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Circuit court clerk

Democratic incumbent Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez (left) faces a challenge from her own party in the March 19th primary from Mariyana Spyropoulos.

Manuel Martinez

Democratic Party politics loom large over fight for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk

With just one term under her belt, Democratic Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez is facing a tough reelection fight as she faces a challenger from her own party in the March 19 primary.

Her opponent, Mariyana Spyropoulos, a long-time commissioner on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago board, has amassed far more in campaign contributions.

Records show Spyropoulos — an attorney who was already leading Martinez in the fundraising battle — loaned her own campaign $875,000 on Valentine’s Day. The eyebrow-raising donation is so high, it’s 18 times the amount that Martinez, who has the power of incumbency, had on hand at the end of December.

In addition to being flush with cash, Spyropoulos’s campaign also has picked up influential endorsements. They include nods from the powerful Cook County Democratic Party, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and mayors throughout the suburbs. She’s also backed by Teamsters Local 700, which represents Martinez’s unionized employees.

The clerk’s role is administrative, overseeing one of the largest local circuit court systems in the nation with tens of millions of documents and some 1,400 workers. Getting a divorce, a traffic ticket or accused of a crime? The Circuit Court is charged with housing your case file.

Yet Martinez’s job performance — perceived or otherwise — is not the only reason behind the move to oust her after almost four years in office. This is political.

In 2020, Martinez won even though the Democratic Party endorsed another candidate. Two years later, Martinez backed candidates who weren’t endorsed by party leaders.

“I think there was hard feelings about both those races,” Democratic Party Chairwoman Toni Preckwinkle recently told WBEZ. “It’s not surprising that in 2024 when she came back to the party to ask for support, she didn’t get it.”

Martinez counters that she ran against the party because there was no Latino or Latina at the top of the ticket for a countywide office.

“How do I motivate my people to come out to vote if they don’t see someone who looks like me on a ticket, which is happening right now,” Martinez said. “But when you don’t go with the flow, when you don’t kiss that ring, it’s unfortunate to say.”

“When you look at the record that I have established in the clerk’s office, there was no reason for me not to get the nod … I have turned that office around.”

Martinez is a veteran lawmaker. She was the first Latina in the state Senate, where she spent 17 years, rising to assistant majority leader. She ran for her current job after longtime Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown decided not to seek reelection after 20 years in office.

Brown’s tenure was mired in scandal, including the infamous policy of charging employees to wear jeans to work and accusations of selling jobs and promotions. The Sun-Times reported federal authorities conducted an investigation and were allegedly told employees could secure promotions by giving financial benefits to the clerk. The going rate for a job was allegedly about $10,000. Brown was never accused of a crime.

Martinez vowed to clean up and modernize the court system, digitizing the dizzying volume of paper records. Her office says she has digitized all 49 million cases going back to 1970, representing about 71 million document IDs. One ID may have multiple pages. Documents previous to 1970 are digitized on microfilm.

“As far as modernization, we’re there,” Martinez said. “We have a good team of IT people that are always looking outside the box to see what more we can do to make the system as easy, friendly to the public as possible.”

This runs counter to criticism that the Circuit Court system is still disorganized and a relic of another era, and that it can be hard to find files, causing people’s cases to drag on.

Last year WBEZ revealed the county had been erroneously putting felonies on the records of people in some diversion programs for at least three years. Martinez’s office said Chief Judge Timothy Evans was ultimately responsible because the Circuit Court Clerk’s office takes orders from him.

Martinez points to a host of other accomplishments: setting up court via Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic, opening a domestic violence survivor center, launching a new department where people can have their records expunged and opening a call center to help people with questions about the courts.

She counts U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, a Democrat from south suburban Matteson, among her supporters, as well as unions representing Chicago firefighters and construction workers and at least a dozen state lawmakers and Chicago alderpeople.

Spyropoulos has served on the water reclamation district board for 14 years; from 2015 to 2019 she served as board president. She said she pushed for an independent inspector general and for using more green infrastructure to combat climate change.

If she wins the March primary, Spyropoulos’s goals for the courts include digitizing records and expanding expungement summits. She said she won’t accept campaign contributions from employees, though she acknowledged taking money from vendors that do business with the water reclamation district board. The Chicago Tribune documented how Martinez has taken money from staffers, some of whom received promotions. In an interview with WBEZ, she said those who contributed were longtime friends who have supported her for years.

Spyropoulos said she would push to have the court system, including judges, subject to Illinois’ public records law. She wants to make the courts more accessible by bringing pro-bono expertise to communities, where her office would partner with organizations to help people file court documents.

“There’s a lot of people throughout Cook County that are intimidated by the process,” Spyropoulos said. “Some people don’t even approach a lawsuit or just sort of let it go because they just don’t know what to do.”

Spyropoulos said she’s not beholden to the Democratic Party despite their endorsement. And even though unionized workers at the Circuit Court have backed her — and contributed $5,000 to her campaign last month — she said she is ready to reset the tone in the office if she wins.

“We want transparency and fairness and professionalism, customer service,” Spyropoulos said. “We want all of those things to be part of everything that we do there.”

Spyropoulos had about $267,000 in her campaign fund at the end of December compared to about $48,000 for Martinez, state campaign finance records show. Since then, more money has poured in for both candidates.

Lupe Aguirre is on the Republican ballot seeking the office. Michael Murphy is running as a Libertarian.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ.

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