Some Illinois voters face an unusual choice in a state House race this fall. They can vote for a candidate who’s facing corruption charges and has been kicked out of office, or his opponent — a rookie candidate representing an entirely new third party.
Derrick Smith used to represent Illinois' 10th State House seat until he was accused of taking a $7,000 bribe. He then became the first representative in Springfield to be kicked out of office in more than 100 years.
But that was after he had already won the Democratic primary. Smith is fighting the charges in court. And in the meantime, trying to win back his seat.
"Well we’re just talking to the constituents and explaining to them that I am a Democrat, I’m still in the race, and I am the only Democrat in this- I’m the Democratic candidate in this particular race," Smith said in a phone interview this week.
When asked if his campaign strategy has changed over the past few months, Smith said, "No, it has not."
That’s because being a Democrat goes a long way in the 10th State House district.
And that’s a problem for Chicago attorney Lance Tyson. He was picked by Democratic leaders in the district to run against Smith. But he can’t run as a Democrat, since Smith won the primary. So Tyson is telling voters, most of whom are Democrats, to still vote Democrat in the race, just not for the guy who’s labeled as a Democrat on the ballot.
Here's how Tyson explained it to voters:
"The Democratic Party had to create a brand new party called the Unity Party in opposition of Derrick Smith," he repeated again and again.
I followed him around the 10th district for a few hours over the weekend, from Garfield Park on the West Side to Lincoln Park on the North Side, where he met Katie Cuniff.
"The Unity Party sounds a little bit made up," she said.
Cuniff also told Tyson that to be a real contender, his fliers need to be made with better quality paper.
Tyson took the criticism in stride.
Down the block, Tyson ran into David Kent, who was playing with his young daughter at a playground.
"Why should I vote for you instead of the Republican?" Kent asked Tyson.
"Well, because there won’t be a Republican on the ballot. It’ll just be Derrick Smith," Tyson responded.
"Oh, it’s you or the guy that’s going to go to jail," Kent said while laughing.
Kent may think the choice is obvious, but a recent poll first reported in the publication The Capitol Fax shows Smith with a 38-point lead over Tyson.
Still, that leaves several undecideds.
Tyson said 80 percent of his job on the campaign trail has been explaining to residents the circumstances of how he got on the ballot and what the state representative even does.
On the West Side, Roberta Wilson pulled him aside because she wants the state to bring back free public transit rides for seniors.
"I take three buses to my church. Ok?" she said. "85 cents. Three buses. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. You know, that’s a lot of money."
Tyson told her he would work to bring back those controversial free rides, until she interrupted him again.
"But I gotta have that public transportation. And I want it to be free when I take it. I don’t want to be waiting on my son, I don’t want to wait on my daughter. I don’t want to wait on my brother-in-law. I want to go when I want to go," she said.
Later, while knocking on doors in Garfield Park, Tyson was stopped by Tonya Richardson, who shouted at him from halfway down the block. Richardson started the conversation berating Tyson over a recent hit and run in the neighborhood.
"What happened?" Tyson asked.
"The little girl, about 11, 12 years old. She got hit by a car," Richardson said.
"Ok. Did the police come out?" Tyson said.
"I don’t think so. Nobody never comes out about nothing," she responded.
It wasn’t long before she had moved on to other issues.
"What you want to be?" she asked.
"I’m running for state representative," Tyson said.
"State representative? Get our kids back in school. Make it so felons can get jobs. People’s turning down felons- they can’t, these folks can’t get jobs," Richardson said.
Richardson seemed skeptical of Tyson at first.
"You’re not just saying all this so you can get up into the office, are you?" she asked. "People say a lot of things just to get up into the office."
But after spending ten minutes with Richardson and then explaining why he’s running as a Unity Party candidate, Tyson eventually got a high five out of Richardson.
After that it was Tyson’s turn to berate Richardson to make sure she’s registered to vote.
Then Tyson was on to the next house. His message of the day was telling voters their choice is between, "somebody that needs a lawyer versus somebody that is a lawyer."
He said that’s something Republicans, Independents – and Democrats – can get behind.