy that could be filled by another factotum.

And so it was done. This time the committeemen—led again by White—sent Derrick Smith to Springfield. It was a curious choice, to say the least. On the one hand, Smith was a long-serving Jesse White precinct captain who’d been fired from the most significant job he’d ever held, as 27th Ward streets and san superintendent. Allegedly he’d had a little goof-up and used city workers to do private landscaping work.

On the other hand, he’s a close childhood buddy of Alderman Walter Burnett. Apparently Burnett begged and pleaded with Mr. White, as he calls the secretary of state, to give his old pal the nod. Upon reflection I suppose this made Smith about as qualified as anyone to go to Springfield and do whatever it is that Madigan wants.

I think most of you know what happened next. On March 13, just a week before the primary elections, Smith was arrested and charged with taking a $7,000 bribe from an undercover mole pretending to want a state grant to operate a day care center.

In theory, that should have provided an opening to his primary opponent—except that the opponent was a longtime Republican named Tom Swiss whose billboards featured a black construction worker instead of his own face. So the arrest and subsequent indictment put voters in the predominantly black district in a quandary: Go for the guy who took the bribe, or the white Republican trying to pass as a black Democrat?

And countless people have fought for this right.

The voters went with Smith, largely on the grounds that any Democrat, even a corrupt one, was better than a Republican in this day and age. A point on which I wholeheartedly concur.

But that created a political problem for a state still trying to shake its years under George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich. So on August 16 legislators—assuring us they were outraged—voted 100 to 6 to expel Smith from the house. However, with no one else on the ballot in November, Smith was all but guaranteed a return trip to the house.

Oh, what to do?

At this point you might wonder why Smith didn’t have the sense and decency to step down, if only to spare further shame and embarrassment for White, the man to whom he owes everything in his career.

Indeed, this was the very question I posed to Smith when I reached him on his cell phone last week. This prompted a long pause, during which I’m sure he was thinking, How the hell did this dude get my number?

“Let me call you right back,” he finally said. “Two seconds. Let me get out of this place where I’m at.”

Yeah, well, that could take a while. Needless to say, he hasn’t called back. But I’m sure he will—any day.

Unable to get Smith out of the race, the Democratic ward committeemen held a few more backroom meetings, featuring legal advice from the great Michael Kasper, an election law specialist who works often for Madigan and other Dems. I’m told the discussions were generally dedicated to the following question: WTF?!?

And so were the fights. The back-and-forth included at least one monumental showdown, in the office of Alderman Emma Mitts, pitting White against Congressman Danny Davis. According to several sources, Davis, still sore that Smith was slated in the first place, told White, “We can take this outside if you want.” To which White said something like: “Why go outside—I’m right here.”

Next thing you know these pillars of the party—both past 70—had to be separated by security guards. The good stuff always happens behind closed doors.

Still, under Kasper’s tutelage the committeemen decided to form the Unity Party, a one-time-only third party dedicated to the purpose of fielding someone—anyone—to run against Smith.

Then came the business of finding that special someone. The two choice came down to Eddie Winters, a police officer, and Lance Tyson, a lobbyist who once worked as chief of staff to former Cook County board president Todd Stroger. Winters had one clear advantage: he actually lives in the district. Tyson’s aides assure me that he’s since moved in as well.

The committeemen chose Tyson.

According to three rock-solid sources, White originally voted for Winters before he changed his mind at the last moment, apparently after getting a call from Madigan. But David Drucker, White’s spokesman, says that’s not true: “It was my understanding that the secretary had not committed to any candidate.”

Regardless, let’s put it in perspective. In order to defeat Smith, the alleged crook, the Democrats choose a lobbyist who didn’t live in the district and previously worked for one of the most unpopular officeholders in recent times. Why go with the squeaky-clean cop who’s lived there for years? All of which proves once again that when given the chance, the Democrats will always shoot themselves in the foot.

Needless to say, there’s no guarantee Tyson will defeat Smith, bribe and all. For one thing, Smith has the Democratic label. For another, the indictment may have perversely increased his stock among voters. Before the bribe he was just another political hack. Now he’s a political hack fighting the man. “I call it the Vanessa Williams factor,” says Maze Jackson, Tyson’s campaign manager.

For all you young political junkies out there, he’s referring to the way Williams generated sympathy from African-Americans when she was pressured to give up her Miss America crown in 1984 after news broke that she’d once posed in the nude.

Now that I think about it, the committeemen would have been better off nominating Vanessa Williams to run against Smith. Yes, I know, she doesn’t live in the district. But neither did Tyson.

Keep this in mind should Smith win. If he’s convicted, he’ll have to step down. And the committeemen will gather and do it all again.