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Indicted state Rep. Smith still looks good to Mike Madigan

Facing a federal corruption trial and what could be a serious challenge in next month’s Democratic primary, state Rep. Derrick Smith still can count on one big supporter who rarely backs a loser.

Michael Madigan.

The Illinois House speaker and state Democratic Party chairman from the Southwest Side is helping the West Side legislator in his primary fight against Chicago Police Sgt. Eddie Winters.

“We support incumbents,” Madigan’s longtime spokesman Steve Brown said when asked about the speaker’s endorsement of Smith. “He’s an incumbent.”

The indictment isn’t a factor?

“I believe — let me go back and check — oh, yeah, that’s right, I believe you are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Brown said. “Isn’t that right?”

Uh, yeah, that’s right.

“Great,” Brown said. “Is that all?”

All right then, we offered you a chance and received no rousing defense of Smith. There was not even faint praise for us to convey to the voters of Smith’s diverse 10th Illinois House District, which covers an area from Lincoln Park to West Garfield Park.

All that matters is Smith is Madigan’s guy, and he hasn’t been convicted.

Things apparently will stay this way as long as Smith has his seat in Springfield and as long as he hasn’t been forced to report to Oxford, Wis., Yankton, S.D., or one of the other locations of federal lock-ups.

That much may be obvious to Brown and Madigan. But it was only Sunday that those outside the speaker’s inner circle got the first official proof that the all-but-omnipotent speaker was shrugging off the federal case against Smith and visibly backing him in the March 18 primary.

Smith’s campaign committee reported to state elections officials that it has received $1,572.99 worth of “payroll” support from the Friends of Michael J. Madigan political fund. The contribution from the Madigan committee paid for the services of Julia Larkin, a veteran campaign operative for the state Democratic organization.

Sometimes referred to by rivals as “Madigoons,” operatives such as Larkin take leaves of absence from the state payroll during campaign season to oversee the deployment of patronage workers in key races across Illinois.

Winters’ bid to unseat Smith has the backing of Secretary of State Jesse White — who once supported Smith — as well as City Council members Bob Fioretti (2nd), Scott Waguespack (32nd) and Michele Smith (43rd).

Word of Madigan’s support for Smith spawned speculation among Winters’ backers that the speaker soon will put a lot more of his clout behind the incumbent.

Brown wouldn’t say how much Madigan plans to aid Smith.

“I would regard that as strategic information,” the speaker’s spokesman said. “Some of the competition might read your publication. I generally don’t make a practice of revealing that publicly.”

Madigan always plays to win, so if he’s in for $1,572.99 now, he will be good for whatever it takes to give Smith the best possible chance of keeping the seat.

Smith has raised little campaign cash since his indictment by a federal grand jury in April 2012.

Prosecutors allege they secretly recorded Smith accepting $7,000 from an undercover mole on behalf of a purported day care operator who wanted assistance in landing a $50,000 state grant.

The lawmaker’s defense lawyers recently moved to block the feds from playing one wiretap recording in which Smith referred to himself as a “pimp” at his trial, now scheduled for May. He has pleaded not guilty.

Smith won back the seat that he now holds in November 2012, after his House colleagues had voted overwhelmingly to expel him.

So forgive us, Mr. Brown, for wondering if the speaker might not have backed the re-election bid of this particular incumbent member of the House Democratic caucus. In the summer of 2012, shortly after Smith’s indictment, Brown did not have kind words for Smith.

Then, Chicago Sun-Times Springfield Bureau Chief Dave McKinney asked Brown about $19,000 that Smith’s campaign reported receiving from a Madigan political-action committee called Democratic Majority. According to Smith’s campaign, the donations were made after the indictment and after the House expulsion hearings began.

In fact, the Madigan PAC had disclosed making the contributions earlier in 2012, before Smith’s legal troubles began.

“Why Derrick Smith does what Derrick Smith does, I have no idea,” Brown said at that time.
Reminded of those comments this week, Brown sighed and said that statement was not inconsistent with Madigan’s endorsement of Smith in the upcoming primary.

“Do with it what you will,” Brown said.

What many critics will do with Madigan’s support of Smith is feel validated again in their belief that Springfield’s most powerful man doesn’t care at all about ethical government.

But Madigan’s ability to get allies re-elected across the state means Smith easily could remain in office. At least until he might be convicted and would be forced from the House again.

This seems the most likely resolution. The success rate of federal prosecutors might be even higher than the winning percentage of candidates blessed by Madigan.