Dorothy Brown tries to fend off Rick Munoz in bitter Cook County Circuit Court Clerk race

March 2, 2012

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(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
Brown (right) and Munoz at a debate last week in a Lincoln Park church.

It's been a difficult few years for Dorothy Brown, the elected clerk of Cook County's circuit court. She's lost two bids for higher office, for mayor in 2007 and county board president in 2010.

Brown also faced a lot of criticism for poor bookkeeping of an employee "Jeans Day" program, for taking campaign money from her staff and office vendors and for accepting cash gifts from employees.

Now seeking a fourth term, Brown touts her record as an experienced administrator. First, she'll have to get past a feisty opponent, 22nd Ward Ald. Ricardo Munoz, in the March 20th Democratic primary.

Back in 2000, Brown won the court clerk's office by plowing through a Democratic field that included two Chicago aldermen. The machine-endorsed candidate was the 45th Ward's Pat Levar and the other was Joe Moore of the 49th Ward.

"I had previously announced my candidacy for that office and was getting a lot of support," Moore remembered. "But when she entered the race, it kind of sucked all the oxygen out my campaign."

Moore had television commercials, but Brown had an energized, independent organization of volunteers, and another advantage.

"What I failed to take into account is the large amount of favorable publicity that Ms. Brown received from news media. That free press was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars," said Moore, who is backing Munoz in this year's election.

That "favorable publicity" might be surprising now, after several years of ethics questions, but back in 2000 Brown won endorsements from the Tribune, Sun-Times and Daily Herald. They were impressed by her multiple professional degrees and her political independence.

Brown is now the Cook County Democratic Party's endorsed candidate and has had little trouble keeping the clerk's office. Four years ago she didn't even have a primary opponent. This year, though, she's up against Munoz, a 19-year veteran of the Chicago City Council. The two met for a debate last week in a Lincoln Park church. The setting didn't temper the mudslinging.

"You know what after 18 years [Munoz] doesn't even have a [ward] website for his constituents," Brown said.

"We can clean up the last corner of corruption in Cook County," Munoz told the crowd, referring to Brown's office.

"And then he just went on the floor and just voted for it blindly," Brown said, referring to Munoz's vote for the unpopular parking meter lease.

"The most eye-popping example is her failure to adopt an electronic document filing system that could save the taxpayers millions," Munoz said.

Munoz has tried to put electronic filing at the center of this election. He said it's long past time Cook County had a system for lawyers to file all legal briefs online. Some are filed electronically in a test program approved by the Illinois Supreme Court. But the court is not yet letting the county expand that program, and is not saying much publicly about why not.

Still, Brown defends how far the clerk's office has come since she took over.

"I had to actually move [the office] from the 19th Century...with handwriting, we didn't quite have quill pens, but we were close to that," Brown said at the debate.

Cook County, Brown continued, has one of the largest court systems in the country. Her office is responsible for handling the millions of documents that move in and out of hundreds of courtrooms.

How efficiently the office does that most certainly affects attorneys, who - at the Daley Center the other day - tended to give Brown a mixed grade.

"Great Job. There's a billion cases filed in this thing, and for the most part, things are where they're supposed to be, when they're supposed to be," Mark Mayer said. 'I don't know if she's wasting money or doing good with money...But as far as what I need to do...as far as my business, she does a great job."

"I notice sometimes that documents are mis-filed, which is only human considering the massive number of documents that they have," Ken Peters said.

The clerk's operation, of course, also impacts non-lawyers: people dealing with traffic tickets, divorces, criminal charges and foreclosures. And with about 2,000 employees and a $100 million budget, it affects anyone who pays taxes in the county.

Rick Munoz wants to take over the responsibility of the office after almost two decades on the City Council, where he was known as a rare voice of opposition to former Mayor Richard Daley. But Dorothy Brown disputes Munoz's reformer credentials, noting that he took money from developers in his Southwest Side ward and his vote on the parking meter lease. (Munoz has since sought to repeal the lease.)

Brown also questioned whether an alderman with only a handful of employees has enough management experience.

"You can throw out all kinds of accusations, but can you run an office of this magnitude? That's what's going to be important here," Brown said at the debate.

Munoz scoffed at that, citing the recent example of his key supporter, the county board president and former alderman Toni Preckwinkle. He's been dropping Preckwinkle's name all over the place, and also her photo - on campaign fliers Munoz passed out this week at the Loyola University 'L' stop.

"[I'm] just visiting all the way around - New Trier, Palatine, Wheeling, Hegewisch - just all over the county," Munoz said.

Has he found any commuters who cared about the circuit court clerk's office?

"Once they learn about the office, once they hear that I'm running against Dorothy Brown, the lady with the blue jeans scandal - they say, 'Oh, good. I'll support you," he said.

Munoz took a brief moment to find a response when he was asked if that's how he wants to win the race, by emphasizing Brown's negatives rather than his own positives.

"You know, I'm running to reform this office. Her negatives are just what they are," Munoz said.

In the city's Bronzeville neighborhood, Brown's campaign said it has well over a hundred volunteers. The campaign is running a seven-day-a-week phone bank, evidence that the clerk's political organization has some of the same heft it did twelve years ago.

And in an election in which most Chicago Democrats have, really, no big-name contested primaries to draw them to the polls, every little push may count.