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Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, in 2021.

Ashlee Rezin

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough dies at 73

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who was recently hospitalized for a serious medical condition, has died. She was 73.

Yarbrough passed away Sunday afternoon surrounded by her family and husband, former Maywood Mayor Henderson Yarbrough, said Sally Daly, deputy clerk of communications for the county clerk’s office.

“We have lost one of the brightest lights in the public service arena in Cook County and the State of Illinois and we will never be quite the same,” said Chief Deputy Clerk Cedric Giles in a statement.

Yarbrough had been hospitalized and was undergoing treatment for a medical condition Daly described last week as being serious without disclosing details.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (7th), who was very close with Yarbrough, said he’d remember her as an excellent leader who helmed the second-largest county in the country with great aplomb.

“The county clerk is a big job, it plays a central role in county governance, and county services that people need,” Davis said. “We applaud and commend her for her outstanding service, she was a real asset to the Democratic Party of Cook County, and played a key role in it. We are going to miss her, we already miss her.”

Yarbrough was the first Black person and first woman to serve as Cook County clerk. She served in elected office for more than two decades, including as the Cook County recorder of deeds and as a state representative.

She was also active in Democratic Party politics, working for both the Cook County Democratic Party and Democratic Party of Illinois. She was a Democratic committeeperson representing west suburban Proviso Township for the Cook County party, where she was also the treasurer. She’s a member of the state central committee for the Illinois party.

Yarbrough was sworn in as a state representative in 2001, elected Cook County recorder of deeds in 2012 and clerk in 2018. When the recorder’s office was eliminated, she assumed all duties of that office as county clerk in 2020.

Yarbrough has said that helping people is what she finds most exciting about elective office and her party positions.

“I think people get energy from other people,” Yarbrough told the Sun-Times in a 2020 interview.

Yarbrough was born August 22, 1950. She earned an undergraduate degree in business management from Chicago State University and a master’s in inner city studies from Northeastern Illinois University.

She wasn’t just a politician. Yarbrough was a licensed real estate broker, and founder of Hathaway Insurance Agency.

Condolences poured in from Illinois elected officials, many of whom remembered Yarbrough as a trailblazer.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said Yarbrough was a dedicated public servant who was “always encouraging” and paved the way for many. “Above all, she was a wonderful human being loved by so many, including her family and friends who mourn her loss,” Stratton said in a statement.

“We are praying for them and her colleagues in the Cook County Clerk’s Office as they grieve and send them strength for the journey.”

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi remembered Yarbrough as a pioneer who inspired others through her public service work.

“I was proud to work alongside Karen within Cook County’s property tax system and applaud her efforts to assist veterans across the region,” Kaegi said in a statement.

Yarbrough’s tenure wasn’t without scrutiny, however.

She faced several allegations of patronage hiring in different positions she held, the first of which started in 2012 when her niece was hired as an executive assistant in her office with a $114,000 annual salary, along with others alleged to have political ties to her.

A federal hiring monitor blasted her hiring decisions, finding “a range of issues from consistently deficient hiring paperwork to suspicious interviews and [employee] selection meetings.” Then-Cook County Inspector General Pat Blanchard recommended some new hires and high-ranking staffers be fired, though Yarbrough refused.

In 2018, Yarbrough was sued by attorney Michael L. Shakman — who filed a suit to end political patronage more than 50 years ago — for similar hiring issues. A court-appointed monitor was tasked with watching the office’s hiring practices in 2020, though it ended its oversight of the agency when the suit was closed in 2023 having cost taxpayers $3 million for compliance efforts and legal fees, Yarbrough said at the time.

Mayor Brandon Johnson said Yarbrough “forged a path for officials like myself and others” as both a pioneer and tireless legislator.

“Her passion for ensuring that communities experience the full support of their governing bodies and benefit from the fruits of our democracy will truly be missed, as will her radiant smile,” Johnson said.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet

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