Cook County Democratic Party Makes Its Pick For Circuit Court Clerk

cook county slating
The Cook County Democratic Party made its long-awaited endorsements for candidates to back in the 2020 elections Friday, Aug. 16. Kristen Schorsch / WBEZ
cook county slating
The Cook County Democratic Party made its long-awaited endorsements for candidates to back in the 2020 elections Friday, Aug. 16. Kristen Schorsch / WBEZ

Cook County Democratic Party Makes Its Pick For Circuit Court Clerk

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The Cook County Democratic Party on Friday endorsed Michael Cabonargi for clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, and Kim Foxx for state’s attorney, among a slew of other candidates the organization plans to back for the 2020 elections.

Cabonargi is a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, which reviews property tax appeals. Foxx is seeking a second term in office as she takes heat for how her office handled the Jussie Smollett case.

Roderick Sawyer, the committeeman who oversaw the Democratic Party’s slating for countywide offices, said there were no “back-room deals” when slating candidates.

“The only back-room deals were the people doing the work, talking to all 80 committeemen, asking and soliciting for support,” said Sawyer, who’s also a Chicago alderman. The event was held inside a giant union hall near McCormick Place.

Sawyer was responding to earlier concerns from Illinois state Sen. Iris Martinez and Chicago attorney Jacob Meister. They’re running for Circuit Court clerk, and when seeking the Democratic Party’s support on Friday, they both implored committeemen not to make any deals when backing certain candidates.

Getting committeemen’s collective endorsement is coveted because it comes with an infusion of money and a small army to help get out the vote. It could be harder for lesser-known candidates, or those who fail to raise lots of money, to win over voters. The 2020 primary is in March.

The endorsements cap the tradition in Cook County politics of hopefuls coming in to woo party bosses. The organization consists of 80 committeemen, which includes a who’s who of politicians led now by Toni Preckwinkle. She also runs Cook County government. With its legacy of tightly held power, insider politics and jobs for votes, the party has been known as “the Machine,” though it doesn’t have the same clout that it used to.

In June, candidates for judge, Circuit Court clerk, state’s attorney and other races participated in the party’s preslating process. One by one, they stood at a podium inside the same union hall as they did on Friday and gave committeemen their best pitches for why they deserve support.

Candidates ticked off their resumes, mentioned their well-connected friends and family, underscored their fundraising abilities (campaigns are expensive) and touted creative personal hobbies.

Today, candidates gave an abbreviated version and took questions.

The race for Circuit Court clerk in particular has been thrust into the spotlight because critics for years have implored current Clerk Dorothy Brown to digitize more court documents. The county’s Circuit Court system, which maintains records for the county justice system, is one of the largest in the country. Attorneys frequently bemoan missing files and having to deal with paper instead of digital records.

Brown also been swept up in a federal probe, though she’s not been charged with wrongdoing.

This week, Brown said she doesn’t plan to run for reelection next year, which will be her 20th year in office. She also defended her digitization efforts.

Cabonargi is one of five people jockeying to replace Brown. Before the party’s vote was officially revealed, he said he was grateful for their support.

“To have such a diverse, engaged group of community leaders in your corner throughout the county, I’m really humbled,” Cabonargi said.

If elected, he said he would first review the Circuit Court system to understand how to modernize it.

Earlier in the day, Martinez used two giant boards to illustrate the Latino population in Chicago and in Cook County. She called for an open race, but she also urged committeemen to choose her as a representative of the Latino community.

Candidates typically want the Democratic Party’s support because campaigning can be brutal and expensive, especially for little-known candidates. The party helps with outreach to voters in a few key ways. Besides helping to fund campaigns, it circulates petitions to collect signatures to get candidates on the ballot. Democrats need almost 7,300 signatures, while Republicans need just over 2,200. That’s based on a percentage of the total number of people who cast ballots for each party in the last general election, according to a spokesman for the Cook County Clerk’s Office.

The party also puts candidates’ names on countywide mailings and conducts robocalls on their behalf. That’s branding power, particularly for voters who go with the candidate their political party backs.

Candidates can still run without the party’s endorsement. In fact, some have vowed they will, including Meister and Mariyana Spyropoulos for Circuit Court clerk. Spyropoulos is a Chicago attorney and a commissioner on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which treats wastewater and manages waterways. She broke fundraising caps when she loaned her campaign $500,000 in July.

Foxx, the Cook County State’s Attorney, was the only candidate who sought the party’s endorsement for that office.

Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.