CHICAGO – Democrats were off to a strong start Tuesday in their efforts to hold onto solid majorities in both houses of the Illinois General Assembly, even claiming one seat party leaders wished they hadn't.
Former state Democratic Rep. Derrick Smith, booted from his House seat in August because of a federal bribery charge, won back his post with 62 percent of the vote over a candidate the Democrats wanted to replace him.
The Illinois Constitution precludes kicking Smith out more than once for the same offense.
Smith has pleaded not guilty to an allegation that he accepted a $7,000 bribe in exchange for political support in favor of a grant application. Although expelled from the House, he refused to leave the ballot and easily defeated the Democrats' pick, 10th District Unity candidate Lance Tyson, who has worked for former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.
"No one's really talking about it, and they're just saying, 'You're innocent until proven guilty,'" Smith said during a visit to a west-side Chicago polling place. "I've been talking to my lawyer continually to try to expedite it so I can clear my name."
Democratic incumbents were handily winning re-election, and the party picked up one seat in the House with Sam Yingling's defeat of Rep. Sandy Cole, R-Grayslake.
Republicans hoped to resonate with their message that Democrats are to blame for multibillion-dollar budget and public pension deficits and unemployment near 9 percent.
But they were up against a ticket led by President Barack Obama, who easily carried his home state Tuesday.
More importantly, the GOP faced legislative districts drawn by majority Democrats to largely favor Democratic candidates. The map was recrafted because of population shifts revealed by the 2010 Census. But even with all 177 seats in the General Assembly up for a vote, nearly half were uncontested and dozens of Democrats were assured victory.
The Smith race wasn't the ballot's only oddity. In the McHenry County area, Republican David McSweeney of Barrington Hills was trying to keep the former seat of the late Rep. Mark Beaubien. He had an unlikely opponent in Beaubien's widow, Dee Beaubien of Barrington Hills, who was running as an independent. She received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money from committees controlled by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.
Bill Albracht of Moline was one of several Republicans trying to unseat entrenched Democratic incumbents. The former Secret Service agent, squared off against Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline. Jacobs said he had "delivered" for his district in the form of projects paid by tax dollars he brought back home.
Mindful of Illinois' Democratic leanings, many Republicans played up their independence and willingness to work with members of opposition parties. Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy, a Republican Senate candidate, did that while also criticizing his opponent, Democrat Andy Manar of Bunker Hill, for being an insider even though he's not an incumbent.
Manar was a Senate Democratic staffer for years and resigned as Senate President John Cullerton's chief of staff to seek the Senate seat just south of Springfield.
Associated Press writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.