WICKER PARK — The ears of state Rep. Derrick Smith might have been tingling Wednesday night as residents packed the back room of a coffee shop to hear what five candidates who are running against Smith in next month's General Assembly primary election had to say.
Smith, who pleaded not guilty to taking a $7,000 bribe in exchange for recommending a state grant for a day care center, was not present at the forum.
Candidate Antwan Hampton, a college professor, told the residents: "My mother would die if I would go all this way to take a bribe in an alley."
All but one of the candidates running against Smith are Democrats. Mark Calonder is the lone Republican challenger.
The 10th District stretches from Lincoln Park to Garfield Park, and Smith was re-elected to represent the area in the General Assembly in November 2012, despite having been indicted on bribery charges one week before the election.
He was impeached by his colleagues and replaced by Eddie Winters, a veteran Chicago police sergeant.
Still, Smith remained on the ballot and won the contest, with voters returning him to Springfield.
Michael Madigan, the Illinois House Speaker, is backing Smith in March because Smith is an incumbent and because he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, a Madigan spokesman told the Sun-Times.
Smith's federal trial, initially scheduled for January, was pushed to late May, which means that if he is elected as the Democratic candidate in the March primary, he could be forced to leave his seat if convicted. If he leaves the position, a replacement would be appointed by the district's Democratic committeemen.
During Wednesday's hourlong panel, the candidates were asked several questions by moderator Leah Root, president of the Wicker Park Committee.
Winters is running for the third time for the seat he held briefly as the appointed replacement for Smith. He described himself as "a big advocate of bringing different communities together," and he said that he understands issues that affect Wicker Park residents, like the Ashland Bus Rapid Transit proposal.
"It would affect you all here, change side streets into major thoroughfares," Winters said of the plan to bring a high-speed bus to Ashland Avenue while removing lanes for cars and trucks.
Winters told residents, "I am not going to talk about what I'm going to do for you; I already know you."
Winters, who is backed by Gov. Patrick Quinn, Secretary of State Jesse White and Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), said the high foreclosure rates and school dropout rates and being "tired of politics as usual" are some of the reasons he is running for the seat.
Winters urged the crowd to "not get distracted by the [Smith] sideshow" and said he believes the election is about "changing the system, waking people up."
Candidate Pamela Reaves-Harris, backed by Ald. Jason Ervin, said she was "offended that [Smith] was perceived as the best the 10th District can do."
When asked about charter schools, Mark Colander said he supports charter schools if they are "done legally," while Beverly Perteet, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and GED instructor, said she supports a moratorium on charter schools.
Perteet said she was inspired to run in the primary after participating in the teachers' strike.
"Most [school] closures happened in the 10th district and it's time for me to take a stand," Perteet said, urging the group to elect someone with "integrity and dignity."
Reaves-Harris said charter schools are creating "two separate school systems where children are perceived as getting more of a quality education in one than the other."
"Before we do any more expansion, we need to have some conclusive numbers to show [charters schools] are outperforming other school in the past 10 years," Winters said.
Reaves-Harris, a lawyer, said she decided to run for Smith's seat after reading an article in the newspaper after Smith's re-election and thinking, "We can do better."
Hampton, like Reaves-Harris, said he decided to run after being disappointed by Smith.
"I'm an optimist. We just won't send Derrick Smith back. The plan is not to send Derrick Smith back. We are going to prove them wrong," Hampton said.