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Wednesday, April 18, 2007 09:30 am

Party animal

After 50 years in public office, Irv Smith talks about George Ryan, Bill Cellini, and old-school politics

Smith greets then-Vice President George Bush
Untitled Document Irv Smith wanted to be a Democrat. It was 1956, and Smith, then a young schoolteacher, was considering a run for precinct committeeman. He had grown up across the street from Norman Schultz, an Air Force pilot who had returned from World War II with two rows of ribbons Smith can still list today. Schultz’s stepfather, Harry Mullens, was the Woodside Township road commissioner for eight terms, and Schultz became a member of the Sangamon County Board. Both Mullens and Schultz were high-profile Democrats; both made a lasting impression on Smith. “I was a real hero worshiper,” he says. Smith also had certain progressive attitudes that fit in with Democrats. He had such liberal views about race and gender that he would integrate the YMCA in the early 1960s. A self-described lifelong “tree-hugger,” he is still a member of the Sierra Club. His first vote in a presidential election was for Adlai Stevenson. But none of that mattered in the 1956 race for precinct committeeman. “I wanted to be a Democrat. I preferred it,” he says, “but Sangamon County was Republican. I didn’t want to be in the minority. I thought: If I want to have something to say, I’ve got to be with the party that’s leading.”
Most important, Smith admits, he didn’t stand a chance against Kenny Miller, the incumbent Democratic committeeman. The Republican committeeman, on the other hand, had a big blemish. “I went after him because he had left his wife   . . . . I used that against him and just killed him,” Smith says. To this day he remembers the four-way tally: The other candidates got 12, 37, and 40 votes, and Smith got 129. “You don’t forget when you work as hard as I did to win that election,” he says.
Once he became a Republican, Smith never looked back. He went on to win higher public offices — regional superintendent of schools, county board, state legislator, city alderman. But this week, as he retires from public life — leaving the Springfield City Council as a result of term limits — most people will remember Irvin Frank Smith as chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Party, a post he only recently relinquished after a record-setting 22 years. This milestone isn’t just one man’s saunter into the sunset. More than any other local elected official, Smith embodies the old-school political philosophy that prizes and rewards loyalty — the philosophy that was standard practice until it was outlawed in 1990. Now that he’s officially leaving public service, he’s free — and proud — to talk about his role as the mechanic who kept the Sangamon County Republican machine running.
Having a conversation with Smith is like trying to tour a spider’s web. He veers off into seemingly unrelated topics — teaching government, coaching swimming at Illini Country Club, playing handball at the Y. If you follow each anecdote’s intricacies, however, you eventually realize that they’re all interwoven. The thread that knits the strands together is politics. Long before anybody used the term “network” as a verb, Smith had mastered the skill like a fine art. Friends and associates from all facets of his life — childhood chums, swimmers’ parents, guys he’s met on baseball diamonds, men he’s met playing church-league basketball, even kids he’s taught in school — resurface as players in his political life. He can’t offer a simple linear account of any aspect of his life that doesn’t somehow intersect with politics.
Smith’s story is locked in a safe in his basement. It’s contained in 14 scrapbooks, each filled with yellowed newspaper clippings and — judging by the loose bits slipped between the covers — none technically complete. There’s a separate batch of souvenir photos in which Smith stands proudly with young swimmers, old presidents, and everybody who was anybody in between. The safe in the basement holds virtually nothing else. The documents and photographs are what Smith treasures.
Scrapbook No. 1 includes Smith’s earliest report cards and a black-and-white picture of his third-grade class at Harvard Park Extension School. A few pages later there’s a certificate he earned at age 10 for swimming 48 feet — the entire length of the YMCA pool. His folks were Pentecostal, or “holy rollers” — a term he uses to describe himself even today, although he joined the Catholic Church a few years ago. Every Sunday the family would go to his grandfather’s farm, where Smith and his cousins would run around the fields and outbuildings. When they would head for the house, they often heard men yelling — “My dad and my grandpa would be fighting over politics,” Smith says. His father was a New Dealer; his grandfather, also named Irv Smith, was “a hard-headed Republican.”
Smith, the oldest of three kids, didn’t come from a wealthy family. His parents were both factory workers — his father at Allis-Chalmers, his mother at an auto-parts plant where she founded and presided over a union. They lived in the working-class “Cabbage Patch” long before the still-unincorporated neighborhood had water or sewer service. For six years, Smith says, he worked as many as four newspaper routes at a time to earn money for college. Despite his diminutive stature (he’s 5-foot-8), Smith played both football and basketball at Feitshans High School, then known as “the black school” because about 20 percent of the student body was African-American. His racial attitudes — refreshingly liberal for a man of his generation — may have their foundation at Feitshans, where Smith bonded with his teammates on the football field. He played center, snapping the ball to a black quarterback named Jim White.
Smith started out as a teacher, but his career in education and his political interests meshed from the beginning. In 1952, when Smith was doing his student-teaching stint at Lanphier High School, his American Government class included several boys who would become leaders of the Republican Party and good friends — John “Doc” Adams, who became the state central committeeman, and Bill Cellini, who became the party’s power broker. But in those days the machine was run by James Walsh — described in a 1960s newspaper article as “longtime GOP strongman” — and he didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for Smith and his crew.  “I was an upstart when I ran for precinct committeeman. They wouldn’t let me come to the party headquarters,” Smith says. His offense: failure to seek Walsh’s permission to run.
“I was a history teacher,” Smith says with a laugh. “I just thought that as an American, if you want to run, you go down and file.”
He has held the title of precinct committeeman ever since, never even opposed in the Knox Knolls neighborhood, where he and his wife, Joan, built a home in 1961. About the same time he became principal at Iles School, then a predominantly black elementary. One of the first changes he was determined to make was to replace the P.E. teacher — an elderly gentleman whose idea of physical education was square dancing. “He had the best square dancing in the state of Illinois,” Smith says derisively. “I mean, it was easy to do and the kids would all hop around. I would just be sick when I’d go in and see those kids square dancing.”
Smith wanted to hire Farries “Mickey” Morrison, the star of Feitshan’s 1959 basketball team, as the P.E. teacher at Iles. Morrison had gone to Western Illinois University on a basketball scholarship and earned an education degree and a teaching certificate. But Smith soon learned that hiring Morrison wasn’t as easy as he’d thought it would be. When he went to the personnel director for District 186, he was reminded of the unwritten policy against hiring blacks. “I went to the director and said, ‘I’ve got a guy I want to hire, and he went to Western on a basketball scholarship. He’s just a good kid that I’ve known a long time,’ ” Smith recalls. The director, immediately interested, inquired about the teacher’s name, and Smith answered — Mickey Morrison. “Why, he’s a nigger!” the director responded. Smith says he forgot for a moment that he was talking to a superior. “I said, ‘You son of a bitch, I’m gonna hire that kid!’ ”
Over the next few months, the personnel department sent Smith a parade of potential P.E. teachers — all young women just out of college. Smith would tell them that Iles was a tough school; “I’d scare them away,” he says. Finally, with only days left before classes began, Smith got permission to hire Morrison as the first male African-American teacher in the Springfield school district. Morrison says that Smith was a major influence on his hiring and that his auntie, who happened to be housekeeper to the superintendent of schools, was another — but it was Smith who also helped Morrison get summertime employment with state agencies and a spot in the administration of Springfield Mayor Nelson Howarth, as executive secretary to the Human Relations Commission during its first three years, 1965-1967. At Smith’s urging, Morrison went on to earn his master’s degree and Ph.D. and rapidly moved into administration, eventually serving as assistant principal at two different high schools and personnel director for the district. Morrison, who retired in 2000, calls Smith his friend for life: “I’ll never forget what he did for me.”
Shortly after Morrison was hired, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided federal grants to schools like Iles. With those funds, Smith was able to hire a social worker, counselor, nurse, and eight entry-level teachers. He says that about a quarter of his Iles staff was black. Smith’s efforts at integration went even deeper. When his youngest child, Chip, mentioned that he might like to attend the school where his dad worked, Smith was thrilled and obtained a majority-to-minority transfer for Chip’s fifth-grade year. “I didn’t really think my parents would take it seriously, but they did,” Chip says. “For me, just a white kid from the west side, it was a good learning experience. It was hard for me, in a way, but I made friends there and did pretty well.”
Smith also bused Iles students downtown to the YMCA — then an all-white institution — and persuaded friends to sponsor memberships for some of the kids.
Smith was proud of his record at Iles School, and in 1970 he decided to run for regional superintendent of schools. It was the first election he ever lost, and Smith doesn’t like to lose. “I didn’t give up until the last precinct came in, when it was already down the drain,” he says. The next morning, he called in sick. He wasn’t ill, just busy sanding paint off his car, which had been emblazoned with his name in large red, white, and blue letters the length of both sides. The next day, he had to drive Joan’s car to work, because the sanding took longer than expected. In 1971, Smith was elected to the Sangamon County Board. Three years later, he ran again for regional superintendent of schools and won. He claims that he intended to spend the rest of his professional life in that post. “I wanted to retire as regional superintendent of schools,” he says. “That’s what I was — an educator.”
But in September 1980 he allowed politics to consume him. State legislator J. David Jones was dying of cancer. Republican officials, anxious to retain control of Jones’ seat, conducted a poll to determine who could replace Jones. The poll showed that Smith had the best name recognition. Jones was buried 28 days before the election, leaving Smith four weeks to campaign. Smith knew that more was riding on the race than just a seat in the General Assembly.  George Ryan, Republican leader of the House, was hoping to be named speaker, and his hopes depended on the Republican Party’s maintaining its narrow majority. “They had it counted down to the gnat’s eyebrow, and if they lost Dave’s seat George would not get elected,” Smith says. The party threw its considerable weight behind his campaign. Tony Leone, who was then assistant clerk of the General Assembly, took a leave of absence to work for Smith and says that the national GOP sent a couple of professionals to aid in the effort. The short time frame, Leone says, made for a hectic but somewhat easier campaign. “In all honesty, you can develop an image that basically can hardly be shot through. If you’re running for a year, some of the barnacles start showing up on the bridge — but if you’re running a 28-day campaign it’s all smoke and mirrors,” he says. Smith, for his part, had to make what proved an uncomfortable bargain. “When I met George Ryan, he said, ‘How do you stand on the Equal Rights Amendment?’ I said, ‘I don’t know’; I knew what it was, but I’d never been faced with it,” Smith recalls. “He said, ‘If you’re going to be against it, I can get you some dough.’ ”
Leone says Ryan could have gotten Smith cash either way (Leone himself was pro-ERA), but Smith promised to vote no, and the party pushed him to victory. Because of Jones’ death, Smith got to fill his Statehouse seat early, giving him more seniority than the rest of the freshman class, as well as a jump on his pension. Ryan was elected speaker by a four-vote margin.
Looking back, Smith says he hated being in the Legislature. “It was the unhappiest experience of my life, frankly. I did not like it. You know what they say — they treat you like mushrooms, keep you in the dark, and feed you bullshit,” he says. “It was kind of like the Army — hurry up and wait. You wait for the leadership to tell you what you’re going to do, what you’re for.”
The ERA became the central issue of the session. Women staged protests, chaining themselves to the podium in the House chamber and to the governor’s door, threatening to go on a hunger strike. At one point they dumped buckets of cow’s blood on the marble floors. The ERA supporters needed just two more votes, and Smith felt the pressure. “I learned at that time that when you make up your mind, you don’t just let everybody come in and tell you what they want, because they will just drive you nuts — threaten you, try to bribe you, just everything in the world,” he says. “Pretty soon you learn you can’t make everybody happy and that if you’re going to win you’re going to have to figure out what your constituency wants and work with them and go with it.”
Smith admits that his stance didn’t float with the hundreds of girls he had coached over a dozen years on the swim team at the YWCA — “a strong women’s-advocacy organization,” he says. Even his daughter April — the middle child, who was just graduating from high school at this time — gave him grief about the ERA. He rationalizes it by pointing to a higher virtue. “There are paradoxes,” he says, “but I’m a Republican, and somewhere along the line you do what your party wants you to do.”
Though he held the line on the ERA issue, Smith ultimately failed his party by losing the 1982 election to a Democrat: Mike Curran, who held the seat for the next six terms. Curran’s campaign consisted mainly of television commercials that simply scrolled a list of bills that Smith hadn’t voted on. Leone, who worked on Smith’s unsuccessful campaign, tried in vain to counter Curran’s commercial. “We concocted this story that because Irv was the local state rep he was always talking to constituents in the hallway. That was our spin on it,” Leone says, “but it wasn’t good enough.”
It was the second — and last — election Smith ever lost, and, despite his insistence that he didn’t enjoy legislative life, he’s still defensive about the defeat, blaming it on the ERA issue and the fact that district boundaries were redrawn. “They took all the Republicans away from me,” he says. “With the old map, I would still be there.”
Curran’s commercial, Smith claims, made a mountain out of a molehill. “There could be 50 bills on the consent calendar. We’d sit there, and sometimes we’d vote,” he recalls. “In fact, [Rep. Wayne] Alstat had a wand, and he’d try to reach up and hit the button with his wand. If he hit it, fine; if he didn’t, well, we were all for it, nobody was opposed.”
 However, a high-ranking former public official who asked not to be named says that Smith was often absent and that Republican representatives had to track him down, usually at the Olympic Club, which Smith owned with a friend. “He was probably one of the worst representatives that I ever had to work with, because he was never there,” the official says. “He ran two swimming pools, as I recall, and times when we needed him to pass a bill we had to send a page after him. He was a terrible state rep.”
Smith disputes that account, saying that he never missed a vote that was needed and never had to be corralled by a page.  
Decades of party loyalty weren’t for naught. Smith — 54 at the time of his last loss — was unemployed a mere four months before then-Secretary of State Jim Edgar appointed him deputy director of his Department of Index. Housed in a gray stone building behind the State Armory, it’s the office that “keeps all the laws and bills passed, notary publics, things like that,” Smith says. In August 1983, John Short retired from his post as chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Party, and Smith was elected to succeed him. Several other hopefuls ran, but Smith can’t specify his margin of victory because the ballot was secret, counted only by Short and Smith’s longtime pal Bill Cellini. When asked about his relationship with his former student — now a bazillionaire businessman involved in asphalt, real estate, and gambling operations — Smith quotes a book called Boss, Mike Royko’s portrait of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. “Royko says there are two things in politics: power and money, and they don’t mix. If you try to mix them, you end up in jail,” Smith says. Does that mean Smith — who still resides in the modest but comfortable home he built in 1961 — went for power, whereas Cellini, whose last public office was commissioner of streets, went for money? “It ended up that way,” Smith says. According to the former high-ranking public official quoted earlier, Cellini handpicked Smith as party chairman. “Cellini made him. There wasn’t a Republican chairman elected without Cellini’s approval. That’s common knowledge,” the former official says. However it happened, Smith proved a natural for the officially unpaid position. Bill Houlihan, one of his Democrat counterparts (party chairman 1988-1994), recognized in Smith the inborn talent for micromanagement that makes a worthy party boss. “He knew precincts and boundaries and committeeman — all those things you have to do, Irv was good at naturally,” Houlihan says. “It was Irv’s life.”
Smith prided himself on having committeemen in virtually every one of Sangamon County’s 230-odd precincts, as well as Republicans holding all nine elected positions in a dozen of the county’s 26 townships — a feat, Houlihan says, that amounted to a Republican “farm team.”
Smith also enjoyed “converting” the uncommitted or even Democrats, such as Woodside Township road commissioner Don Duffy, who comes from a family of staunch Democrats. “My family was Irish and always for the poor people. I always felt that Republicans just helped the rich, but Irv convinced me they helped everybody,” Duffy says, though he admits that Smith’s most convincing argument played on Duffy’s Catholic upbringing and the GOP’s stand on abortion.
Karen Hasara was another Democrat whom Smith converted; it happened in 1974, when he tapped her to replace him on the County Board. Then there are his most unlikely Republican recruits: African-Americans such as Jim White, the quarterback to whom he used to snap the ball at Feitshans, and Mike Pittman, the former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher whom he befriended at the YMCA.
White had gone on to graduate from Northwestern University and become a prominent Democrat, winning election to the County Board in 1967 and later serving as purchasing agent to Democratic Secretary of State Paul Powell. After White was ensnared in a payoff scandal in Powell’s office in the late ’60s, Smith coaxed him over to the Republican side and helped him found the “Jerome Irwin Club” for black Republicans in 1984. White died in 1995. Pittman, who hadn’t finished college when he met Smith, was helped to find a job as a janitor at a state agency, then as a guard with the Illinois Department of Corrections. At the urging of Smith — “and my wife was actually adamant about it,” Pittman says — he returned to college, got a degree in labor relations, and worked his way on up the government food chain, eventually becoming director of community relations for the city of Springfield before going into business on his own. Pittman now describes himself as politically independent but calls Smith “the real deal.”
“I’m pretty straightforward; I call a spade a spade — no pun intended,” Pittman says. “I always thought Irv was sincere about trying to help black people, and I guess that’s why I was more toward being a Republican, because I saw how he helped black people get jobs.”
Smith points to the high number of black Republicans in Springfield as his “greatest success — my friends on the east side.”
Houlihan acknowledges that Smith robbed the Democrats of the traditional assumption that blacks would vote for their party. “He made us work harder,” Houlihan says — but, beyond that, he isn’t impressed. “He may be giving himself too much credit there. He had the ultimate — he had jobs,” Houlihan says, and the ability to distribute those jobs was key to Smith’s success. “Like any good politician, he remembered who he helped and he reminded them very often.”
In 1988, Smith created a job-application form that can still be found on file in the public library. It has blanks for all the usual information — name, address, Social Security number, and so on — as well as union membership, relatives holding public office, party voted for in primary elections dating back to 1980, voter-registration and voter-ID numbers, and campaign contributions. Applicants had to indicate whether they would be willing to canvass their neighborhoods on behalf of candidates endorsed by the Central Committee and whether they would become active members in the Sangamon County Republican Party Foundation (a political-action committee).
“Yep, that’s my form,” Smith says cheerily. He won’t admit that he kept such applications in his Department of Index office — or, as a former co-worker claims, that he had a door cut through an exterior wall so that jobseekers could avoid the main entrance. But Smith finally acknowledges that he had his own telephone line and that “people came to see me like it was Grand Central Station.”
Unapologetic, he argues that party favors made good government. “It used to be that to the victor belong the spoils. It was Andy Jackson, a Democrat, who said that, and it worked very well,” Smith says. “I still believe that when I hire people, I like to have people I can trust, that I can get along with, on my side.”
The rules changed in 1990, when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed patronage employment with its ruling in Rutan et al v. the Republican Party of Illinois. Smith points to Rutan as the decision that ruined everything; he even sympathizes with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is facing lawsuits filed by Republican employees he tried to fire. “They’re trying to put their people in and they can’t. They’ve got to keep the ones that were there or somebody who just came along and owes no allegiance or no loyalty,” Smith says. “I’m too old to have an answer now, but I’m old enough to remember when things worked better.”
In 1993, Smith gave up his state paycheck, retiring from the Department of Index as a result of some disagreement with Ryan, who was by then secretary of state. “His own beacon didn’t work. He couldn’t see the beacon,” Smith says. “I was afraid. I had reporters breathing down my neck with all the stuff I was doing. I’d have been right with those guys now if I’d stayed. I had the compass, and it worked.”
Smith won’t share a full explanation of why he left Ryan but seems bitter toward Scott Fawell, who was Ryan’s chief of staff. “He was undercutting me as chairman. He did things that had been my prerogative. I lost the support of George, and that was it,” Smith says. “I still like George. I’m still a loyalist, still a Republican, still his friend — but I always made my own choice.”
Smith pauses for a moment. “I’m going to be sorry for this,” he says. “I don’t care. The day has come.”
In 2003, Fawell was convicted of racketeering and fraud. In 2006, Ryan was convicted on 18 counts of federal corruption.
Smith’s final public office was as Ward 8 alderman on the ostensibly nonpartisan Springfield City Council. A charter member, he was elected in 1987 after a federal-court ruling forced Springfield to abandon its system of city commissioners elected at large. Of course, that doesn’t mean Smith ran as anything other than a Republican. “We pulled out all the stops. We used a high-tech sophisticated operation that you’d never expect to see in an aldermanic campaign,” Leone says.
Smith supporters went door to door in the ward, asking residents about their concerns: Crime? Traffic? Leaf-burning? A few days later, the resident would receive a letter from Smith, naming his top concern, which would just happen to match exactly — thanks to Leone’s computer database. Smith did some negative campaigning as well. Facing a formidable opponent, Diana Deweese, he played the “values” card against her, repeating a comment she had made (atheists could be good parents) out of context to various Catholic constituents. Deweese — a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation (the same denomination Adlai Stevenson belonged to) — says that Smith’s tactics left a bad aftertaste. “It was painful to have my personal integrity attacked,” she says. “I had been raised a fundamentalist Christian, and lying is just not something you do. When people do it to maintain the power structure, it’s sickening.”
She ran against him again in 1991, each time garnering about 45 percent of the vote. In 1995, Smith faced businesswoman Barb Malaney, whose tally was about the same as Deweese’s. “I think Irv is a product of a different generation of politicians,” Malaney says. “My running and Diane’s running just aggravated the heck outta him that people would have the audacity to run against him.”
Deweese’s husband, longtime Democratic precinct committeeman Kurt Deweese, says that he was punished for her campaign, gerrymandered out of his turf. But both the Deweeses and Malaney go out of their way to say that they’ve been happy with Smith’s representation of their ward.
“I’d still go to his retirement party,” Malaney says.
Smith isn’t planning any celebrations. He says he wants to brush up on his computer skills so he can write about his experiences. He and Joan will continue to spend a few weeks each winter in Florida, where they own a condo across the street from the International Swimming Hall of Fame. As of this week, the only office Smith holds is the same one he started out with: precinct committeeman. It’s a post he has held more than 50 years, but he says he’s considering retiring from that one , too. “The fire’s out,” he says.
Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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