Experts: Ford will still be able to serve West Side

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While his recent indictment may be a distraction, Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-8th) will not have trouble legislating in Springfield, Illinois political experts say.

And state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-4th) said she will continue to work with Ford, and she believes other lawmakers will, too.

“I’ve always known LaShawn Ford to be a legislator who is always on task and focused, and I don’t know why this would prevent that from being the case going forward,” Lightford said. “I definitely look forward to working with Rep. Ford in the future.”

University of Illinois-Springfield professors of political science Christopher Mooney and Kent Redfield said they expected most of Ford’s colleagues in the Illinois House of Representatives to feel the same as Lightford, and both drew a clear distinction between Ford and recently indicted Rep. Derrick Smith (10th).

“The parallels will be drawn immediately, but the cases are really different and the people involved are very different,” Mooney said.

A recent story aired on Chicago Public Radio/WBEZ found most lawmakers making that distinction as well.

Smith was indicted in April for allegedly accepting a bribe from an FBI informant in exchange for a political favor, while Ford’s indictment on Thursday stems from fraudulent statements federal prosecutors say he made to obtain a bank loan and improper use of those funds after he got them. The charges are regarding actions that occurred before Ford became a state representative.

Redfield, Mooney and Lightford say that makes all the difference.

“This … has nothing to do with his work as a legislator,” said Lightford, whose Senate district includes all of Ford’s House district.

Lightford also stressed that Ford is innocent until proven guilty, and deserves the benefit of the doubt from the public and his colleagues.

“I wish La Shawn well, and hopefully, the justice system will allow him a fair opportunity to defend himself,” she said. “I hope people will not be too quick to judge him.”

On Friday, Ford introduced a House resolution in response to the indictment, asking fellow lawmakers to remain neutral and allow him to continue serving in the Illinois House.

Mooney said that shouldn’t be much of a problem.

“It’s going to be a distraction for him, but in terms of his political clout and what not, he’s not going to be ostracized. Ford has made his bones, he’s respected [in Springfield],” he said. “But on the other hand, if he’s got legal troubles, he’s going to have to be worried about that and dealing with that. That may cut in to his time a little bit, but I think in general, it’s not going to be a huge devastating impact.”

Still, Redfield cautioned that some lawmakers may be hesitant to co-sponsor bills with Ford now theres the stigma of an indictment, and he guessed that Ford may “have to do more work in the background,” rather than putting his name on legislation.

“People can imagine the campaign ad,” Redfield said of legislators who might be worried about potentially being labeled as guilty by association.

But Lightford said she felt no such concern and doesn’t think others will either.

“I don’t see a reason to distance myself,” she said.

Much of how Ford is treated, and the responsibilities he will be given, will be decided by House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-22nd) Redfield said, but he doesn’t think Madigan will open a special investigation  as he did with Smith.

Mooney said it’s unlikely but possible there would be a separate House investigation, if only as an attempt by Democrats to “look like they’re doing something.”

“This will be a problem for the Democrats because most of the people are not going to dig below the surface and understand everything; they’re just going to say, ‘Oh, another Democrat got indicted,’” Mooney said.

No one from Madigan’s office returned calls seeking comment for this story.

One thing working in Ford’s favor is that it will be two years before another election, which allows lawmakers more leeway to cooperate with him without much political risk, Redfield said. He said he’s sure Ford’s case would be decided before the 2014 election, one way or another. If he is found guilty, Ford would be forced to step down as a representative.

“The minute the [guilty] verdict comes down you forfeit your office,” Redfield said.

In his press release and an interview with the Austin Weekly News, Ford maintained his innocence.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Samborn said it was impossible to predict when Ford’s case would go to trial. His arraignment is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Dec. 6 at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.

Until then, Mooney said he thinks Ford will still be able to serve his constituents.

“I think people on the West Side will be well represented by Rep. Ford, as well as they ever were,” Mooney said.

Photo: Ford speaks at a Firearm Task Force earlier this year.

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