As the coronavirus pandemic overshadowed this week's primary election in Illinois, depressing turnout and delivering the state's delegates to Joe Biden, Cook County voters also had a choice to make about their next clerk of the Circuit Court.
Twenty-year incumbent Dorothy Brown created perhaps the lowest possible bar for competent leadership as her office was marred by job-selling and bribery scandals, numerous indictments, long delays in record processing, well-documented inefficiencies, and a general bureaucratic stupor among both employees of the office and those who need its services.
Four candidates were vying to replace Brown since she announced that she wouldn’t seek reelection: former Cook County commissioner Richard Boykin, Cook County Board of Review commissioner Michael Cabonargi, 20th District state senator Iris Martinez, and attorney Jacob Meister. All of them promised to reform and modernize the notoriously dysfunctional office, train staff, combat a tradition of patronage hiring, and improve data transparency. Cabonargi was endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party; Meister's campaign presented him as the progressive reform candidate in the style of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi; Martinez ran on her record as a champion of worker- and family-friendly legislation in Springfield; and Boykin, who'd lost his commissioner seat to Democratic Socialist–backed Brandon Johnson, touted his history of fighting the county's infamous attempt to tax sweetened beverages.
Martinez's win came as a surprise to many, including the candidate. "I'm still very much in a daze at the results," she told the Reader on Thursday. She was out-fund-raised by Cabonargi and ran just one TV ad to the commissioner's four, in the last week of the campaign. Many progressive activists and organizations had thrown their support behind Meister. Boykin had been polling well among city voters. The day after the election, Mark Brown noted in the Sun-Times: "Before the election, Martinez was practically taken for granted as she ran a low-profile campaign that caused some to question whether she even seriously wanted the job."
The clerk of the Circuit Court is an unfamiliar office for many voters. As a record-keeping body, its role is essential but mostly invisible unless one works in the courts or has to deal with a case. This obscurity, and the size of the staff (currently some 1,400 workers), has historically allowed it to be a bastion for patronage jobs. Indeed the latest scandals under Brown involved accusations of jobs exchanged for campaign donations. Despite these salacious scandals, and ones involving Brown's incompetence in her official capacity, the office has stayed off people's radars and out of the news lately. Political observers interviewed for this story pointed out that this was a particularly difficult year to educate voters about this part of the ballot, as the election was dominated by the presidential contest and the hotly contested Cook County state's attorney's race.
So who voted for Martinez? Within the city of Chicago, she won 29 wards—all the heavily Latino and white wards, from the ritzy lakefront areas to the working-class southeast side. (Boykin won all 18 of the majority-Black wards. Cabonargi won just three wards, the 41st and 19th on the far northwest and far southwest sides, respectively, and downtown’s 42nd Ward.) In total she received 136,502 votes—nearly 36,000 more than Boykin, who came in second. Martinez racked up another 105,234 votes in suburban Cook County, where Cabonargi came in second with some 3,200 fewer votes. Ultimately she won by a hefty margin, securing nearly 50,000 more votes than Cabonargi.
Assuming that most of the 769,613 voters who made a choice in this race in Chicago and Cook County had only the faintest idea about this office and the difference between candidates, one is left wondering whether Martinez was chosen for her qualifications, her name recognition, or her identity. While she's been a fixture in northwest-side politics since the 1990s, and made history in 2003 as the first Latina to be elected to the state senate, some are speculating that it is her name itself, rather than its familiarity, that helped her beat party-favorite Cabonargi.
"You have a race with no incumbents in an office that most people don’t know exists and four names that most people don't recognize . . . When you're the only woman on the ballot with three men that's a natural advantage," said Cook County Democratic Party executive director Jacob Kaplan. "Something I've seen consistently in the last two to three cycles is Latinas do great [in county-wide contests], Latina names."
Thirty-fifth Ward alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who personally supported Meister but didn't make an endorsement in this race, explained that even in parts of town where voters lean heavily progressive, "absent widespread media coverage, absent a scandal, absent a robust, well-funded campaign it's very difficult to break through" for candidates in down-ballot contests. "I think that's ultimately why Meister, despite running as a progressive reform candidate, really didn’t receive votes where we normally see progressive reform candidates win."
Ramirez-Rosa added that even his own ward organization chose to stump for Bernie Sanders, Kim Foxx, and progressive state house candidate Nidia Carranza. "As a ward organization we needed to hunker down and focus on the races we really felt needed our help," he said. "That's one of the realities of campaigning. You probably have a voter at the door for maybe five or ten minutes at the most, so how do you have a meaningful conversation with them about races? You generally keep it to three . . . While people have been upset about corruption in Dorothy Brown's office, I think people were more panicked about the prospect of losing Kim Foxx."
While the alderman didn't consider Martinez the best-qualified candidate for the job he's optimistic that she will take reforming the office seriously given that she's "more progressive than the average legislator in Springfield." He also doesn’t think it’s such a bad thing that Latinx candidates are "finally making it like the Irish and Polish before us. The electorate has grown large enough that when there's little information presented to the voters and they're asked to make a decision, there's enough Latinos and enough people that say 'I want a woman.'. . . As a progressive that's not something I'm gonna get angry about."
Boykin, Meister, and Martinez herself thought her identity helped her win, though she underscored her qualifications for the position, too. She hasn't held a court-related elected office before, or been a leading voice on matters related to court procedures or reforms, but Martinez said her record must have mattered to voters. "People are looking to put the best candidate in the office," she said. "I think more and more people are going online and looking at credentials and voting on credentials. I have a history in Springfield. I have a history of participating in many things that benefit families."
Martinez, who's also celebrating her win in the 33rd Ward's committeeman's race, over one-term incumbent and former attorney general candidate Aaron Goldstein, said her top priority for the Clerk's office will be to "call an independent audit . . . I want a fresh set of eyes looking at this and letting us know what's really going on there, start looking at the workforce and how do we invest in that workforce so that we can start getting the results that we need." She’ll face Republican Barbara Ruth Bellar on the November general election ballot. v