Exciting races in the upcoming March 20 primary are scarce, so the race for the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk between three-term incumbent Dorothy Brown and Ricardo Muñoz, alderman of the 22nd Ward since 1993 is, in relative terms, the Romney-Santorum fistfight of Cook County.

Tuesday night, the two Dems appeared at a forum sponsored by the 43rd Ward Democrats and moderated by Andy Shaw, the Better Government Association’s executive director. The former ABC7 newsman pointed out that the office might not be “sexy,” but it’s the second largest unified court system in America, with 2,300 employees and a budget of $100 million.

At least 150 people filled the main sanctuary of St. Paul’s Church in Lincoln Park. When Brown, who has considerable stage presence and a strong voice, was at the podium to make points or refute criticism, she was greeted with loud applause and even hoots, out of kilter with Shaw’s description of the clerk’s duties as largely making sure that “all paper moves smoothly and efficiently and properly.” Muñoz spoke quietly, and when he wasn’t talking, he checked his smartphone often. Brown looked like she was enjoying herself immensely—if this were a contest with an applause-o-meter, she would certainly have won—but Muñoz looked like he would have rather been anywhere else.

The 22nd Ward alderman dropped County Board President Toni Preckwinke’s name often—she has endorsed him—and emphasized his goal of picking up the pace of electronic filing, one of his major criticisms of Brown.  

I had interviewed both Muñoz and Brown late last fall, and neither of their talking points have changed much since. But Brown had added some good lines that elicited lusty approval from her supporters. When Muñoz held up DuPage County as a place where electronic filing is flourishing, Brown, when it was her turn at the mic, said, “Comparing Cook County to DuPage is like comparing a college paper to the New York Times.” She defended her tech credentials by saying that when she arrived in the clerk’s office in 2000, “we had two divisions handwriting in large gray books.” Later she added, “I had to move into the 20th century… out of the Dark Ages. It’s amazing we are where we are.” (Aurelia Pucinski, Brown’s predecessor and the object of the “Dark Ages" remark, endorsed Muñoz this morning.)

When Muñoz blasted a “convenience fee” of $4.95 for each electronic transaction, Brown shot back that these transactions done online could save county residents the cost of having to come downtown and park at one of pricey meters—for which she blamed Muñoz (he voted “yes” on the parking meter deal). 

When Shaw asked what Muñoz would do to improve the office, the alderman responded to limp applause, “No one would have to pay to keep jobs”—referring to Brown’s accepting gifts from employees. “I would prohibit contributions from vendors”—referring to her taking campaign contributions from a major vendor.

Shaw asked Brown—who had run, during her clerk tenure, for both mayor and president of the Cook County Board, “Why do you want to keep an office that you grew tired of on two occasions?” her supporters seemed to love her response: “Yes, I ran for Mayor and for Cook County Board President. It’s about leadership. I saw weaknesses and …wanted to bring to those offices what I brought to the Clerk’s office.”

Shaw then asked Muñoz: “As an alderman you have a small staff and you’re looking to run an office with more than two thousand employees. Why should we entrust to you an office of this size and importance?” Muñoz’s answer was only marginally better than Brown’s: “I spent my career fighting bureaucracies,” he said, referring to work he had done to bring “innovative ways of constructing schools” on the Southwest Side. Muñoz again dropped Preckwinkle’s name, pointing out that she went from being an alderman to being president of the County Board and that, in his opinion, she’s doing an excellent job.

In his closing statements, Muñoz said, “You don’t have to take my word for it,” asking the audience to read a Carol Marin column just posted on the Sun-Times site and another from Tuesday morning on the Chicago News Cooperative site. Both are harshly critical of Brown. Marin: “the company that got a no-bid, e-filing contract from [Brown’s] office has, in turn, given her $21,400 since 2001.” Adrienne Lu for the CNC: “….even as court systems elsewhere move ahead in the critical area of electronic filing—or allowing people to submit documents such as motions and pleadings and pay related fees over the Internet—Cook County has lagged behind. And executives of the company responsible for the program, …have been among the top contributors to Brown’s political campaigns….” 

At one point during the debate, Shaw sternly had to ask the rowdy audience to hold its applause. The crowd ignored him, and he emailed me later, “I asked for order once because the sponsors asked me to, but after that I thought it was more important to manage the flow of questions and answers…. At the end of the day I thought the crowd enjoyed the event… and I don’t believe the reaction took anything away from the candidates.”

Two people with ties to the 43rd Ward organization complained to me afterwards that the noisy audience members were not ward residents but rather county employees who had come out to support their boss. (Shaw’s take on that was “Yes—the audience included a lot more Brown supporters, probably because she has a huge self-interested employee base to draw from…”) My guess is that Muñoz had more support in the ranks of the actual residents who turned out—a smattering of applause broke out on occasion—but his official support seemed limited to a couple of campaign aides. “I don’t believe in stacking the audience,” Muñoz told me later.

Part of the program was a post-forum reception for candidates running for Cook County judicial vacancies. Much of the audience had exited and the reception was quiet and sparsely attended. A plate of picked-over cookies appeared to be the only refreshment.  One tired looking judge told me as I entered the room, handing me a campaign brochure, that he was going home: “There’s no reason to hang around,” he said—there were more judges or would-be judges in the room than there were voters.