February 25, 2004


Outwardly and publicly, the Democratic primary for Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court is all about the “P-word.” But, inwardly, among Daley Administration insiders, it’s really about the “D-word.”

According to first-term incumbent Dorothy Brown, who is black, she has “professionalized” the 2,300-employee office, which manages the county’s court system and maintains all court records. According to her challenger, former Cook County Judge Jerry Orbach, who is white, Brown has “politicized” her office, has “squeezed” her employees to donate to her campaign fund, and has “grossly mismanaged” her responsibilities.

But, in City Hall, where Brown’s renomination is deemed likely, they’re hoping that Orbach’s campaign, while it won’t defeat her, at least diminishes Brown’s credibility, and somewhat discredits her as a future city or county candidate. Should Brown win a second term, she is viewed as a certain candidate in 2006 for Cook County Board president, should pro-Daley black incumbent John Stroger retire. And, if she wins that job, or comes close, Brown would be a formidable candidate for mayor in 2007 – especially if Rich Daley retires.

“The (clerk’s) office is in a state or cardiac arrest,” said Orbach, who retired from the bench after 15 years in 2003. “Employees are untrained and morale is low. Court documents are inaccessible. And the political squeeze is on. She (Brown) pressures office managers to buy tickets (to her fundraisers), and they, in turn, pressure employees to buy tickets.”

According to Orbach, Brown’s campaign disclosure filings indicate that she has collected over $220,000 in contributions from office employees since 2001. “The office is wholly politicized, and her (Brown’s) frenzy to sell tickets has risen to the level of George Ryan’s, back when he was Secretary of State.”

A Chicago Sun-Time article in early February corroborated Orbach’s charges, with eight current or former clerk’s employees stating that they were “pressured” to buy tickets to Brown’s fundraisers. Brown was quoted as stating that all her employees “donated voluntarily.”

Orbach also noted that the number of “at will” managerial employees in the office increased from 80 to 400 under Brown. The bulk of the clerk’s employees are covered by civil service, but “at will” employees can be terminated on any pretext. “She (Brown) put her political people into those well-paying jobs,” said Orbach. Brown denied that the number of “at will” jobs was 400, but didn’t give a figure.

Brown, in 2000, campaigned as a “reformer,” and won a tough primary in which the runner-up was Alderman Pat Levar (45th). She boasts of many accomplishments, including the integration of the clerk’s computers with the county’s mainframe system, the formatting of court forms on her website (with down-loading capacity), a new cashiering security system, a voice information system for traffic court, and the automatic transmission of DUI and felony case dispositions to the Secretary of State.

Also, according to Brown, she has upgraded staff computer and employee service skills, taught stress management and ethical behavior, and established advisory groups for idea input. Brown also touts her visibility, having published a 68-page compendium of her administration, with hundreds of photos, and a list of 12 annual parades in which she participates.

“Not only does she (Brown) want the employees to contribute money,” said a Northwest Side Democratic committeeman, who has secured clerk’s jobs for people in the past. “She also requires them to walk in parades, waving Brown signs.”

Orbach pledges that, if elected, he will “reinstate skill testing” for employees, which he claimed that Brown ended when she took office; that he will initiate “on-going training” of employees, as well as “document imaging,” so that pleadings can be read on-line; and that he “will not solicit any contributions from any employee or from their family.”

Just recently, Brown got another knock when it was revealed that the judges sitting in the Second District Courthouse (Skokie) got “complimentary” tickets to a Feb. 14 Brown fundraiser. The tickets, in unstamped envelopes, were put in the judges’ mailboxes. Did a clerk employee put them there? Brown said she is “investigating” the situation.

While Brown and Orbach are batting around their P-words, voters are largely uninterested and un-enraged. Orbach has a long list of endorsements from suburban mayors and officials, but he desperately needs one critical endorsement: that of Mayor Daley. But the mayor has already got what he wants – namely: the D-word. Orbach has served his purpose, and launched some effective attacks. Brown has suffered close media scrutiny; her once squeaky-clean, non-political image, polished by her tenure as the CTA’s general auditor from 1991 to 2000, has been discredited; and her credibility for a future run for office has been diminished. For Daley, that’s a win.

My prediction: To triumph, Orbach must generate a sense of outrage over Brown’s stewardship of the office. He has not, and will not, do that. Brown’s black base is solid. Black voters find nothing wrong with Brown’s alleged “politicization” of the office, viewing it as what her white predecessors – Aurie Pucinski, Morgan Finley, and Matt Danaher – did. All major black politicians and committeemen are backing Brown, and a strong black vote for Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate primary will redound to Brown’s benefit.

In 2000, against three white foes, Brown got 216,631 votes (48.4 percent) in a countywide turnout of 447,446. She won by a 6-1 margin over the field in black-majority areas, carried Chicago by over 73,000 votes, and won the suburbs by over 20,000. Orbach predicts that he will “break even” in Chicago, and win the suburbs “overwhelmingly.” That won’t happen. Orbach needs to spend $1 million on TV ads to win, and he will be lucky to raise $300,000. Brown will carry her black base by 8-1, and get a third of the white vote. Overall, she’ll triumph with just under 60 percent – a margin that is hardly a mandate for her future aspirations.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: Almost every election cycle, there’s an upset for at least one of the three Democratic commissioner nominations. This year will be no exception. The three incumbents are Gloria Majewski, Patty Young, and Barbara McGowan. 

There are 13 candidates on the ballot, with the three incumbents bunched 5-6-7. McGowan, who is black, won in 1998 because she had strong backing in her black base, and because she was last on the ballot in a crowded field. This year, McGowan will also be part of the “black ballot” (Obama-Brown-McGowan) pushed by black committeemen. But the recent federal indictment of her son, John McGowan, an employee of the Secretary of State’s office, for taking bribes to reinstate driver’s licenses, could have a political impact. According to news reports, Jesse White hired John McGowan as “a favor” to his mother.

In 2002, Edison Park engineer M. Frank Avila scored an upset win. This year, his son, attorney Frank Avila, who is last on the ballot, has enlisted the support of numerous white committeemen. The black committeemen are pushing McGowan, attorney Lewis Powell, and city employee Reginald Mason for the three MWRD spots. According to Avila, white committeemen will be pushing Majewski-Young-Avila, and “cutting” McGowan.

My prediction: A large black vote will insure McGowan’s renomination, and Young, with a solid white vote, and significant black vote, will top the field. The race for third place will be exceedingly close, with Avila edging out Majewski by less than 2,000 votes.