A former Republican Party leader has switched teams, running as a Democrat for a state House seat against an establishment candidate in the diverse 10th District, which stretches from eastern Lincoln Park to Garfield Park.
Tom Swiss, former director of the Cook County Republican Party, is taking on Rep. Derrick Smith, who was appointed to the seat last March after Annazette Collins moved to the Illinois Senate.
Smith has the Democratic Party behind him, with dollars and endorsements flowing from a slew of local politicians, including Secretary of State Jesse White, Smith’s former teacher and old boss, as well as several major unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union, three SEIU locals and the Chicago Federation of Labor.
Swiss says he’s not hiding his work for the GOP, which focused on efforts to expose corruption and recruit election judges: “I’m very proud of what I did,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, citing thwarting political corruption as one of his top priorities.
Rather, Swiss says, he’s running as a DemoÂcrat because a Republican can’t win in his heavily Democratic district and, he emphasized, because he can fairly be described as a Blue Dog Democrat or a moderate Republican.
“I don’t think my values are out of line with the values of the district,” said Swiss, a River West neighborhood resident.
Nevertheless, Swiss, in an email to a political supporter last year, obtained by the Capitol Fax blog and verified by Swiss, laid out his strategy for winning in the 10th, saying the race “could possibly be the least expensive State Rep. seat pick up for conservatives.” Swiss also fails to mention his GOP background on his campaign website.
Swiss explains the note as a private email sent for fund-raising purposes, and notes that he has worked to help elect Democrats and independents, including Forrest Claypool in his unsuccessful race for Cook County assessor.
Swiss has an eclectic background. The 44-year-old did missionary work in Africa before flirting briefly with becoming a Franciscan friar and then working as a Stateville prison counselor. He did volunteer work for several years in low-income Chicago neighborhoods, including for a Head Start program. An avid and successful investor since he was a teen, Swiss gave up a career in medical technology about 10 years ago to focus on investments full time and to do political work.
To compete, Swiss has poured $34,000 of his own money into the campaign. Smith has raised about $45,000. Swiss argues that his independence frees him to go after “third-rail issues because I’m not afraid of losing my job over it.”
Earlier in the campaign, Swiss considered “renting” people’s yards for $5 to place campaign signs but opted instead for billboards.
On the issues, Smith, a 48-year-old grandfather of six from East Garfield Park, is a decidedly more mainstream and cautious Democrat. He ran unsuccessfully for Cook County commissioner in 2010 while working as a deputy director in the Secretary of State’s office.
A former 27th Ward superintendent and precinct captain coordinator for 30 years, Smith “has serious reservations” about trying to reduce the state’s unfunded pension liability by scaling back benefits for current employees. Something must be done, he says, but he would commit only to studying “everything proposed before I make a decision.”
Swiss is adamant about the scope of the problem, saying that he believes “the pension funds are in worse shape than is currently portrayed.” He says both the state and employees must share in the “sacrifice” needed to prevent a “bankrupt pension system.”
Swiss is open to school finance reform to increase equity between poor and rich school districts but says that the “breakdown of the families in poor communities is what’s causing most of problems.” Smith cites school funding reform as one of his top priorities.
Both candidates are open to extending the income tax increase beyond its expected expiration date in 2014, and both would support gay marriage legislation. To deal with the state’s unpaid bills, Smith is open to borrowing as a last choice. Swiss is opposed.
Smith, who Springfield insiders say is just starting to find his footing in the state House, says he knows the community in the 10th District better than Swiss.
“I’ve been working for the community, been in it for years,” Smith said. “I don’t know [Swiss], I haven’t seen him. I don’t know what are his issues, his real platform, I only know what he has on paper.”