Attorney Corri Fetman, 54, doesn’t have the typical resumé of someone running for judge.
Since being admitted to the Illinois bar in 1988, she’s started her own law firm, performed in bodybuilding competitions, written an advice column, and posed for Playboy. In 2007 she sparked controversy by mounting a billboard in the Gold Coast’s Viagra Triangle that read “Life’s short, get a divorce” to advertise her legal services. A few years later she pioneered the “48-hour divorce” mediation method.
After nearly 30 years practicing law, Fetman was ready for a new challenge: running for Cook County circuit court judge.
“I think being a judge is the ultimate civic duty,” she says, “It’s a way to give back, it’s the highest honor in the career of an attorney.”
Fetman says she expected a tough race against Billy Goat Tavern co-owner and Illinois Securities Department enforcement division chief Tom Sianis. But that didn’t prepare her for a Facebook video calling her a “poser” and featuring images from her past presented in a mocking manner by a group tied to a Sianis campaign consultant. It’s an attack ad she sees as being in direct violation of Illinois’s judicial campaign rules. “To me, it’s body shaming,” she says.
The ad, which was first posted on the Chicago Progressive Candidate 2015 Facebook page on January 19 as “a joint message from The Chicago Progressive Candidates & Integrity Party of Illinois,” shows a montage of images of Fetman from her bodybuilding and divorce-law-advertisement days, with superimposed (and misspelled) word art declaring “No Possers [sic] Needed.” Over menacing instrumental music and ticking clock sounds, a raspy male voice says: “Posers. Posers. We have enough of them in Chicago. Do we really need another who’s just posing to try to be a judge? Vote no on Corri Fetman’s idea of being a judge. We need judges who are real, not posing.”
Chicago Progressive Candidates is a nonprofit organization founded in 2015 by activist Tio Hardiman and developer Chris Kennedy (who are now both running for governor in the Democratic primary), as well as perennial mayoral candidate William “Dock” Walls, and Matt Harrington—a political consultant who’s received nearly $10,000 for campaign work from Sianis’s candidate committee since mid-December according to state campaign finance filings. Harrington also appears in several Facebook posts recently made on the Integrity Party of Illinois page. In 2011, allegations surfaced that Harrington had left intimidating and profanity-laced voicemails for Tom Swiss, who was then running for a state house seat.
Sianis said Friday that though he had seen the ad when it first appeared in January, and had worked with Harrington on his campaign, he didn’t know of Harrington’s affiliation with Chicago Progressive Candidates. “I didn’t know that Harrington was a part of that,” Sianis said, adding that he hadn’t had any contact with the consultant in weeks. “I had nothing to do with that ad at all—it’s offensive and inappropriate.” He said Harrington is no longer working on his campaign.
Harrington did not respond to repeated calls for comment from the Reader.
Attack ads of the sort targeting Fetman would be run-of-the-mill in any other type of election, but judicial campaigns in Illinois are governed by a strict set of rules made by the Illinois Supreme Court and meant to preserve the dignity and impartiality of judgeships. According to the state’s Judicial Inquiry Board, the body that oversees judicial campaigns, judges and judicial candidates are to “refrain from inappropriate political activity.” Publicly endorsing or opposing another candidate for public office is one type of prohibited activity.
Judicial election rules also dictate that candidates “shall prohibit employees and officials who serve at the pleasure of the candidate . . . from doing on the candidate’s behalf what the candidate is prohibited from doing.” Judicial candidates are also to refrain from knowingly misrepresenting “the identity, qualifications, present position or other fact” about themselves or an opponent.
The ad first appeared on Facebook one day after Fetman’s petition signatures were approved and she got on the ballot.
Kathy Twine, executive director and general counsel of the Judicial Inquiry Board, said she couldn’t speculate about whether the ad would prompt an investigation by the board and said that complaints about inappropriate political activity are evaluated internally if a complaint is filed. “It’s closed and it’s a confidential hearing,” Twine explained. “It’s not until such time that the board decides to file a formal complaint [against a judge or candidate] that the complaint is made public.” Fetman declined to comment about whether she’d filed any official complaints related to the ad.
Fetman said she has been targeted before; sexual harassment at work first prompted her to start her own law firm. In 2009 she also sued Playboy executive Thomas Hagopian for sexual harassment, alleging that he began sending her sexually explicit messages after she started writing the “Lawyer of Love” column for the adult magazine’s website. The suit eventually settled on confidential terms. She’s not embarrassed if voters know about her past endeavors, she says. But the tone of the attack ad stings, and seems to her to be violating both the letter and spirit of the judicial election rules.
“Everything I’ve done has been transparent, and I believe in complete transparency,” Fetman says. She doesn’t think her past would be used against her in this way if she was a man—no attack ads have appeared against Timothy Leeming, a third contender for the countywide judicial seat opened by retiring judge Deborah M. Dooling.
Though Fetman wanted to speak out about the ad, she’s not planning any attack ads of her own, focusing instead on telling her story to potential voters. She waited to launch her campaign until she was approved to be on the ballot in January, when it was too late to seek bar association ratings. Sianis, meanwhile, has been campaigning since November and is endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and a variety of local politicians.
In addition to her legal expertise, Fetman is campaigning on her life experience. “I’ve worked since a very, very young age to escape a violent upbringing,” she says. “I’ve worked at a lumber yard, at a bakery, at a grocery store, at this place that used to be like a Sam’s Club. I think I have a very good sense of people and a dedication to people, and I think I’d be a good judge because I’ve been there, I’ve worked, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck.”