The (Other) Man Who Tried to Buy a Senate Seat

As former Gov. Rod Blagojevich stands accused of trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat, it’s worth the recalling the story of a would-be senator who really did try to buy his seat. Needless to say, it happened in Illinois.

In the early 1920s, Frank L. Smith was the chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission, the body in charge of regulating public utilities. Smith, a former one-term congressman, decided to run for the Senate in 1926. His position gave him ready access to campaign funds -- from the owners of public utilities. Illinois’s campaign finance laws were even looser in the 1920s that they were in Blagojevich’s day. Smith accepted $125,000 from Samuel Insull, a tycoon who owned most of the public transportation in Chicago, as well as most of the utilities that supplied electricity to the public transportation.

After Smith won the Republican primary, a Senate committee began investigating election hijinks around the nation, zeroing in on Illinois. According to an official Senate history:

In late June, Arkansas Democrat Thaddeus H. Caraway delivered a speech in the Senate alleging the use of excessive expenditures, fraud, and corruption in the Illinois primary campaign. The charges included accusations that Frank Smith had spent $400,000 on the election and that Samuel Insull, the powerful owner of public utility corporations, contributed $125,000 to Smith’s primary campaign fund while Smith was still chairing the commerce commission that oversaw such utilities.

Accepting such contributions in these circumstances represented a conflict of interest and was illegal under Illinois law. Newspaper reports of Caraway's charges drew national attention to the Illinois election, and the special committee, which had already been concerned about expenditures in that race, began focusing on the activities of Smith’s campaign. Chaired by James A. Reed (Democrat-MO), the committee conducted hearings in Chicago throughout the summer and fall of 1926, in addition to continuing its investigation of the Pennsylvania primary election.

Republicans urged Smith to step aside, arguing that Illinois voters would never elect a candidate “tainted” by corruption. They didn’t know Illinois voters. Smith defeated Sen. William B. McKinley in November. When McKinley died a month later, Gov. Len Small appointed Smith to fill his seat. (Small, we should note, had recently been acquitted of embezzling $600,000 while he was state treasurer. He was so grateful for the jury’s decision that he gave state jobs to four of its members.)

The Senate refused to seat Smith to complete McKinley’s term. It refused to seat him again in March, when he presented his credential for the full six-year term. On January 17, 1928, over a year after the election -- a year in which Charles S. Deneen was Illinois’s only senator -- a Senate committee issued a report “declaring that Smith's election was tainted with blatant fraud and corruption” and that his acceptance of campaign funds from utilities was “harmful to the dignity and honor of the Senate. Two days later, the Senate voted 61-23 to deny Smith his seat.

McKinley’s seat was finally filled by a special election. Otis F. Glenn was sworn in on Dec, 3, 1928, nearly two years after his predecessor’s death.

Today, Smith is best remembered as the namesake of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Frank L. Smith Bank in Dwight, now known as the First National Bank.

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