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Losing the magic touch?

Monday, Mar 26, 2012

* My syndicated newspaper column focuses on Secretary of State Jesse White

It’s difficult not to contemplate how Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White has screwed up lately on so many fronts.

White has managed to mostly avoid scandals throughout his political life, and as a result has become one of the most popular Democratic politicians of the past half century— one year winning all 102 Illinois counties and later taking about 70 percent of the vote in the national Republican landslide of 2010 (Democratic state Attorney General Lisa Madigan won with 65 percent, and Gov. Pat Quinn won with less than 47 percent that year).

But White’s engineering of state Rep. Derrick Smith’s appointment to his old House seat was no doubt the biggest mistake White has made in his decades-long political career.

As you know by now, Smith (D-Chicago) was arrested on a federal bribery charge last week. Smith is White’s guy. There is no plausible deniability for White. He hired Smith at the secretary of state’s office, even after the Chicago Sun-Times discovered that Smith was involved in shenanigans at his city job, from which he was fired. White then put Smith into the House seat, even though Smith was the sort of person who could barely speak in floor debates.

Smith was an embarrassment even before he was arrested. He was in over his head and obviously lacking in skills. He was White’s hack, and everybody knew it. But at least Smith looked like a clean embarrassment. Now, he’s a dangerous embarrassment facing a federal felony charge.

Before the last election, White had promised that this would be his final term. But he changed his mind last year and said he would run again in 2014. It’s possible that the Smith arrest could cause him to rethink those plans. The high-profile bust has most certainly put some blood in the political waters.

Whether White runs again or not, this is the first time he has ever displayed any sort of political vulnerability. There are now visible cracks in his bright, shining armor. The political superman looks more human.

He’s done something that he’s never done before — handed his potential opposition a beautiful gift. “He’s an honest, standup kind of a guy,” White said after he engineered Smith’s appointment to the House last year. That’ll look great in a TV commercial … for his opponent.

White also defied legislative protocol this year by going after state Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago). Collins was backed to the hilt by Senate President John Cullerton as she fought what turned out to be a losing battle to Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins.

Cullerton dumped more than $167,000 into the primary, an almost unheard of amount for a Senate race. That sort of involvement is usually a big warning sign to other pols to stay the heck away. Legislative leaders don’t like it when fellow party members challenge their authority over their caucuses.

This isn’t the first time that White has meddled in that Senate district, though. He backed candidates against former Sen. Rickey Hendon more than once.

And even though White seemingly picked a blue-chip candidate to challenge Collins (unlike the Smith debacle), and even though Collins is an appointee who hasn’t made much impact in the Senate, the Senate Black Caucus was very aggressive in making sure that Cullerton expended serious resources to defend her. As a result, this particular challenge has seemed to generate harder feelings against White than his past efforts.

This was the first time that any Democratic Party leader has so directly and bluntly challenged Cullerton’s authority over his caucus. In this business, if somebody disrespects you, then they’d better be made to fear you or that disrespect could spread to others.

White is attempting to fight off a 9 percent budget cut for the secretary of state’s office proposed by Quinn (who, like everyone but White, backed Collins). White has offered to cut 2 percent instead. Good luck with that.

White needs to clean up his messes. And fast.

* Meanwhile, WUIS’ Amanda Vinicky caught up with Speaker Madigan on Friday

Since the election, top Democrats including the governor, Chicago mayor, and even Smith’s mentor and former boss, Secretary of State Jesse White, have called on Smith to resign.

But not Madigan, who says he hasn’t talked to Smith since his arrest earlier this month.

“No, I have not spoken with Derrick,” Madigan said.

“And I’m not going to offer any comments or opinion because I’m leading the investigation. I’m the one who created the committee, appointed the chair and so I don’t plan to offer any comment or opinion or direction.”

Madigan is talking about a special committee, formed at the request of House Republicans, that will meet Tuesday to look into the allegations.

* But Mayor Emanuel weighed in

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday jumped on the bandwagon of Democratic politicians demanding the resignation of state Rep. Derrick Smith (D-Chicago) because of the federal bribery charges against Smith.

“I do not think — while Mr. Smith won the primary — that his name should be on the ballot in November,” Emanuel said.

“He’s already shown a violation of the code of conduct that comes with the honor of serving the public.”

* As did Tom Swiss

Not even Swiss thinks Smith should resign.

“He was arrested, he wasn’t convicted,” Swiss said. “He wasn’t convicted of anything as of now.”

- Posted by Rich Miller        


20 Comments
  1. - Cassiopeia - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 7:52 am:

    I think far too many political observers have been blind to the reality of the type of people that White has consistently hired since he has been in office.

    I am not going to mention all of the names but if you start from the top in his executive office you will note a certain similarity in the types. Few were hired based upon merit or qualifications, but solely based upon political loyalty. This is how and why he has these sort of problems and the current situation is merely very high profile.


  2. - wordslinger - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 8:03 am:

    –“I do not think — while Mr. Smith won the primary — that his name should be on the ballot in November,” Emanuel said.–

    Yeah, well, that’s kind of the whole plan.


  3. - anon - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 9:06 am:

    Thanks, Cassiopeia, truer words could not be spoken.


  4. - Recharge - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 9:11 am:

    When White first ran in 98, he said he would only run for two terms… He is still running, and maybe for the hills now.


  5. - just sayin' - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 9:39 am:

    Do the exact opposite of what Tom Swiss advises and you can’t go wrong in politics.


  6. - Shore - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 9:41 am:

    “still running, and maybe for the hills now”-this is the state that 64 months ago re-elected blago. If this is as bad as it gets for White and he runs again-he’d probably win easily. Whoever he hired in his office, getting my license renewed was extremely easy and painless and so they must be doing something right professionally.


  7. - cassandra - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 10:08 am:

    I suppose the SOS office is and has always been a patronage farm, but perhaps it’s also an example of a patronage farm that works. If we have to have patronage–and in modern-day Illinois state government we surely do, apparently–then let’s have competent patronage. The consensus seems to be that the SOS under White provides good, fast service to Illinois citizens. White’s apparent hiring mistake–we’ve all made them if we’ve had hiring responsibility–seems less egregious in that context.


  8. - friendly advice - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 10:11 am:

    Knowing when to leave the stage is an underrated skill in politics. Jesse simply has hung around too long. A fourth term in a non-legislative office is asking for trouble.

    A friend of mine worked for Mike Sheehan, a good guy who took over from a corrupt administration and did well in a tough job, but probably stayed Cook County sheriff for too long. This friend used to say “after a while, all the a–holes became our a–holes.”

    That is exactly the problem Jesse is having right now.


  9. - The Other Anonymous - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 11:08 am:

    Interesting and unusual statement from Swiss. Unusual, that is, until you realize that the GOP does not have a candidate yet. Even though Swiss can’t file as an new party candidate under the sore loser rule, I believe that th GOP could nominate him to run in November.

    Could Swiss really be thinking that he can have a rematch against Smith?

    To be clear, I fully expect Smith will not be on the ballot in November. And even if by an entirely unlikely series of events Swiss does get appointed to the nomination by the GOP, he will still lose for oh-so-many reasons. But I can’t think of any other reason Swiss would say Smith shouldn’t resign. And given Swiss’s odd view of how politics works, one could expect this kind of reasoning.


  10. - Cheryl44 - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 11:24 am:

    The SOS office is probably the one elected office that most adults in the state have face time with. I know I not only didn’t have a problem getting my license renewed last year, it was actually a pleasant enough experience I look forward to next time. Jesse White can run that office for as long as he feels up to it, IMO.


  11. - Oswego Willy - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 12:17 pm:

    ===Not even Swiss thinks Smith should resign.

    “He was arrested, he wasn’t convicted,” Swiss said. “He wasn’t convicted of anything as of now.”===

    Legally true, but on the political front, Dopey!

    “Tom Swiss - Listen to his advice closely, then do the opposite.”


  12. - Freeman - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 12:45 pm:

    While causing some intra-party turmoil, White backing Watkins is a net positive for Illinois.

    The Tribune was correct in saying that Watkins has done more for the community as an activist than Collins did in her entire legislative career.

    There’s not excuse for Smith, but backing Watkins deepened his support among many voters, donors and partisans who still care about the public good more than party loyalty.

    Don’t put a fork in Jesse White just yet.


  13. - chi - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 1:11 pm:

    I’m no defender of Derrick Smith- but I really believe in the presumption of innocence. Everyone assumes guilt and calls for resignation the moment someone is indicted. Granted, the Feds have a great record, and your odds aren’t good if you’ve been indicted, but if you believe you are innocent, then you have every right to stay in office until proven guilty.


  14. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 1:27 pm:

    1. Tom Swiss is ineligible to be the GOP nominee.

    2. Based on the indictment, I think Smith has a good shot at an acquittal if his case goes to trial. It hinges on the credibility of CS-1.

    3. That said, entrapment or not, Smith should resign.

    4. Kudos to Madigan for playing it by the book.


  15. - the Other Anonymous - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 2:25 pm:

    YDD, I’m not sure you’re right about Swiss being ineligible to be the nominee. I remember in 1998 after the primary for the 9th Congressional district that there was talk to appoint Howie Carrol, who lost in the Dem primary, to the vacant GOP spot. If I recall, because of the particular language of the sore loser rule, a losing candidate could be appointed to fill a vacancy — which makes sense if, for example, the nominee steps down and the committeemen want to appoint the second place finisher to replace her. The sore loser rule applies only in to the situation of a loser in a primary filing as the candidate of a new party. (Can’t file as an independent because that deadline is before the primary.) 10 ILCS 5/10-2 (it’s a long section, but the rule is the last paragraph).

    I don’t think it will happen. But I wonder if Swiss thinks it will happen and that’s why he is not calling for Smith’s resignation.


  16. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 3:14 pm:

    @The Other Anonymous -

    Section 10-2 applies to nominations for filling vacancies for “minor political parties.” I refer to it as “Party of Five” section.

    The governing section for filling vacancies in the Democratic and Republican parties is 7-61:

    “A candidate for whom a nomination paper has been filed as a partisan candidate at a primary election, and who is defeated for his or her nomination at such primary election, is ineligible to be listed on the ballot at that general or consolidated election as a candidate of another political party.”

    Case closed.

    Moreover, under the law, anyone appointed to fill the GOP vacancy still must circulate petitions and file them. Surprisingly, I’ve yet to hear of an appointed candidate having their petitions challenged.

    I agree with you that its possible that Tom Swiss doesn’t know the election code as well as he should. Its also quite possible he’s hoping to keep Smith on the ballot and sell some campaign consulting services — like his plus lists — to a GOP challenger to pay off his $100,000 in campaign debt to himself.

    Ouchie.


  17. - the Other Anonymous - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 4:08 pm:

    Thanks, YDD — both the petition requirement (which kicked in for 2010) and the prohibition on a loser in one primary getting on the ballot for another party appear to be newer provisions. So thanks for the update. I stand corrected.

    I also stand confused why Tom Swiss would not be calling for Smith to resign. He said much worse things about Smith during the primary.


  18. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 4:13 pm:

    @the Other Anonymous -

    As I said before, if Smith stays in the race, Tom Swiss stands to make quite a bit of money.

    He’ll also be able to continue to get called by reporters and see his name in lights.

    After Smith is replaced, Tom Smiss becomes a footnote of a footnote of history.


  19. - Anonymous - Monday, Mar 26, 12 @ 6:46 pm:

    Agreed he was arrested and everyone is open to a fair trial. Until Derrick Smith is proven guilty he should be given the same opportunity the rest of us are given. Another issue is the idea of entrapment. We know it played a role, but how much:50% or 90%


  20. - Anonymous - Tuesday, Mar 27, 12 @ 5:24 am:

    I was lukewarm toward Jesse White, but what really did it for me was the hassle I had renewing my driver’s license.

    In the letter I received, it didn’t mention how you could pay, but it did mention that credit cards are acceptable for ID. So of course I assumed that credit cards are fine for payment.

    Well, it turns out that credit cards are fine for payment, except one: Visa. They take about four cards, but not Visa. No one there could (or would) say why. So I had my Visa card and not enough cash to cover it, which sent me home in the rain and rush-hour traffic and set me back about an hour.

    Evidently Jesse won’t take Visa because of a fee that they charge, which doesn’t really make sense to me because I can use Visa at my local government office to buy a parking permit, etc. In fact I can’t think of any other situation where they’ve accepted a number of cards but denied Visa. But what is even more annoying is that he hides the fact until you arrive at the SoS location.

    It’s likely that every business day people all over this state are making unnecessary trips because Jesse White won’t inform them of his policy on Visa. Jesse knows what he’s doing though by keeping people in the dark. He just doesn’t want to deal with the calls to his office asking why no Visa, or the added scrutiny of whether the policy makes sense. It’s less hassle for HIM to send people driving all over to jump through his hoops.

    If he runs again Jesse would do a disservice to Illinoisans, IMHO. That office sorely needs a new approach.


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