By Jayette Bolinski | Illinois Watchdog
CHICAGO — Larry Thomas may not come from an average west-side Chicago family, but he’s something of an average west-side Chicago voter.
Thomas’ family has some pull in the neighborhoods of the 28th Ward – his brother is native Chicagoan and basketball legend Isiah Thomas.
The family’s political influence is one reason Illinois House candidate Lance Tyson tapped Larry Thomas for support in his bid for the 10th Legislative District seat that until recently was held by freshman lawmaker Derrick Smith. Smith, of course, is the same lawmaker indicted on federal bribery charge and kicked out of the House earlier this year.
With that kind of support, and with that kind of an opponent, what possibly could keep Tyson from having an enormous lead over Smith less than a week from the Nov. 6 election?
The answers are complicated but not unexpected, Thomas said earlier this week at a campaign rally for Tyson at his campaign headquarters on West Washington Street.
It’s Chicago’s love affair with straight-ticket Democrat voting, and Tyson’s not the Democrat’s candidate on the ballot. Smith is. Tyson is running as a candidate from the little-known Unity Party.
Add to that a belief among some west-side voters that Smith was set up by authorities in the federal case, and Tyson has a tough race heading into Tuesday’s election
Thomas, a 60-year-old minister, voted for Smith in the previous election.
“I voted straight Democrat, which is going to make this race here kind of hard because the majority of black people vote straight Democrat. They don’t even look at it or think about it. They just vote straight Democrat,” he said. “So that’s the message that we really need to get out more. (Tyson’s) not running under the Democratic ticket, even though he is (a Democrat).”
Tyson’s own internal polling shows him down in the race but within striking distance, he said in an interview this week. Polling in September showed Smith leading Tyson by a 48-to-9-percent margin.
“We’re right where we need to be to close this puppy out. I know we can do it,” Tyson said after rallying with as many as 100 supporters to help spread the word about his candidacy.
“The biggest challenge — and it’s not with this district, it’s generally — is people don’t know what a state representative is, let alone who it is,” he said. “So this process has been a major education process, which required a lot of resources. I pumped in a lot from myself, and the secretary of state pumped in a lot of resources.”
Tyson is a well-connected Chicago lawyer with ties to both former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. He has backing from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, Gov. Pat Quinn and several Chicago aldermen — all Democrats. His campaign manager is Maze Jackson, a political insider who has done media relations work for White and Chicago politicians, was heavily involved in Quinn’s campaign for governor.
Smith was indicted on a federal bribery charge just days before for the March primary. He is accused of accepting a $7,000 bribe related to his work as a state representative. Then, in August, his colleagues in the House kicked him out, giving him the dubious distinction of being the first representative expelled in more than a century.
The election complications began in March when Smith won the party primary shortly after he was arrested on the bribery charge. That secured his spot him on the ballot as the candidate for the Democrat Party.
The Democrats, in response, set up the Unity Party and chose Tyson to run against Smith in an effort to retain control of the seat.
Smith, who has declined to answer questions from lawmakers and voters about whether he accepted a bribe, could not be reached for comment. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin tracked him down this week at a catfish restaurant on the west side.
“We’re gonna win,” Smith told her.
And although his colleagues kicked him out of the House in August, Smith could return in January if he wins Tuesday because his expulsion applied only to the current General Assembly. A new General Assembly takes office in January, and Smith cannot be expelled for the same infraction more than once.
The support of party loyalists hasn’t helped Tyson completely win over voters, many of whom believe the Unity Party is just another third party without influence. So Tyson has been trying to make a connection by showing up at train stations to shake with commuters every morning, appealing to unions for support, putting money into last-minute media buys and going to senior centers and other places to talk to voters.
“I’m the first attorney in my family. My parents invested a lot into me, and I’ll be damned if I’ll do anything to dishonor them and their investment in me. And also the Democratic Party and their investment in me. They put up a lot,” Tyson said.
“There’s a lot on the line. I think the values of being a Democrat are at stake here. I firmly believe … the values of the Democratic Party means helping those who can’t help themselves. But there’s a notion out there that the Democratic Party means graft or Rod Blagojevich or indictments, impeachments. That’s what’s on trial. They’ve invested me, and that’s what I stand for.”
White, a popular longtime Democrat, was at Tyson’s rally Tuesday night and urged voters to consider how effective Smith can be as a lawmaker under indictment if he is returned to Springfield. Tyson echoed the sentiment.
“When they send their tax dollars down to Springfield, the expectation of them getting it back from an individual who was expelled, they recognize that’s just not going to happen,” he said. “So they are going to make the right choice because of their own self interests to assure that the park or the school or the playground that could be funded by the state is, in fact, funded by the state through zealous representation.”
For Thomas, who said he was shocked by Smith’s arrest for bribery, the choice is clear.
“It’s just like any relationship. When the trust is gone, like in a marriage, the trust and integrity is everything,” he said. “If I can’t believe what you say out of your mouth and take it to the bank, I have to cut ties. You’re no good to me.”
Contact Jayette Bolinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.