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Thursday, April 5, 2012 07:36 am

Jesse White reflects on the mess he made

I’ve been pretty rough on Secretary of State Jesse White lately. I have no regrets about it, and I believe I had good reason to put the onus on him to correct his mistake of appointing state Rep. Derrick Smith to the Illinois House last year. Smith, of course, was arrested earlier this month on federal bribery charges.

Secretary White requested a sit-down last week and I was more than happy to meet with him. I’ve always respected the guy, but I told him in no uncertain terms that I stood by everything I wrote and will continue to hold him responsible for resolving this mess.

White initially blamed his alderman and protégé Walter Burnett for Smith’s appointment. Burnett, White said, didn’t fully inform him about Smith’s background problems (Smith was fired from his city job and the Sun-Times reported a few years ago that he’d been accused of malfeasance). That’s no excuse, however. White is the top dog and the blame rests with him. He agreed.

The secretary said he had put some thought into how he wants the replacement process to work if Smith resigns or is expelled from the House. White said he wanted to make sure that whoever replaces Smith is “blue chip,” and showed me a list of his priorities for vetting the wannabes, including a complete background check.

White also said he wants the potential replacements to fill out an “extensive questionnaire” about their backgrounds and their plans for the future. He wants them to write an essay, including a statement on why they want to be a legislator and what proposals they’d like to initiate in Springfield.

Interestingly, White said he also wants to know how much the potential replacements earn every year. He pointed out that Rep. Smith took a significant pay cut from the secretary of state’s office when he was appointed to the House, and he speculated that the alleged bribery might have at least partially been due to that reduced income, combined with an alleged criminal bent, White quickly added. The secretary wants to make the appointment process “open and transparent” to not only everyone interested in the appointment, but to the general public as well.

If Rep. Smith resigns or is ultimately expelled from the House, White won’t make the replacement appointment alone. The 10th House District encompasses nine Chicago wards, so other Democratic ward committeemen will be involved. White stressed that his list is not the final word. He said he also wants the district’s other committeemen to come up with ideas for vetting the candidates to make sure they get the right person.

White said he intends to put as much energy and effort into the replacement as he did helping Patricia Van Pelt Watkins defeat Sen. Annazette Collins, D-Chicago, in the Democratic primary. The secretary said he’s been in regular contact with Ald. Jason Ervin, a young and seemingly bright go-getter who will have a major say in the appointment as well (I chatted with the alderman a few weeks ago in Sen. Collins’ West Side campaign office and was fairly impressed). Ervin backed Sen. Collins against Watkins, but White said he’s confident the two can work together and claims that they’re already putting the past behind them.

Despite some initial defensiveness (probably because I’ve been so harsh on him), White manned up last week and admitted he’d made a terrible mistake with Smith, calling the legislator one of the worst he’d ever seen in all his years. He appears to understand the damage this scandal has done to his once sterling reputation, and he also seems determined to do the right thing when it comes time to replace Rep. Smith.

The proof, of course, will be in the pudding. Getting all this done won’t be easy. The West Side is also the Wild West. Self interest and petty turf wars far too often trump public service in that part of the world. Watkins’ victory signaled a fresh start, however. Voters in nine of the district’s 12 wards went with Watkins over Sen. Collins, despite a fortune spent on Collins’ behalf. White may yet succeed. We’ll know soon enough.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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