(MCT) — Derrick Smith managed the rare feat of being expelled from the Illinois House. He faces corruption charges that could send him to federal prison. Authorities say they've got a recording of him requesting that a $7,000 bribe come in cash because he didn't "want no trace of it."
And yet, a smattering of blue-and-white "Vote Derrick Smith" yard signs dot the West Side. It's also not difficult to find people who say they're going to cast a ballot for him. As the Democratic Party's candidate, the board is naturally tilted in Smith's favor.
A Smith victory would add another improbable tale to a distinctly Chicago lore of the commingling of politics and the criminal courthouse. It's a Royko-esque narrative from a place that's produced a large-coiffed ex-governor from the Northwest Side who is now incarcerated and where the City Council has been home to a rogue's gallery of indicted aldermen caught with their hands out or their bagmen not far behind.
Smith was the product of what's left of the Democratic machine, and now some of those same political bosses are doing what they can to defeat him. Led by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, they're marshaling a ground game to boost the candidacy of lawyer Lance Tyson, the guy they picked to run as an independent.
"(Tyson) is the only unindicted person running for state representative," said White, calling Smith's presence a "bizarre scenario" and fodder for late-night TV jokes.
The short version of the Smith story: Arrested a week before the March primary in a federal sting and charged with taking a bribe in return for recommending a state grant, he was nonetheless backed by several party leaders and won with almost 77 percent of the vote. Then Smith refused to resign or get off the ballot. That led Tyson to run and the Illinois House to vote 100-6 to make Smith the first member to get the boot in 107 years.
Nothing, however, prevents Smith from being sworn in come January should he win Tuesday — the Illinois Constitution gives him a measure of protection akin to the legal shield against double jeopardy. Should Smith be convicted in federal court, however, he would have to leave the House again.
Smith is running in the 10th House District, which stretches from West Garfield Park to Lincoln Park. Smith, who did not respond to requests for comment, is banking on voters reliably punching the Democratic column on Election Day. He's also counting on enough of them giving the benefit of the doubt to a politician who has pleaded not guilty.
Twonda Williams is one of them.
"I think he's a good man," Williams said. "This is life. We are all human. We all make mistakes and we all fall short. But you can't hold my lifestyle down or what I'm trying to pursue in life over one bad thing. He can still do good work."
Williams planned to cast an early vote for Smith at the Frederick Douglass branch library on Monday. It's not far from where blue-and-white Smith signs are displayed prominently in the windows of Wallace's Catfish Corner. The popular neighborhood spot is owned by former Ald. Wallace Davis, convicted himself a quarter-century ago of accepting a $5,000 bribe, forcing his niece to pay $11,000 in kickbacks and extorting $3,000.
Across the street, stapled to a sign advertising parking for the restaurant, two stark black-and-white posters from Tyson's campaign feature Smith's photo under big block letters spelling "WANTED."
Tyson's attack brochure is even more blunt: "Derrick Smith is so corrupt that even the Illinois Legislature doesn't want him around."
Though running as an independent, Tyson has Democratic ties. He served as former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's first chief of staff and is on the sheriff's merit commission. But it's Tyson's loose tie to President Barack Obama that he's out there selling to voters.
Tyson's brochure features a picture of him with then-state Sen. 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.
The attorney's challenge is to persuade voters who habitually vote Democratic to vote for a third-party candidate in a low-profile, down-ballot contest. Union members have sent in troops for phone banks, and Tyson has pulled in more than $160,000 in contributions, including help from White and other ward committeemen. Smith's fundraising has dried up.
"It's just been a door-by-door, person-by-person education process," said Tyson, 41.
If he wins, Tyson said he would push for tax credits for employers who hire former criminal offenders, a message that resonates with Henry Davis, who passed out pro-Tyson fliers across the street from the Douglass library. Davis said he has searched for a job for five years, but employers look away when they learn of his criminal record.
"(Smith) hasn't done nothing for me," Davis said. "I can't even get a job at Burger King. ... I've got to crawl before I walk."
U.S. Rep. Danny Davis said he is neutral in the Smith and Tyson contest because he knows he'll work with a fellow Democrat no matter who wins. But Davis said the race conjures up "heated sentiment" in the area, where his congressional district overlaps with the state House boundaries.
"They kind of take seriously the fact that an allegation is not a verdict of guilty," Davis said. "They cite the numbers of people who have been convicted, been on death row and other places and then it turns out that they were not guilty."
In Chicago, facing criminal charges or even doing time doesn't automatically mean the end of a political career. Harold Washington, for example, served 36 days in jail in 1972 after being convicted of failing to file tax returns. He went on to become a legend as Chicago's first African-American mayor.
Other politicians who went on to become household names have moved up after criminal charges weakened longtime officeholders. That includes Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who ousted indicted Democratic Sen. Bruce Farley in 1998 on her way into the state Senate.
Former Ald. Ambrosio Medrano pleaded guilty in 1996 for taking $31,000 from a mole and placing two associates into no-work jobs on a council committee, an outgrowth of Operation Silver Shovel. The state Supreme Court barred Medrano from the ballot when he tried to run for City Council in 2007, and the former alderman faces fresh federal bribery counts in a new case.
How the Smith saga plays out depends on whether Chicagoans follow a tendency to vote against politicians once they are indicted, said former Ald. Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Simpson himself lost primary challenges to U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, including in March 1994 when a federal corruption probe already had made big headlines. It wasn't until after Rostenkowski was indicted, before the fall general election that the veteran Democrat was voted out.
"Chicago is a city of paradoxes," Simpson said.
Looking ahead to Tuesday, Secretary of State White said a ballot with Smith and Obama on it represents a "joyous moment and a sad moment." Smith was a product of White's 27th Ward organization and once worked in the secretary of state's office. White also helped orchestrate Smith's appointment to fill a House seat that had become vacant, and he's angry that Smith allegedly betrayed the public trust less than a year into the job.
"This guy, it has to be the shortest period of time of anyone in office who ends up getting indicted," White said. "I want to be a part of Lance Tyson being elected and President Barack Obama being re-elected."
Smith, meanwhile, continues to campaign, telling WMAQ-Ch. 5 this week that the contest is "in God's hands" and he hopes to work on job creation, education and senior issues if he gets to go back to the Capitol.
When he was tossed from Illinois House in August, Smith stayed in Chicago. At the time, he said he was "both sad and happy."
"The bottom line is that my former colleagues did not know the whole truth, and I look forward to that day when they do," said Smith, 49.
His federal trial is months away.