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Dems grapple with what to do with indicted Rep. Derrick Smith

FILE - In this April 17 2012 file pho Illinois Rep. Derrick Smith D-Chicago appears House floor during sessiIllinois State

FILE - In this April 17, 2012, file photo, Illinois Rep. Derrick Smith, D-Chicago, appears on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. It was his first appearance at the Capitol since his March 13 arrest on federal bribery charges. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has told a legislative panel that he can't reveal details of the case against Smith. He also asked lawmakers not to conduct their own investigation because it might interfere with the criminal case. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

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Updated: June 7, 2012 8:24AM

A group of Democratic ward committeemen met behind closed doors Friday in search of a strategy to clean up the Derrick Smith mess.

You might have thought they would have opted to conduct their meeting in public given the scrutiny that has followed the indictment of the first-term state representative on bribery charges.

But as somebody pointed out, the meeting at which Smith was originally selected by some of these same folks was held in public and look at how much good that did.

Still, that didn’t prevent me and WLS Channel 7’s Charles Thomas from showing up outside Ald. Emma Mitts’ 37th Ward political office on North Avenue, where my request to attend was denied on grounds the participants just wouldn’t feel free to speak their minds if I was there.

Such is the price of democracy, but with no legal grounds to press my case, I waited patiently to report to you the outcome.

An hour or so later, Secretary of State Jesse White, whose support of Smith was key to his earlier selection, emerged to say the group had developed a plan to either replace or defeat the accused lawmaker.

White said a delegation would be sent to speak directly with Smith to ask him to give up the Democratic nomination he won in the March primary. Smith’s victory came only after party leaders stepped in to keep the seat from falling into the hands of his opponent, the former executive director of the Cook County Republican Party.

Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-Maywood) will be the official emissaries, White said.

You might have thought somebody would have already tried the direct approach, but Smith is so radioactive that nobody — especially White — has wanted to engage him personally.

If the diplomatic efforts fail, White said Democratic leaders resolved to field a third-party candidate to defeat Smith in November. Either way, White promised a thorough, open process to select a replacement candidate — after at least one more secret meeting to set the ground rules.

As White explained, there are really two separate issues regarding Smith: removing him office and removing him from the ballot. The ward committeemen are involved only with the latter, White said.

He said any decision on removing Smith from office rests with the Illinois House.

White noted that withdrawing from the ballot would not prevent Smith from continuing to collect his legislative pay — which is believed to be a major consideration in his reluctance to step down. Of course, that would change if the House later moved to oust him. Those efforts stalled after U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald declined to share any of the prosecution’s evidence with legislators — unlike his approach in the Rod Blagojevich impeachment case.

While Smith has become an embarrassment to the Democrats, his continued presence on the ballot also creates an outside risk the party could lose his seat in November if Republicans were able to field a strong candidate against him. There’s an even better chance his candidacy could be used as a club against other Democrats running in November.

Those considerations as much as any have fueled the effort to move Smith aside.

While I’m also of a mind Smith should go, it bears noting we seem to have reached a point in Illinois where innocent until proven guilty no longer applies to public officials under indictment. Now we clamor for their immediate removal based on the charges alone.

I understand the reasons for that, especially in a case like Smith’s where he is allegedly on tape accepting the bribe. Nobody wants a bribe-taker voting on the major issues of our state. With such a cloud hanging over him, no lawmaker could effectively represent his constituents.

This show-them-the-door approach is a very recent development — a product, no doubt, of our collective exasperation with Illinois political corruption.

In the past, elected officials facing criminal charges were allowed to stay in office until convicted.

Maybe we need a new system for putting somebody in Smith’s situation on ice until the smoke clears.

Every now and then, let’s not forget, one of them gets acquitted.

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