Don Rose: Unexciting but Important - Attention Must Be Paid

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Unexciting but Important: Attention Must be Paid

By Don Rose

A unique contest is under way for one of the least understood but most important offices in Cook County: Clerk of the Circuit Court. The Clerk simply keeps records, but they are vital records: the filings and findings of the county’s 2.4 million caseload. She collects fees and fines, depositing millions in favored banks. Not very exciting, but it keeps the entire, complex justice system flowing. Or should.

     It should be an appointive office, but with nearly 2000 patronage workers—including a personal chauffeur—and a $74 million budget, it’s a political plum.

     Incumbent Dorothy Brown, seeking her third term, first won against the machine, appearing to be a competent, serious public servant.

    That was then. This is now.

     She turned out to be less than competent, venal, ethically challenged and an overly ambitious politician who ran dismal campaigns for mayor of Chicago and president of the Cook County Board—losing both, fortunately.

     Ask any lawyer who deals with her office and you’ll get nothing but quiet complaints, unfortunately. No use getting her angry and retaliating. However, she’s years behind other courts in adopting electronic filing.

      Her best remembered scandal was the “blue jeans shakedown,” wherein she built a slush fund by taking money for letting employees wear jeans on Fridays. She took “gifts” and raised “voluntary” campaign money from her employees—some of which got kicked back to family members she put on campaign payrolls. Serious questions have been raised about the propriety of certain government contracts she gave out, quite possibly in exchange for campaign contributions.

     She is being challenged in the Democratic primary election by one of the best public officials in town, Ricardo “Ric” Munoz, the reform-minded alderman of the 22nd ward. Munoz is an independent progressive first appointed in 1993 to replace his mentor Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, dean of the city’s Latino progressives who went to the state senate and now sits on the county board.

     Munoz quickly developed a reputation as a highly effective council member, focusing on education, labor, transportation and ethics issues, unafraid to stand up to Mayor Richard M. Daley to the extent that the former mayor once tried (unsuccessfully) to unseat him. 

      He developed a plan enabling the Board of Education to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in education funds without raising taxes and also led the successful fight for a living wage ordinance. He has a string of accomplishments little short of amazing for an independent, always fighting for progressive values both in the council and in the larger community. He’s a real coalition builder.

      This is a classic, sad case of an unethical, hack officeholder, backed by the remnants of the old machine, being challenged by an especially worthy but seriously underfunded reformer. The problem is that this office is so below the radar that the media are paying it no attention.

     I don’t usually write about obscure, down-ballot contests very often myself, but in the words of Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid.