After Brown ‘dumped,’ committeemen to work
by RUSS STEWART
Among Democratic ward and township committeemen, there is a dirty four-letter word: "work." Having dumped Dorothy Brown as their slated candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court, that’s what they will have to do to.
Otherwise, there will be another obnoxious four-letter word: "lose."
The Democrats’ fear is that Brown and her husband may be indicted before or after the March 15, 2016, primary election. A myriad of allegations have surfaced in an FBI investigation, ranging from questionable loans to the Browns to "pay to play" donations in exchange for jobs or promotions in the clerk’s office. The feds just seized her cell phone. It’s a very serious, very nasty situation, which means that, depending on the timing of any indictment, Jacob Meister, Brown’s announced opponent, could win the primary or that Republican Diane Shapiro could win the election.
In Brown’s stead, Democratic slatemakers anointed Alderman Michelle Harris (8th), a onetime protege of John Stroger and the aldermanic successor of Todd Stroger. The slatemakers adhered to an unwritten party rules, that once an African American is elected to any major office, it must be occupied forevermore by a black politician, and that once a woman is elected to a major office, it must be occupied forevermore by a woman. Since Brown is a South Side black woman . . . well, you can guess. Harris is a South Side black woman. No others need apply.
Harris’ credentials to run the country’s second largest court system, in which 2.4 million cases are filed annually and 850,000 documents are filed and catalogued monthly, are stellar: She’s a lifelong nepotistic payroller, just like most of her clerk predecessors. She was the chief of staff for her aunt, Alderman Lorraine Dixon, who died in 2001 and who was replaced by Todd Stroger. She also spent time as ward sanitation superintendent and the Cook County Board secretary. When ward boss John Stroger died in 2006, his son Todd got his job as county board president and Harris got the aldermanic spot. Making Harris the clerk is akin to putting a truck driver in charge of NASA, but that’s standard operating procedure in Cook County.
"It seems to me that it was a done deal," Alderman Nick Sposato (38th) said. "The committeemen were notified on Wednesday for a Friday meeting," he said. The Oct. 23 vote to dump Brown supposedly was unanimous, even though half the committeemen were not present.
"Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty?" Sposato said. "Sure, there’s a federal investigation, but it’s all still rumor, not fact." Sposato is backing Meister in the primary.
That makes for a sticky problem. Slating is not nominating. Voters may resist. Harris has zero name identification, has Stroger-related baggage, and is an Emanuel stooge in the City Council. According to sources, she is one of the "Emanuel 26" who will vote for the mayor’s budget and $588 million property tax hike on Oct. 29, so her opponents will have plenty of time to broadcast that fact in the predominantly white and Hispanic wards.
It takes 5,365 signatures on nominating petitions to get on the Democratic primary ballot, and the petitions are due during the week of Nov. 23 to Nov. 30. To be sure of withstanding a challenge, a Democrat must amass 10,000 signatures.
Because incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was dumped by the committeemen in August, with "no recommendation" their verdict, there are no joint petitions. The slated countywide Democrats are on separate petitions, not all on one petition. There are individual petitions on the street for Brown and Karen Yarbrough for recorder of deeds, a single petition for the four candidates for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board of Commissioners, and single petitions for two slated candidates for the Appellate Court and eight candidates for the Circuit Court. Each slated candidate pays the party $25,000 upfront, for circulating and mailing "expenses."
With petitions in the hands of 80 committeemen (50 Chicago and 30 suburban), getting on the Democratic primary ballot is a no brainer; that’s a guaranteed 20,000 to 30,000 signatures. However, Brown has an acute problem: county Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios said that he told the committeeman not to submit the Brown petitions that they gathered. Brown’s getting her $25,000 refunded, so now she must get 10,000 signatures on her own in 30 days, without the aid of the black committeemen.
Brown has been the clerk since 2000, when she beat Pat Levar in the primary. Her office controls 1,800 jobs, about half of which are occupied by black employees, which means that a lot of black committeemen have precinct workers, donors, friends or family on her payroll. The office’s budget exceeds $100 million. The committeemen have already circulated her petitions, starting Sept. 1. They’re now going to shred them and get new sheets for Harris.
Harris is one of the "Four Sisters" who control much of South Side Chicago politics. They include Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the slatemaking chairwoman who spearheaded the "Dump Brown" move, and Aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd) and Leslie Hairston (5th). They are the Democratic committeemen in four wards which generate a combined 32,000 primary votes.
The Preckwinkle/Harris combine, aided and abetted by Berrios, have grievously overextended themselves. They are backing Kim Foxx, Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff, for state’s attorney, along with Harris and Yarbrough. That’s three black women for the top three countywide positions, plus another three women (one black) for the water district board. Andrea Zopp, who is black, is challenging Tammy Duckworth in the U.S. Senate primary. That’s diversity? Or is it exclusivity?
Where will the white committeemen gravitate? Such powerhouses as Ed Burke and Mike Madigan are supporting Alvarez. The other white committeemen will back the "slate," simply because there’s no one else to back.
The countywide turnout in Democratic primaries in presidential years is roughly 900,000, with about half the votes cast in Chicago and half in the suburbs. The black vote is about 350,000, and the Hispanic vote is about 125,000. To triumph, the Foxx/Harris/Yarbrough "Soul Slate" needs support from white wards. To be sure, Hillary Clinton will sweep the Illinois presidential primary, and an outpouring of female voters could filter down the ballot.
Sposato is backing Alvarez and Meister. "Slating means nothing," he said. As for Alvarez being dumped, Sposato is incredulous: "They claimed that she’s too tough on crime," he said. "Isn’t that her job?"
Brown presumably will not quietly fade away. She is well known, especially in the black community. Her fund-raising is anemic, with only $36,986 as of Oct. 1, but in the black community, potential prosecution by the feds is an emblem of persecution that evokes instant sympathy and empathy. A lot of politicians have gone to the slammer, but until he or she is behind bars, black voters are extraordinarily non-judgmental and supportive, and from a legal (and negotiation) standpoint, Brown is not going to quit absent a plea bargain.
It is unprecedented, and perhaps a harbinger of the future, to have minority candidates battle each other for the clerk’s job, which once was a crown jewel for the Democrats. From the 1930s on, the office was "owned" by the Bridgeport 11th Ward. "Impressment" was the word. Those who got the office’s low-paying, paper-shuffling jobs had to work precincts. Bridgeporters Joe McDonough, Matt Danaher and Morgan Finley ran the office, until Finley was ensnared in a bribery investigation. His opportunistic successor was Aurie Pucinski, who beat both Democrat Jane Byrne and Republican Eddie Vrdolyak in 1988, switched to the Republicans in 1998 to run against Stroger, then switched back after retiring in 2000 to run for judge. Pucinski now is on the Appellate Court.
With solid black support, Brown beat the slated Levar in 2000 48.4 percent to 27.5 percent. In 2004 Brown beat white former judge Jerome Orbach 74.1 percent to 25.9 percent, but her office ranked somewhere between inert, inept and outright negligent. Brown was mired in the 1990s. The federal courts introduced electronic case filing in the mid-2000s. All pleadings are done by e-mail and paid for by attorney credit cards. Ditto for DuPage County and Lake County. Not Brown’s office.
Every morning a thousand litigants throng the Daley Center to file their appearances in eviction, housing and foreclosure cases, which could be done online. Likewise, there’s courtroom management. The court docket for civil and collection cases might number 10 to 12 per courtroom on the 11th and 14th floors but nearly 100 in the 28th floor foreclosure courtrooms. Paper is everywhere, especially on the eighth floor, which accepts foreclosure pleadings.
Only in the Law Division can cases be filed online, and while docket entries can be reviewed online for all divisions, filed documents cannot. Brown had a consulting study done in the late 2000s, which has yet to be fully implemented.
"She is beyond incompetent, and that’s because the office is incompetently run," Shapiro said.
Brown is toast. She won’t get on the ballot, and if Foxx and Harris win on March 15, Preckwinkle will be the undisputed political boss of Cook County, eclipsing even Rahm Emanuel.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.