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How the Democrats let Derrick Smith shoot them in the foot

The story of the indicted state rep and the politicians who made him

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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.

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