It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the chance to vote for the next Cook County court clerk.
I know—we’re really excited too.
Believe it or not, there’s an election upon us—early voting has already started, and Election Day is March 20.
Aside from the Republican presidential candidates fighting to return us to 1955, no other high-profile races are on the ballot—no U.S. senator, no governor, no attorney general.
Incumbent state’s attorney Anita Alvarez is running for reelection, but she’s unopposed, and many of the candidates in the most contested legislative races can be distinguished only by who’s backing them.
So really this election is an opportunity for the area’s most powerful politicians—the big boys and girls—to see who has the longest, um, tentacles.
Strictly speaking, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle aren’t up for election. But they’re out to win anyway in races across the region.
“The mayor’s main focus when deciding to back a candidate is whether or not that candidate will be a good public servant,” says Tom Bowen, Emanuel’s political spokesman.
“I’m just supporting good people,” is how Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle puts it.
In other words: what’s good is getting behind a winner.
The fight for influence starts with the Illinois Supreme Court race pitting Emanuel’s neighbor, Mary Jane Theis, against Preckwinkle’s friend, Joy Cunningham.
Also in the mix is Thomas Flannigan, a Winnetka lawyer with no major endorsements. In fact, his main asset is his Irish name. Don’t laugh—there have been times when judicial candidates legally changed their names to get an edge from sounding Irish.
The fourth candidate is Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat Aurelia Pucinski, who made headlines for reasons that have nothing to do with the supreme court. A few weeks ago she weighed in on that all-important court clerk’s race, slamming incumbent Dorothy Brown, who then slammed her back.
See—there’s all sorts of fun in that clerk’s race. More on that in a moment.
The proxy wars extend out of Chicago and even Cook County, as evidenced by the Eighth Congressional District race in the northwest suburbs. That’s the one pitting former Obama administration official Tammy Duckworth against Raja Krishnamoorthi, a former deputy state treasurer. The winner gets to take on Republican and tea party favorite Joe Walsh, best known for railing about President Obama’s financial irresponsibility while falling behind on his own child support obligations. Separating the candidates is, again, their big-name backers: Emanuel is for Duckworth while Preckwinkle is behind Krishnamoorthi.
Emanuel essentially launched Duckworth’s political career by backing her unsuccessful run for Congress in a neighboring district in 2006. In those days, Emanuel was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, so he was promoting candidates around the country.
Some habits are hard to break.
Preckwinkle says she committed to supporting Krishnamoorthi before Duckworth got into the race. “So in that case, the ground shifted a little.”
Preckwinkle is also exerting her influence in the race to represent the 39th state house district, where incumbent Toni Berrios—daughter of Joe Berrios, the county assessor and Democratic Party chairman—is defending her seat against Will Guzzardi, a former journalist trying to inherit the mantle of north-side reformer.
Guzzardi keeps saying he’s running against the elder Berrios, whom he calls the “most powerful guy in Chicago.” Curiously enough, he makes no mention of the guy who really is the most powerful guy in Chicago—Mayor Emanuel, who coincidentally has teamed up with Joe Berrios to make his own endorsements in races ranging from water reclamation district to judicial seats across the county.
The mayor, though, hasn’t backed anyone in the 29th district legislative race. How could he? He can’t endorse the opponent of the daughter of his ally, but he also doesn’t want to alienate his white liberal base by openly supporting a Berrios.
Guzzardi touts the enthusiastic support of Alderman Scott Waguespack. But the way Waguespack has been siding with the mayor, it raises questions about what sort of reform Guzzardi has in mind. “My opponent is part of the broken system in Springfield,” Guzzardi says. “She’s beholden to the speaker of the house. She’s beholden to her father.”
So he’s willing to throw a dart at Speaker Michael Madigan, the second most powerful figure in the state. And Mayor Emanuel? “That’s not at play in this race.”
Toni Berrios didn’t respond to our calls. But Preckwinkle—another self-proclaimed reformer—says she’s backing Toni Berrios because she’s committed to helping women in politics. It doesn’t hurt that Preckwinkle forged her own alliance with Joe Berrios before the 2010 elections.
“I will acknowledge that some of the people I’m supporting, I’m doing so because my friends have asked me to,” Preckwinkle says.
That takes us back to the all-important court clerk’s race, pitting incumbent Dorothy Brown against Alderman Rick Munoz.
Wait—bringing up Munoz reminds us of the epic battle in the 21st state house district on the southwest side—a proxy war on so many levels it’s hard to keep track of all the players.
One candidate, Rudy Lozano Jr., is endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union. His opponent, Silvana Tabares, is being pushed by the United Neighborhood Organization, one of Mayor Emanuel’s favorite charter school operators and his go-to spot for Hispanic support. So on one level, it’s a showdown between supporters of unionized schools and nonunionized charters.
In addition, Lozano is a protege of Munoz, while Tabares is a protege of UNO executive director Juan Rangel. So it’s a proxy war between Munoz and Rangel, who have been scrapping since Rangel unsuccessfully challenged Munoz for alderman in 1995.
There’s more: Alderman Ed Burke, the powerful chairman of the City Council’s finance committee, is also behind Tabares—no doubt because Lozano had the audacity to run for state rep against Burke’s younger brother two years ago. So it’s also a proxy war between Alderman Burke and anyone who dares to defy Alderman Burke.
Last but not least, it’s another battle in the extended proxy war between Emanuel, one of Rangel’s close allies, and Preckwinkle, who’s endorsed Lozano.
Speaking of Preckwinkle, she’s also busy in the 26th state house district, where she hopes to advance yet another young brainy type from the University of Chicago. Ladies and gentlemen, meet 25-year-old Christian Mitchell, a former community organizer and aide to Will Burns, who held the house seat until he took Preckwinkle’s old job as Fourth Ward alderman.
Mitchell professes to be a progressive in the Hyde Park tradition—while also seeking, and getting, the endorsement of Emanuel.
What, you may ask, is a nice would-be reformer doing with the backing of a mayor like Emanuel? Mitchell says he sat down with the mayor’s political aides in the interest of building a “big tent.” More specifically: “They wanted to know, ‘What’s your path to victory?'” he says.
On the other side is Kenny Johnson, a businessman backed by Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., his friend and former boss. So you could say this is a proxy war between Emanuel and Jackson—except Emanuel is endorsing Jackson in Junior’s own bid for reelection in the Second Congressional District.
One could say the policy differences between Mitchell and Johnson are subtle. “We don’t differ,” says Johnson.
That sums up so much about this election—and Chicago politics in general.
All of which finally brings us back to that all-important race for Cook County court clerk.
First let us take a minute to remind you of all the reasons you should be interested in it . . .
Has it been a minute yet?
Really, though, the clerk’s office is responsible for keeping track of thousands of court documents, mostly stacks of paper stuffed into manila folders before being shelved in warehouses. All this stacking, stuffing, and shelving is done by scores of clerks and senior clerks and associate clerks and associate chief deputy clerks—about 2,100 in all. This system only costs you $108 million a year.
Most politicians don’t grow up dreaming of the time when they get to keep track of thousands of pieces of paper. So aside from having scores of jobs to hand out, why would anyone want this gig?
That’s a question both candidates struggle to answer. Dorothy Brown, the incumbent, first won the office in 2000, and since then has shown great skill at finding other positions to run for, including mayor in 2007 and county board president in 2010. She says she’s fully committed to serving another four-year term as clerk. “I think Barack ran for four things and finally became president,” she says. “He obviously, like me, has a desire to serve.”
Munoz has been searching for a City Council exit strategy for almost as long as President Obama has been emulating Brown. And who can blame him? Munoz has been there since 1993.
While the incumbent says she’s taken the first big steps toward making the office more efficient and user-friendly, Munoz says it’s in need of serious reform. “It’s time to clean up this last bastion of corruption in Cook County,” he declares.
Not surprisingly, he says he’s the man for the job. In 19 years as alderman, Munoz built an image as a reformer, though even he admits that around these parts, “That’s relative.”
Brown agrees with that point at least, ripping him for voting for the infamous parking-meter sell-off. “That flies in the face of reform,” she says.
Looming not so far in the background are the heavy hitters. “Reform is on a roll in Cook County thanks to Rahm Emanuel and Toni Preckwinkle,” says Munoz.
Preckwinkle has endorsed Munoz and would very much like to get her old council ally in a key county post. Emanuel hasn’t voiced support for anyone.
“We don’t just lend our name for the sake of it,” says Bowen.
Translation: Emanuel hasn’t figured out who’s going to win.