Updated at 2:15 p.m. March 18
Veteran Springfield lawmaker Iris Martinez won the Democratic primary to succeed Dorothy Brown, who is retiring after 20 years as the clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Martinez had 34% of the vote in the four-way race, defeating Democratic Party-endorsed candidate Michael Cabonargi, who finished second with 27%. Former county commissioner Richard Boykin got 25%, and lawyer Jacob Meister finished last with 14%.
In a statement Wednesday, shortly after Cabonargi conceded, Martinez made clear reference to the fact that she had won without the support of the party’s leaders. She said her win as an “independent, progressive woman” showed that voters “have once again sent a message to the political establishment that they want change.”
“The establishment should never underestimate a determined woman,” Martinez said.
But Martinez, who is from Chicago’s Northwest Side, is no political neophyte. She has been a legislator for 17 years, since becoming the first Latina in the state Senate, and she’s risen to be assistant majority leader in the Senate.
Last year, she criticized powerful state House Speaker and Democratic Party of Illinois boss Michael Madigan for payments made to a Madigan loyalist who sent sexually harassing text messages to a political consultant.
Her victory Tuesday provided another sign that the Cook County Democratic Party’s influence has diminished considerably. Historically, the party leadership’s endorsement would be enough to scare off most potentially viable rivals or at least carry their slated candidate to victory.
Cabonargi had refused to concede on election night, despite trailing by a wide margin, saying many votes still needed to be counted. But on Wednesday, Cabonargi issued a statement saying he’d given up.
“The voters have spoken, and I’ve called Iris Martinez to extend my congratulations on her victory and wish her the very best,” said Cabonargi, who is a commissioner at the county’s Board of Review, an agency that reviews property-tax appeals.
He added, “For the first time in two decades there will be a new Clerk of the Courts, and I support our new Democratic nominee for the job.”
Martinez will be the heavy favorite in the November general election against doctor and lawyer Barbara Bellar, because Democratic voters far outnumber Republicans in Cook County. The new clerk will inherit an office that’s long been notorious for patronage, corruption and an alleged aversion to technological advancement.
The court clerk has a hugely important job: organizing case files and documents for one of the largest local court systems in the country. But many of those files are still on paper — even carbon paper — and Brown’s critics say the office was often plagued by missing files on her watch. Brown’s office also was frequently in the headlines for a long-running federal corruption investigation.
A high-ranking aide to Brown, Beena Patel, was convicted in a trial last year of lying to a grand jury that was probing allegations of job-selling in the clerk’s office. Patel was sentenced in December to a two-year prison term, after authorities said her lies had “prevented the FBI from moving forward with their investigation of Dorothy Brown.”
All four Democratic primary candidates agreed that digitizing more public records would be a high priority for them if elected. And Martinez, Meister and Cabonargi all were critical of Brown at a recent candidate debate.
“We can’t afford leadership that operates under a permanent cloud,” Martinez said during the campaign.
In addition to the endorsement of the county party leader, Cabonargi got big campaign contributions from the carpenters and laborers unions and from businessman Michael Sacks, records show. Cabonargi, who is from Wilmette, also drew criticism from his three rivals for accepting contributions from property owners who got tax breaks from the Board of Review.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.