On October 15, 2015, reports of a “raid” on the home of Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown surfaced. Brown acknowledged that federal agents issued a subpoena for her county issued cell phone, but maintains that was the extent of her interaction with federal agents. Brown claimed that reports of a full-out “raid” were exaggerated. Nonetheless, those reports were enough to launch a string of events that led to the leaders of the Cook County Democratic Party rescinding its endorsement of Brown and switching to powerful Rules Committee Chairman, 8th Ward Alderman Michelle Harris.
The string of events leading up to Brown’s stunning downfall were seemingly quite innocuous by Cook County standards, a county with a reputation of having elected officials that often find themselves the targets of ‘investigations’. In fact, with the proliferation of targeted “investigations” that seem to disproportionately focus on Black politicians, many of the Black committeemen quietly expressed concern that it was setting a very low bar for future endorsement reversals.
When Brown entered the Erie Café, the odds seemed very unfavorable for her keeping the Democratic Party endorsement. Democratic staffers were hurriedly preparing new packets of petitions to be distributed to committeemen for Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarborough. Conspicuously absent was the name of Dorothy Brown who had previously been listed with Yarborough, as is commonly the practice of the Democratic Party to make the collection of signatures for endorsed candidates easier.
As Brown delivered an impassioned speech to remain the Party’s endorsed candidate, there was a quiet buzz in the room, signaling that Brown’s speech was falling on deaf ears. Brown, in her best attempt to use her law degree suggested that the Democratic Party had entered into a “contract” when they accepted and cashed her $25,000 campaign check. After Brown delivered what was to be her swan song; the committeemen went into executive session and after some discussion, returned with the decision that Brown’s endorsement had officially been rescinded. Thus, opening the doors for reconsideration of the endorsement.
As the candidates came before the committeemen one by one: including Brown, Attorney Jacob Meister, former Cease Fire Director Tio Hardiman and Alderman Michelle Harris, it was clear that Harris had the overwhelming support of the Democratic Party leaders. After Harris presented her case, party leaders went back into executive session, and within a span of 90 minutes, the Democratic Party had made an about-face. Dorothy Brown was out and the 8th Ward powerhouse Michelle Harris was in.
Now, the pressure is on Party leaders to deliver for Harris, who must expand her influence beyond the boundaries of the 8th Ward throughout all of Cook County.
While Cook County is still considered ground zero of local politics, Harris will have to rely on a Party organization that is a shadow of its former self. There was a time when county endorsed candidates could rely on a disciplined and powerful Democratic “Machine” to deliver votes en masse, but a look at the last two election cycles demonstrates the uphill battle Harris faces getting committeemen to deliver.
For instance, Cook County Democratic Party Chairman, Joe Berrios lost two of his most trusted allies in back to back independent challenges. First, Berrios’ daughter Maria “Toni” Berrios lost to up start Will Guzzardi in a state representative contest. Then, Berrios lost his Alderman, Ray Suarez to independent challenger, Millagros “Milly” Santiago. Santiago, who is rumored to be mulling a challenge to Berrios as Ward Committee- man presents Berrios with a unique challenge if he hopes to remain relevant in party politics. If Santiago wins, Berrios would be forced to resign as Party Chairman. Under those circumstances, Harris would take a back seat to Berrios’ own need for self-preservation.
Harris must also count on the support of Illinois Speaker of the House and Democratic Party Chairman, Mike Madigan, who stands to lose the most because of the number of employees he is rumored to control in the Cook County Clerk’s office. By abandoning Brown, many of Madigan’s highest earning captains and lieutenants find themselves in a precarious position because they working Shakman–exempt positions, meaning they can be hired and fired based on political considerations.
In fact, until last week’s decision, Brown’s campaign was being run by Fred Moody, one of the politically famous Madigan twin operatives that are deployed to ensure the Speaker’s will is imposed wherever they land. Because the Clerk’s office is one of the last bastions of patronage and boasts the highest number of positions that pay in upper five and six figure salaries; Madigan has taken particular interest in the office, making his flip on Dorothy Brown curious to say the least. Compound that with the fact that Madigan is infamous for not defending Black candidates. He will be facing a number of challenges for his members from Governor Bruce Rauner, and is pushing current City Clerk, Susana Mendoza for State Comptroller which will make Harris’ campaign an after-thought.
Furthermore, rescinding Brown’s nomination and endorsing Harris doesn’t necessarily mean Brown is not running. Brown began her political career outside of the regular Democratic organization in Black churches and based on her Facebook posts features her in photos with mega church Pastor Bill Winston, that’s where she looks to return.
If Brown is able to collect the necessary signatures, that will place Brown, Harris and Tio Hardiman, three Black candidates in a race against Jacob Meister, a white, gay, Jewish attorney. This fact was not missed by a few white and Latino North Side Committeemen who are openly supporting Meister, in spite of the Party’s endorsement and were palpably giddy when Harris’ endorsement was announced.
For Alderman Harris to be successful in her historic run for Clerk of the Circuit Court, she will need to rely on the relationships and experiences of her own 8th Ward Democratic Organization. The 8th Ward has been the epicenter of Black power politics on the South Side since the deceased Cook County Board Chairman, John Stroger, made it that way from the 70’s to the present day. Should she win or lose the Clerk’s race, as Chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Rules, Alderman Michelle Harris will be influential for years to come. But, if she wants to win this one, it will require more than the endorsement of Party leaders.