Anybody who thinks the old way of Chicago politics is fading, hasn’t been by the Erie Cafe this week.
All day Tuesday, and most of the day Wednesday, 80 Cook County Democratic heavyweights — including familiar names like Burke, Madigan and Berrios — came together to eat donuts, drink coffee and battle it out over which candidates deserve the party’s endorsement for the upcoming March 2016 primary.
This time around, the party decided not to endorse in two big races: Cook County State’s Attorney and the U.S. Senate, currently occupied by Republican Senator Mark Kirk.
The committeemen set up shop in an actual back room at the Erie Cafe, after many years at Hotel Allegro — word is, the old spot raised its rates. The leaders of the party sit at a table covered with a white tablecloth, with procedural books on Robert’s Rules of Order and the Chicago election code in arm’s reach.
The room was smoke free, though someone passed around wrapped cigars at one point.
Candidates sit outside the meeting room like students waiting outside the principal’s office. They’re called to the podium one by one, where they stump for jobs like Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner.
The names on this years ballot range from the not-very-well known, like Wallace Davis III, to the incredibly familiar, like former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, who is now running for a two-year term as a water district commissioner.
A few committeemen stood up to praise Stroger — Alderman Walter Burnett said Stroger had received a “bum wrap and deserves another opportunity” — but in the end, the party decided to endorse tech entrepreneur Tom Greenhaw instead.
It’s no secret that a lot of committeemen already know who they’ll back before they walk into the slating meeting, but that doesn’t mean the candidates don’t take the process seriously.
On Tuesday, one candidate arrived at the podium, red in the face with nerves. Another brought up a bright magenta note card with a huge smiley face on it, to correct what she called her “Resting B-face. I have a not-friendly resting face.”
But a lot of the real action happens after the speeches, behind a thick wooden door, where committeemen defend their picks to their colleagues. One aldermen left Tuesday’s closed session muttering under his breath that he fought like hell.
This year, much of the back and forth was about the candidates for Cook County’s State’s Attorney and U.S. Senate. While there are four candidates for State’s Attorney, committeemen said the room was split between incumbent Anita Alvarez and Kim Foxx, former Chief of Staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
In the Senate race, five candidates were vying for the party’s endorsement. U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth tried to convince members that she was their best hope at unseating Republican Senator Mark Kirk.
“I take a lot of his positives off the table and focus it on the issues. He’s not going to be able to rest on his military record with me,” she said. “He’s not gonna be able to play the sympathy vote and say ‘you know, because I recovered from my illness, I understand better what it’s like for people to recover.’ Well, I can talk about recovery and I can say then, ‘why do you want to cut back on Medicaid and Medicare?’”
Another familiar candidate, Andrea Zopp, former head of the Chicago Urban League, told committeemen that she had the best chance of reaching voters all across the state.
“I’m the only candidate with the resources that will be there to bring out minority voters, to get them excited into this race we need them for all of our ticket,” Zopp said.
But in the end, the party decided not to endorse anyone in the Senate race. A party spokesman said that’s become more common lately, as more and more candidates figure out the best ways to lobby committeemen before the meetings begin.
But one Chicago ward committeeman said he’s concerned over the trouble this could cause for Democratic fundraising for the upcoming primary, as he said there is a very large “elephant in the room” through all of these election discussions: The seemingly infinite financial resources of Republican Governor Bruce Rauner.
Full Cook County Democratic Party Slating
For President of the United States: the party endorsed Hillary Clinton
For Illinois State Comptroller: the party endorsed Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza
U.S. Senate: No endorsement, party votes in favor of open primary
Cook County State’s Attorney: No endorsement, party votes in favor of open primary
Clerk of the Circuit Court: the party endorsed incumbent Dorothy Brown
Recorder of Deeds: the party endorsed incumbent Karen Yarborough
Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: the party endorsed Barbara McGowan, Mariyana Spyropoulos and Josina Morita for six-year terms, and Tom Greenhaw for a two-year term.
Appellate Court: the party endorsed Justice Bertina Lampkin and Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke. Those selected as alternates were: Associate Judge William Boyd, Judge Raul Vega and Associate Judge Leonard Murray.
Cook County Board of Review, 2nd District: the party endorsed Incumbent Commissioner Michael Cabonargi
Circuit Court Judge: the party endorsed Judge Alison Conlon, Judge Daniel Patrick Duffy, Judge Rossana Fernandez, Judge Alexandra Gillespie, Maureen O’Donoghue Hannon, Judge John Fitzgerald Lyke Jr., Brendan O’Brien and Judge Devlin Joseph Schoop. Selected as alternates were: Fredrick Bates, Sean Chaudhuri, Patrick Heneghan, Nichole Patton and Peter Michael Gonzalez.
Lauren Chooljian covers Chicago politics for WBEZ. Follow her @laurenchooljian.