Dorothy Brown’s Campaign Fund Is Skimpy. Is She Running Again for Circuit Court Clerk?

dorothy brown
Dorothy Brown and her supporters hold a press conference in the basement of the Cook County building in downtown Chicago on Jan. 10, 2019 during her run for Chicago mayor. Claudia Morell / WBEZ
dorothy brown
Dorothy Brown and her supporters hold a press conference in the basement of the Cook County building in downtown Chicago on Jan. 10, 2019 during her run for Chicago mayor. Claudia Morell / WBEZ

Dorothy Brown’s Campaign Fund Is Skimpy. Is She Running Again for Circuit Court Clerk?

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Next year will be Dorothy Brown’s 20th as clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County. So far, the embattled clerk hasn’t publicly declared whether she’ll seek another term.

And Brown had only about $5,300 in her campaign fund, Friends of Dorothy Brown, as of June 30, according to the most recent quarterly report with the Illinois State Board of Elections.

Still, some people who want to replace Brown as the record-keeper of one of the largest court systems in the nation are acting as if she definitely plans to run.

After all, Brown has wide name recognition, particularly on the South and West sides of Chicago, and she won reelection in 2016 with 67% of the vote despite a federal corruption probe that cost her the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party. Brown has not been charged with wrongdoing.

“She is a formidable opponent and has been in political life for more than 20 years,” said Michael Cabonargi, a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, which reviews property tax appeals. “I’m planning to run against Dorothy Brown. I haven’t seen anything to indicate she is not running.”

Brown’s spokeswoman at the clerk’s office declined to comment about her reelection plans.

Cabonargi is one of four people who plan to participate in a ritual this week for rookie and veteran politicians alike who want the blessing of the Cook County Democratic Party. The party, which consists of 80 committeemen, is scheduled to give its 2020 election endorsements to candidates for a variety of offices on Friday.

Brown didn’t show up to preslating in June, when prospective candidates gave their best pitches to the party bosses inside a giant union hall near the McCormick Place convention center just south of downtown. One by one, potential candidates who want the party’s backing to run for judge, state’s attorney, Circuit Court clerk and other roles ticked off their resumes and personal hobbies.

Some casually name dropped their well-connected friends and family.

“My cousin Gery Chico, who you all may or may not know, ran for mayor, and he’s agreed to chair my finance committee to help me raise money,” said Joseph Chico, who wants to be a Circuit Court judge.

Gery Chico is a Chicago City Hall veteran who unsuccessfully ran for mayor twice.

Those who want Brown’s job slammed how she runs the Circuit Court system and vowed to modernize it.

Wooing top Democrats

The party’s seal of approval comes with manpower and money. The party helps circulate petitions for candidates who have to collect signatures to get on the ballot. Democratic candidates need almost 7,300 signatures, while Republican candidates need just over 2,200. It’s based on a percentage of the total number of people who cast ballots in each party in the last general election, a spokesman for the Cook County Clerk’s office said.

The Democratic Party also puts candidates’ names on countywide mailings and conducts robocalls on their behalf, said Jacob Kaplan, the group’s executive director.

In other words, candidates with the party’s backing get lots of help to get their name out to voters.

And while the party might not be as influential as it was in decades past — when it was known as the machine and for exchanging lots of votes for government jobs — getting the party’s endorsement is still coveted, especially for little-known candidates whose names are lower on the ballot.

The Cook County Democratic Party is “a brand name that provides some cue to voters regarding which candidate they should vote for,” said Constance Mixon, director of urban studies at Elmhurst College.

That’s why those who want Brown’s job are wooing party bosses, already hosting fundraisers and digging into their own wallets to fund their campaigns.

Of the four people who have said they plan to run for Brown’s job:

- The Friends of Cabonargi campaign fund had about $517,000 as of June 30, when the most recent quarterly reporting period ended, state records show. The fund has taken in an additional $3,500 in contributions since then. Michael Cabonargi said he’s constantly fundraising. He’s been a Board of Review commissioner for eight years.

“If you don’t have money, the decision is made for you,” said Cabonargi, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “It becomes much more difficult to run unless you’ve got the resources you need to win.”

- Mariyana Spyropoulos is a Chicago attorney and a commissioner on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which treats wastewater and manages waterways. The Citizens for Spyropoulos campaign fund reported having almost $284,000 on June 30. Records show the fund has since received another $18,350 in contributions, and Spyropoulos loaned her campaign $500,000. She did not provide comment.

Spyropoulos broke fundraising caps that limit self-funding contributions to $100,000. Now any candidate in the race can receive unlimited contributions, a state election board spokesman confirmed.

- Jacob Meister is a Chicago attorney who lost to Brown in the 2016 primary election with about 22% of the vote. The Friends of Jacob Meister campaign fund had about $830 as of June 30.

In an interview, Meister said he hasn’t started actively fundraising yet, but he’s not counting himself out of the race just because he doesn’t have as much money as some opponents.

“I’ll ask my party for their support, but it’s not the be all or end all,” Meister said.

- Illinois state Sen. Iris Martinez had nearly $131,000 in the Friends of Iris Y. Martinez fund as of June 30. The fund has received another $2,000 since then. Martinez did not return a message for comment.

Mixon said candidates who raise or give themselves a lot of money signals “those are people to watch” because they can likely run robust campaigns.

But, she added, “that’s part of the problem. … There might be somebody who might be great in this position, but they’re already scared off.”

Candidates can start circulating nominating petitions on Sept. 3. The primary election is on March 17, 2020.

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