Tom Swiss is a white candidate running for state representative in a majority African-American district.
But that has nothing to do with his decision to erect a billboard with his name and a picture of a black construction worker, he said.
“I don’t look at this as a race issue – I look at it as a socio-economic issue: These guys are my guys,” he said of the district’s economically struggling or out-of-work African-Americans. “I’m out in the community, I’m knocking on doors. I am not remotely trying to hide that I’m white.”
Swiss is also a recent former director of the Cook County Republican Party running as a Democrat in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Though he does not mention that on his website, Swiss said he does not hide it. His ideology defies labels, he said. He could fairly be called a “moderate Republican, a “blue-dog [conservative] Democrat,” or a “Libertarian,” he said.
The only real issue in state politics, is political corruption and the pension and Medicaid crises it has spawned, he said.
The new 10th district goes from Garfield Park on the West Side, up to Bucktown. It is a little more than half African-American, one-third white; and most of the rest Hispanic.
Derrick Smith is the incumbent state representative, appointed to the seat in March after Annazette Collins was appointed to the state Senate.
Smith has the strong backing of Democratic party officials, including 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett and the Democratic ward committeeman, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who helped get him appointed to the state House.
Smith, who is African-American, grew up in Cabrini Green with Burnett and used to be 27th Ward Superintendent.
Swiss points out Smith was fired from that post.
“My opponent was fired from Streets and San for corruption in 2005, using his employees to work on private property,” Swiss said. City officials never spelled out the reasons for Smith’s firing following Sun-Times reports of an investigation of whether officials including Smith used city employees for private work.
“In my job with the city of Chicago, I did nothing wrong,” Smith said through a spokesman.
Asked what he thought of Swiss’ billboard, Smith said through the spokesman, “I’ve been focused on going door to door talking to local residents about their concerns. We know Tom Swiss is a Republican trying to hijack the Democratic primary.”
Bob Fioretti, a white alderman who represents the majority-black 2nd Ward, said he used his own photo when he ran.
“It is a bit disingenuous,” Fioretti said of Swiss’ billboard. “In the white areas he’s got his picture, then in parts of my ward, he’s got the black construction worker.”
Swiss, an investor, spent a year living in Kenya and Tanzania, then came back to Chicago and took the first steps toward becoming a Franciscan friar, working as a volunteer at Stateville prison and at the Henry Horner homes.
That proves his interest in helping minority communities is genuine, he said.
When Rich Miller’s Capitol Fax website wrote about Swiss’ candidacy last year, Miller quoted an e-mail Swiss sent out saying many of the voters in the district were “extremely low-information voters.”
Swiss said Thursday most voters in Illinois are “low information voters” as evidenced by Rod Blagojevich’s two elections as governor.
“I kind of resent that – because of all the work I have done working with Africans [and the disadvantaged in America] – white journalists implying there is something racist in that,” Swiss said.
The reason Swiss chose a black man in a white hard hat to put on his billboard is because as construction jobs come to the district, he wants to make sure they go to district residents, he said.