CHICAGO — Since the heyday of the city’s machine politics, punching a straight Democratic ticket on Election Day has been as dependable a Chicago tradition as hot dogs without ketchup and the Cubs breaking their fans’ hearts.
But this November, the automatic vote is turning out to be a little too dependable for the state’s Democratic leaders.
The feared victory Tuesday of a former state lawmaker indicted on federal bribery charges has top Democrats scrambling to defeat one of their own. They’ve hand-picked a rival candidate, set up a separate “independent” political party for him and deployed their precinct operations in an effort to avoid embarrassment for a party and state already suffering from a reputation for corruption.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, routinely his party’s top vote-getter, has been leading the campaign this fall against indicted former state Rep. Derrick Smith, a fellow Democrat he once mentored.
“It’s ugly for this district, it’s ugly for this city and it’s ugly for this state,” White said. “I don’t want that to be a part of my legacy.”
Polls show that Smith is ahead in the district and that his party allies’ efforts to defeat him may not be enough. History also shows how tough that can be, and not just in Chicago.
Across the country, in areas where either Democrats or Republicans are firmly entrenched, many a politician has weathered legal or personal issues to win re-election thanks to party loyalty. But the reliability of the vote has been especially stubborn in Chicago, where the confluence of votes, interests and rewards – perfected under Mayor Richard J. Daley half a century ago – has helped keep Democrats in power in both the city and state, regardless of the graft that sometimes accompanies it.
In many cases, party loyalty is mixed with personal loyalty or loyalty to a cause. But in Smith’s case, Democratic leaders allege it’s based almost solely on the party affiliation next to his name on the ballot. The little-known legislator was named to his post to fill a vacancy only last year, seldom making headlines before the FBI arrested him for allegedly taking a $7,000 bribe to write a grant recommendation for an early childhood education center.
He has pleaded not guilty but his House colleagues voted 100-6 last spring to kick him out, making him the first lawmaker expelled in more than a century. That didn’t erase his name from the ballot, however, and he will retake his seat in Springfield if elected, only to risk losing it again if he is convicted.
In Illinois’ 10th legislative district – where one ward voted 98 percent for Barack Obama, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Illinois, in the 2008 presidential race – enthusiasm for the president could be a considerable help to Smith.
For the most faithful voters to abandon their party, a candidate’s actions must be egregious enough for them to “take off their blinders,” said Paul Goren, an associate professor of political science with the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology.
“Violations that might be considered heinous in places like Minnesota, which is known for good government, may not be as outrageous in that neck of the woods,” Goren said.
Last week, White, a grandfatherly figure known for sponsoring a famous tumbling club, cut a radio ad for the party’s new chosen candidate, Lance Tyson, urging voters not to let the “disgraced” Smith “hide behind party labels.” The Democrats have plastered neighborhoods with posters bearing the words “WANTED” and “BEWARE” above Smith’s photo.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn also spoke out, acknowledging that Smith “has a very strong line on the ballot.”
But many observers who understand voting loyalty in Chicago think party leaders may have waited too long to act.
“(The party) could have deluged the electorate for months,” said Delmarie Cobb, a veteran Democratic consultant. “But to try to do this now, it’s going to be very tough.”
Smith was unavailable for comment. His attorney, Victor Henderson, said he is appalled that lawmakers haven’t considered Smith innocent until proven guilty. He called what the party is doing “reminiscent of plantation politics.”
“They want people they can control,” he said.
The Smith saga is full of unique Chicago twists. Despite the allegations, Smith, who is black, won 77 percent of the primary vote in his impoverished West Side district, defeating a white former Republican activist also running as a Democrat. Only then did Democratic leaders move to expel him from the legislature.
In May, the district’s Democratic party committeemen chose Tyson, a one-time aide to former Chicago Mayor Daley and former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, to oppose Smith.
Now even Tyson acknowledges he trails dramatically in the race. After two mass mailings and weeks of walking precincts, he was still getting only 38 percent in his own campaign’s polling.
As he knocks on doors in the district, Tyson recites the allegations against Smith over and over for voters. He said Smith is counting on their ignorance.
“(If not) for low information, and people not knowing, there’s no way he’s going to win,” Tyson said.
But a number of residents say they are skeptical of the federal bribery charges and the “new guy” party leaders are suddenly supporting. Many said they were sticking with the familiar.
“I just vote Democrat all the way across. Whoever’s there, I give them a chance,” said Percy Winfields, 74, a resident of an apartment complex that caters to seniors.
Besides, Winfields said, Smith showed up before Christmas last year and delivered on a promise to provide turkeys to the tenants for the holiday.
“He didn’t lie,” the retired truck driver said. “That’s a plus right there, especially when he’s feeding you.”