Come March 20, Dorothy Brown will face a tough primary to keep her job as Cook County Circuit Court Clerk. The 58-year-old—running hard for her fourth term as head of the massive office that employs more than 2,100 people and has a budget of more than $100 million—has been blasted by opponent Rick Muñoz for being stuck, technology-wise, in the 1980s. Brown’s campaign is taking the 22nd Ward alderman seriously, even challenging his petitions to knock him off the ballot. (The Board of Elections will next meet on this matter Wednesday.) Brown—a CPA, MBA, and JD—met me recently for a two-hour conversation, in which she talks about Muñoz, working for Arthur Andersen in the 1970s, her unsuccessful bid for Cook County Board president, and more. Here, an edited transcript of our conversation:
CF: How did you end up in Chicago?
DB: I grew up [one of eight children] in Minden, a town of 13,000 in Louisiana. I was recruited here by Commonwealth Edison. They paid my way to come here. I really wanted to work for a public accounting firm, but none of them would give me a job offer out of college [at Southern University, an historically black institution in Baton Rouge, Louisiana] even though I was number one in the college of business and number one in the department of accounting. Accounting firms flew me all over the country, and then they didn’t want to hire me.
CF: Was race a factor? [Brown is African American].
DB: Yeah, it was, and I had an afro. My mom said, “Dorothy, straighten your hair before you go on these interviews.” I said, “Oh, mom, this is 1975.” I didn’t realize that public accounting firms had just started letting African Americans into their firms in the early ’70s, so they were more interested in lighter-skinned blacks that could fit in because their clients really didn’t want blacks. The guy that I tutored was a lighter-skinned black, and he got the job offer [with one of the Big Eight accounting firms].
CF: You did end up leaving Commonwealth Edison to take a job at Arthur Andersen.
DB: That was the only firm that I walked out on in an interview on campus…. I was sitting in the recruitment office, and I said to myself, “You know what, Dorothy, these people are not going to hire you.” The gentleman walked out of his recruitment area, and he called my name, and I said to myself, “If you walk out right now, you can apply later.” It was the right step because when I got to Chicago and decided to interview with Arthur Andersen [in 1977], they said, “If you’ve ever been turned down anywhere in the country we will not interview you.”
CF: Did Arthur Andersen turn out to be a congenial place?
DB: No, it wasn’t. It was a racial thing…. I had problems with them even sending me out on [an audit] the first year because you’ve got to have a client that would accept that.
CF: Your daughter went to mix of public, private, and Catholic schools through eighth grade. Where did she go to high school?
DB: Whitney Young. She took the test and thank god [she had high enough scores to get in]. Earlier I had tried to get her into these magnet schools but I couldn’t because, back then, it was who you knew, and I didn’t know anybody. Unlike Rick Muñoz, who was able to finagle his daughter into Whitney Young. [In his interview with me, Muñoz said, “We applied for a waiver and we appealed the decision. She met all the criteria.”]
CF: Jeans Day was an embarrassing scandal for you. How do you explain it?
DB: When I had the Inspector General review that, he found that it should have been registered as a charitable trust, that there was no wrongdoing. The program dates back to my predecessor Aurelia Pucinski. I actually stopped the program for three years, and people kept coming and saying [a colleague needed help from the fund], “can we do a Jeans Day?” It was a good program, but we had to stop it.
CF: And the more recent controversy over your driver, who is on your payroll as director of investigations?
DB: I do have a person who takes me to official visits. When they’re here, they’re doing investigations, sexual harassment claims, workplace violence…. [They] have guns because they’re deputized by the Sheriff to secure the floor, and also to transport evidence from different suburban districts to 26th and California. I’ve had death threats against me and my daughter. [Two men] were talking about raping me in front of my daughter. [Brown, who lives in South Shore, and is the divorced—and since remarried—mother of a daughter, now grown, confirmed that employees of her office drive her to and from work.]
CF: You ran unsuccessfully for both mayor and for president of the Cook County Board. Why do you want still another term in a job you’ve held since 2000 and appear eager to ditch?
DB: It’s about service. The reason I ran for those positions is because I wanted to serve.
CF: Are you bored with the job?
DB: No, there’s something to do everyday. Maria Pappas has been [Cook County] treasurer forever [since 1998]; David Orr’s been Cook County Clerk a lot longer than me [since 1991]; Mayor Daley retired after 22 years.
CF: Do you have your eye on another job?
DB: I don’t. I’m running for re-election so I can continue the progressive things that I’ve done.
CF: Such as…
DB: I visited William and Mary College, where the National Center for State Courts has its 21st-century courtroom, and I’ve be putting different pieces together over the years to help the chief judge actually have that kind of courtroom, where judges are ruling off of images off the computer, the attorneys have computers on their desks, all the jurors have some type of screen, and also witnesses that cannot get to the courtroom…. Anywhere in the world, you can have interactive video-conferencing where you can actually examine or cross-examine a witness without them having to [be in the room]. [Brown refuted Munoz’s charge that the courts are hopelessly out of date. She lambasted him for seeming to ignore the reality that Thomas L. Kilbride, chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, has to sign off on all changes.] That shows a lack of knowledge and understanding of the Clerk’s office. Muñoz is not an attorney…. People that are not attorneys don’t have an understanding of the court system…. He actually has said to people that I can just do e-filing without the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, I cannot…. We sat down with Justice Kilbride, we showed him our system, he liked it….I’m not sure when it will go live, but whenever they do it, we stand ready to [move]…. We are the keepers of the records, not the makers of the records, so we have to make sure we’re doing that in compliance. [Among other achievements Brown touts are online traffic ticket payment, a search engine that allows people to determine if they are due mortgage foreclosure money, and an online order of protection service for victims of domestic violence.]
CF: Still, Rick Muñoz maintains that fewer than five percent of cases in Cook County are electronically filed.
DB: For an alderman who has been an alderman for 18 years and doesn’t even have a website for his constituents. [He does have a page on the City of Chicago’s official site and another page offering information on ongoing legislation.] How can you even say that you can possibly improve the second largest court system in the world and you don’t even have a website? [Muñoz’s senior adviser, Andrew Sharp, replied via email, “Rick saves taxpayers money by providing ward services and making legislative information available through existing city websites.”] Also, he only has legislative experience. It was a challenge for me, and I had come from the private sector and had managed things. [She came to the Clerk’s job from the CTA where she was head of internal auditing.] It’s like a multimillion-dollar Fortune 500 company—nine floors at the Daley Center, Juvenile Court, 26th and California, violence court, and then the five branch courts.”
CF: Rick Muñoz told me he has Toni Preckwinkle’s endorsement and is working on getting Rahm Emanuel’s.
DB: I think Muñoz does have Preckwinkle’s. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she was on the City Council with him. As for Rahm, I sat down with him. He did tell me [on October 18] that he would not be endorsing in this race.