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The Race to Repair Dorothy Brown’s Office

The low-on-the-ticket circuit court clerk race is one of Cook County’s most important.

Lawyer Jacob Meister (foreground) and state senator Iris Martinez (background, in red) at a candidate filing session in November. Both are running for Cook County circuit court clerk.   Photo: Jose Osorio / Chicago Tribune

When longtime Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown decided not to run for a sixth term last summer, she created an opportunity to take over an inefficient, scandal-plagued office, where court delays and barriers to justice are commonplace.

Though its dysfunction under Brown was notorious, the circuit court clerk’s office may be obscure for those unfamiliar with the legal system. However, its functions are essential: The circuit court manages legal records and filings across all court divisions, as well as public access to those records. It’s a waystation for everything from paying traffic tickets to expunging records, from seeking child support to obtaining orders of protection.

As clerk, Brown faced a federal corruption probe and repeatedly missed deadlines to convert to a digital filing system, and her implementation of upgrades to the criminal case management system caused delays and confusion. The Chicago Reader’s Maya Dukmasova has extensively chronicled the clerk’s office’s disorganization, which has delayed the legal process for hundreds of inmates who claim they were wrongfully convicted. (In my own experience as a criminal justice reporter, I’ve wasted many hours navigating the clunky, buggy digital record system, and I’ve all but given up on ordering non-digitized files from the office — they take weeks to arrive, and it’s usually impossible to get anyone on the phone to verify if they’ve come in.)

The four candidates running in the Democratic primary agree on fundamental principles: the clerk’s office needs to be fully digitized and more efficient; corruption and patronage must be rooted out; services must be easier for the public to use; staff must be better trained; and more clerk’s office data should be available to the public. (To that latter point, the candidates have all discussed finding ways to release more office records under the Freedom of Information Act, despite the fact that the clerk’s office is currently exempt. Candidate and state senator Iris Martinez said she plans to introduce legislation to change that exemption in the new general assembly session).

Last week, at a forum moderated by Dukmasova and cohosted by the Chicago Council of Lawyers, the American Constitution Society’s Chicago Lawyer Chapter, and Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, candidates elaborated on their platforms and argued why they would be a better fit for their office than their competitors. You can watch the full forum online here.

Mike Cabonargi: The Party-Backed Frontrunner

Photo: Jose Osorio / Chicago Tribune

Background: Cabonargi is serving his ninth year as one of three commissioners on the Cook County Board of Review, the office tasked with judging property assessment appeals. Prior to that, he investigated and prosecuted fraud as an attorney for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. At the candidate forum, Cabonargi touted his experience transforming the Board of Review’s appeals system from all-paper to digital and conducting more outreach to homeowners, including translating materials into more languages.

Endorsements: Cook County Democratic Party, Toni Preckwinkle, Chicago Federation of Labor, U.S. Rep Jan Schakowsky

Finances: Cabonargi’s campaign committee funds exceed those of his opponents by miles, with over $700,000 on hand. His biggest donations come from the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters and the Mike Madigan–allied Chicago Land Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC, as well as from property tax appeal lawyers. Other notable donors include former Kim Foxx’s former first assistant Eric Sussman and Dan Webb, the special prosecutor assigned to investigate the Jussie Smollett case. In 2018, Cabonargi and his fellow Board of Review commissioners were found to have violated a county ethics ordinance limiting the amount of money they can receive from law firms that help with property tax appeals. He had to return 97 contributions to his committee, totaling $68,950. (Opponent Jacob Meister claims that many of the refunded donations were then funneled to another committee, the “Fund for 9th District Democrats” that Cabonargi also controls.)

Platform highlights: Reducing and simplifying court filing fees, facilitating cannabis record expungement, and training staff to better aid customers

Notable Answers at the Forum: Cabonagi said that his first office hires would be a general counsel, an HR director, and a new Inspector General, “who will really make it their commitment to identify fraud and waste and mismanagement.” When Meister went on the attack, criticizing Cabonargi’s Board of Review as the only non-unionized unit of county government, Cabonargi responded that his employees are welcome to unionize.

Jacob Meister: The Self-Funded Outsider

Photo: Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune

Background: A practicing lawyer of 29 years, Meister founded the LGBTQ advocacy organization Civil Rights Agenda. He has spent much of his career practicing in the Cook County Circuit Court, which he says gives him firsthand experience with how the office can be improved. He also frames himself as a political outsider compared to his officeholding opponents. He previously ran a reformer campaign to unseat Dorothy Brown in 2016.

Endorsements: Northside Democracy for America. In 2016, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times endorsed him against Brown.

Finances: Meister’s campaign, which has a little over $155,000 on hand, is largely self-funded; he’s loaned himself over $100,000 this campaign cycle. He has also received large donations from family members and local lawyers. In 2016, he received money from aldermen Scott Waguespack and Tom Tunney and state senator Iris Martinez, now one of his opponents in the race.

Platform highlights: Appoint a Chief Customer Service Officer, set up e-file kiosks at public libraries, simplify the expungement process, and institute a merit-based hiring system

Notable Answers at the Forum: Meister said his labor background, including as a former Teamsters truck driver, makes him sensitive to labor issues in the clerk’s office, including low morale in the unionized workforce. “A lot of the folks sincerely want this office to operate efficiently and transparently,” he said. “They know there are problems with technology and we need to modernize our technology… Training stopped in about 2004 for employees in the clerk’s office. And that is unacceptable.”

Iris Martinez: The Legislator

Photo: Jose Osorio / Chicago Tribune

Background: The only non-attorney candidate, Martinez has been a state senator for 18 years — she was the first Hispanic woman elected to that office in Illinois. She currently serves as assistant majority leader and on a wide variety of committees. Her legislative efforts include improving access to courtroom interpreters.

Endorsements: No high-profile endorsements yet, but Martinez appears to be courting fellow Cook County state senators. Earlier this week, Cabonargi included Oak Park state senator Don Harmon on a list of his endorsers, which his campaign later said was a mistake. Martinez fumed about the flub to Capitol Fax, saying she was “pissed” at Harmon for seemingly reneging on his promise not to endorse Cabonargi. (Harmon had previously endorsed Daniel Biss for governor on the grounds that he endorses senate colleagues.)

Finances: Martinez has $17,500 in her campaign account. She’s received $5,000 from fellow senator Heather Steans, in addition to small donations from other state senators.

Platform highlights: Ending patronage abuse while respecting union contracts and adopting new technologies to lower office costs

Notable Answers at the Forum: Martinez said that her priority would be to reform the office on the front end. “Many constituents have approached me and talked about Dorothy Brown’s office,” she said. “[A] woman who was looking for child support, three different times the paperwork was missing. People go there, and they have to take time off work.”

Richard Boykin: The Tax Blocker

Boykin totes his nominating petitions at the 2020 primary election filing session in November.   Photo: Jose Osorio / Chicago Tribune

Background: From 2014 to 2018, Boykin was a Cook County Commissioner for the 1st District, where, in addition to focusing on criminal justice reform and gun violence, he led the opposition to the pop tax (which, he said at the forum, makes him, not Meister, the political outsider). He was unseated by Chicago Teachers Union organizer Brandon Johnson. Before that, he served as chief of staff for U.S. Representative Danny K. Davis for nine years. Currently a practicing lawyer, he also considered a bid against State’s Attorney Kim Foxx this election cycle.

Endorsements: Rep. Danny K. Davis

Finances: Boykin currently has a little over $50,000. In August, he received $10,000 from businessman and perennial candidate Willie Wilson.

Platform highlights: Create a more user-friendly digital interface, make the office paperless by 2030, and make the Expungement Summit program’s services more widely available

Notable Answers at the Forum: Boykin said he plans to erase debt for county residents facing unpaid clerk’s office fees. “I’m the only candidate up here who grew up in Englewood, and I understand what it’s like to struggle. And I’m going to make sure that those folks who encounter these kinds of situations don’t have to worry about those needless fees.”

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