How unfit is too unfit for the Illinois Legislature?
With the outcome never really in doubt, the Illinois House of Representatives last week expelled a Chicago legislator who is facing a federal bribery charge.
The 100-6 vote was more of a political show than a hearing on the merits, but expulsion is an inherently political process. House members obviously concluded that in an election year appearances matter.
So Democratic state Rep. Derrick Smith is gone for the time being. Despite his indictment and his expulsion, Smith's name remains on the fall election ballot. He may well be re-elected by the same voters in the fall who renominated the indicted politician back in March.
If so, Smith will be free to return to the Illinois House in Springfield, even if he is not free of the charges that he accepted a $7,000 bribe in order to facilitate the approval of a state contract.
What's interesting about the expulsion is that Smith's fellow Democrats, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, supported his renomination and even helped him win the primary election. They were trying to keep the seat under Democratic control in a primary race against an opponent who was perceived as a Republican in Democratic clothing.
Once Smith was safely renominated, Democratic Party bosses, including Smith's mentor, Secretary of State Jesse White, pressed Smith to remove his name from the ballot so that another reliable Democrat could take the ballot spot. But Smith refused to play ball, prompting the expulsion effort.
In posturing for the public in this manner, House Democrats may have established a dangerous precedent. If a criminal indictment is sufficient to justify expulsion in Smith's case, what will Madigan do when and if federal investigators start indicting members of the House and Senate for alleged abuse of the now-defunct legislative scholarship program?
The feds already have issued subpoenas for documents from several legislators, and the probe is sure to make more of them sweat before it's over.
The House vote marked only the second time that it has expelled a member.
The prior expulsion came in 1905 and involved a state representative, Frank Comerford, who enraged his colleagues by publicly complaining that too many of them were accepting bribes in exchange for selling out the public interest. Comerford's fellow legislators interrupted their bribe-taking long enough to denounce Comerford for blowing the whistle and voted him out.
Comerford ultimately won the special election to fill his seat and returned to the House, just as Smith may very well do.