Comebacks, blowbacks, blowbacks, highlight primary races
by RUSS STEWART
To be dumped or not to be dumped, that is the Shakespearian question. In a year where political insiders are increasingly reviled, the fates of Dorothy Brown and Anita Alvarez in the March 15 primary will answer that question.
If the race for the Cook County clerk of the Circuit Court race were to be scripted, the screenwriter would be nominated for an Oscar for the best off-the-wall documentary. "Brown Is Not Down" would be an apt title. Or "Risen From The Dead."
The county Democrats’ 2015 carnival of slating, non-slating, unslating, re-slating and dumping has resurrected Dorothy Brown’s candidacy in the clerk’s race and possibly doomed Kim Foxx’s in the state’s attorney’s contest. Brown, the 16-year court clerk, faces Alderman Michelle Harris (8th) and attorney Jacob Meister. Alvarez, the 8-year county prosecutor, faces Foxx and Donna More. At one time there was a racial dynamic, as Brown, Harris and Foxx are black, Meister and More are white, and Alvarez is Hispanic, but now both contests are less about race and more about positioning. Who’s the outsider?
Brown is the target of a federal investigation, which so far has resulted in the indictment of an employee who made a loan to Brown’s husband and then got hired for a job in the clerk’s office. That’s called pay to play. The feds have been snooping around her office for at least 5 years, and they have yet to tag Brown for any wrongdoing, but squeamish Democratic bosses, fearful that a Brown indictment was imminent, decided to unslate and dump her, picking Harris as her replacement.
"They made her a martyr," one Democratic insider said of the slatemakers’ action. "Black voters, especially women, see this as nothing short of racist," he said, even though Brown was replaced by another black candidate on the slate and even though prominent African-American politicians like Toni Preckwinkle were involved in her dumping.
"She’s not indicted but she might be indicted?" the source said. "That’s no reason to get rid of her." In short, they removed the focus from Brown’s legal quagmire and incompetence and made her a "victim," and black voters rally around a victim.
Given the cloud over herself and her office, Brown probably would have narrowly lost a two-way race against Meister. The contest would have focused on Brown and her many shortcomings, with white and Hispanic voters opting for "outsider" Meister, but a three-way race changes the dynamic. Brown now is the "outsider," and she will get a huge sympathy vote — probably 55 to 65 percent — in the black-majority wards and townships, and Harris, because she is the slated candidate, will be on the sample ballot in all the non-black wards and townships, cutting into the Meister vote.
There has been no public polling released on the clerk’s race, but Meister said his internal polls put him around 40 percent, with Brown a close second. That’s just not plausible. Meister is a total unknown, although he is getting media endorsements and now is running television ads. He is the "reform" candidate. Meister could win if Brown and Harris evenly split the black vote and he grabs 65 to 70 percent of the white vote, but his problem is that Harris is now on the slate, and will be on the committeemen’s sample ballots in white and Hispanic areas. That shaves votes from Meister.
As shown in the adjoining chart, there have been seven boisterously contested primaries for clerk and state’s attorney since 1972. The slated candidate has won only three of the seven, but the incumbent has won three of three. Six of the seven primaries were in a presidential election year, the exception being 1990, which was for the final 2 years of Rich Daley’s term. The average Democratic primary turnout was about 717,000, with 2008 (950,421) being on the high side due to the candidacy of Barack Obama and 2000 (447,446) being the nadir. In a multi-candidate field, the "magic number" of votes would be about 290,000, or 40 percent.
Clerk of Court: In the past 16 years, Brown has been on the ballot six times, winning four races for clerk but losing badly in bids for mayor and county board president. Her political base is on the South Side, and she is extremely well known in the black community, where longevity in office is the norm. After she was dumped, it was presumed that Brown would go quietly into the night. She had a measly $19,857 in campaign funds on hand as of Jan. 1, but she has a network in the black wards and townships, has 2,100 employees, of whom some who want to keep their jobs will assist her, and she has a familiar name. Of course, she also has a record. Meister calls Brown’s office a "cesspool of incompetence and mismanagement mired in the 1990s," but other than lawyers, few voters care about such mundane matters as case filings and document management and retrieval.
As of Jan. 1, Meister had $295,287 on hand and Harris more than $48,000. Harris recently dropped a countywide mailing to about 70,000 households tying herself to President Obama and proclaiming that she would "work to crack down on gangs" and oppose Governor Bruce Rauner’s "dangerous agenda." Wait a minute: The clerk’s office deals with paper, Xerox machines and computers. As Meister noted, there are at least 50 million documents in the clerk’s warehouse, many of them piled on pallets labeled "loose." There are 25,000 new case filings per month, or 300,000 per year, in the divorce, chancery, law, county and municipal divisions, which, when supplemented by post-filing answers and motions, amount to 20 million pages per year. Add to that the paperwork of housing, traffic and the criminal courts, and Meister estimates that there are about 30 million documents to be scanned and computerized annually, with about 20 million documents already archived.
The Illinois Supreme Court recently decreed that all filings after Jan. 1, 2018, must be online. No more paper. The federal courts use the PACER system, or electronic case filing, as do DuPage, Will, Lake and McHenry counties. Only in the Law Division can complaints be filed in Cook County, and documents filed anywhere cannot be accessed online. "(Brown) promised upgrades when she was elected in 2000, and she hasn’t performed," Meister said. "We’re still mired in the 1990s. The system is horribly antiquated."
There are roughly 500 courtrooms in the county judicial system, and each has a paper file for every litigant, and a clerk. Meister wants to have a "docket clerk" with a computer in every courtroom, who will enter judge’s orders in real time, not with carbonized paper.
Prediction: Harris is going nowhere. Meister has a ceiling. Brown hasn’t been indicted. All are clustered around 30 to 33 percent. Brown will eke out a 37 percent win.
State’s Attorney: Criticism can eventually transform itself into opprobrium. That is Alvarez’s problem. She is perceived tough on minority defendants and soft on cop defendants. Not a good place to be.
As shown in the chart, Alvarez got a whopping 25.7 percent of the vote in the six-candidate contest in 2008, defeating 38th Ward Alderman Tom Allen by 9,562 votes. South Side committeemen stuck it to Allen. However, Alvarez has built no political base, and the issue of her dilatory response to cases involving Laquan McDonald, David Koschman and Rekia Boyd has indelibly tarnished her credibility, making her unelectable.
A recent Chicago Tribune poll put her ahead 34-27-12 over Foxx and More, with 27 percent undecided. Those are horrible numbers for an incumbent, and her "unfavorable" rating was 42 percent. A Capitol Fax/We Ask America poll put the race at 33-27-7, with 33 percent undecided.
The contest is a replication of the one in 1972, when incumbent Democrat Ed Hanrahan was scorned by black voters due to the involvement of his office’s investigators in a West Side raid in which two Black Panthers were shot and killed. Pressure on the Daley machine caused Hanrahan to be dumped, but two candidates opposed him, and Hanrahan won with 41.5 percent of the vote. Alvarez was not re-slated, and Democratic bosses belatedly decided to slate Foxx, Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff. Prediction: If Foxx gets 70 to 80 percent of the black vote, she wins. She’s on the white committeemen’s sample ballot. If More inexplicably surges, she takes votes away from Foxx. Still, Alvarez will lose.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.