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Embattled Dorothy Brown faces well-funded foes in re-election bid

Democratic primary candidates for clerk of the Circuit Court Jacob Meister (left), Dorothy Brown and Michelle Harris meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board on Feb. 1, 2016.| Rich Hein/Sun-Times

A federal grand jury investigating “the purchasing of jobs and promotions” in her office has indicted one of her employees.

The Cook County Democratic Party took the highly unusual step of dumping her as its endorsed candidate.

Contributions to her campaign fund have mostly dried up.

Despite all that, don’t count Cook County Circuit Clerk Dorothy Brown out of the race to win her fifth Democratic primary for the job she’s held for 15-plus years. A onetime candidate for Chicago mayor and Cook County Board president, Brown has name recognition beyond her role as record-keeper for Cook County’s massive court system, her supporters say.

“I don’t know of any Cook County official whose name is more well-known,” says Paul Ogwal, Brown’s campaign manager.

Unlike the Cook County state’s attorney’s race — which has become a referendum on Chicago’s violence problem — the circuit clerk’s race lacks an equivalent issue around which Brown’s opponents, Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) and Chicago attorney Jacob Meister, can generate widespread public interest.

The issue that has drawn the most attention — the federal investigation of Brown’s office — has died down since fall, when the FBI seized Brown’s county cellphone, the county Democrats stripped her of their endorsement and one of her lower-level employees was charged with lying to the grand jury investigating her office.

The employee, Sivasubramani Rajaram, 48, “purportedly loaned $15,000” to a company controlled by Brown’s husband shortly before being re-hired by Brown’s office, according to his indictment. Rajaram, who has pleaded not guilty, allegedly lied about whether he had spoken with Brown after being rehired, as well as about his dealings with a high-ranking Brown employee. Neither Brown nor her husband, Benton Cook III, has been accused of wrongdoing.

Cook, in fact, is working on Brown’s campaign, election records show. He’s been paid $4,000 since Nov. 20, the date the indictment against Rajaram was announced.

Four days later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel released the video of Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who like Brown is facing two primary challengers, has been on the hot seat ever since over her decision to wait more than a year to charge Van Dyke with murder.

With Alvarez’s re-election bid sucking up most of the county’s political air, Brown has chosen her appearances carefully, limiting just how much scrutiny she faces.

Though she declined to be interviewed for this story, Brown attended all three major newspaper endorsement sessions, held by the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and Daily Herald editorial boards.

Meister also attended those sessions, winning the endorsements of all three newspapers. Harris — who replaced Brown as the county Democrats’ endorsed candidate — attended only the Sun-Times’ event.

Harris didn’t join the race until October, when it became clear Democratic Party leaders planned to dump Brown. As a result, she says she opted to do events that gave her “opportunities to be with people” rather than attend the Tribune and Daily Herald sessions.

A product of the late John Stroger’s 8th Ward Democratic organization, Harris worked for her late aunt, former 8th Ward Ald. Lorraine Dixon, and Stroger himself. She’s raised more than $270,000 for the circuit clerk’s race, with about a third of the money coming from labor unions, another $48,000 of it coming from her aldermanic campaign fund and another $25,000 from Grosvenor Capital Management, chaired by Michael Sacks, a close Emanuel ally.

Democratic primary candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court Michelle Harris meets with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.| Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Democratic primary candidate for clerk of the Circuit Court Michelle Harris meets with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.| Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Brown had only $19,858 in her campaign fund as of Dec. 31 and has since raised only about $11,000, records show. “The resources that we have are people,” says Ogwal, her campaign manager, “and those people are coming out tremendously for her.”

Meister, who is openly gay and ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2010, has raised more than $420,000. More than three-quarters of that has come from money he’s loaned or given to his political committee.

He is on the air with television commercials, has the slickest website of the three candidates and has hired several consultants to assist with his campaign. They include Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon, who abruptly quit the Illinois Senate in 2011 amid a federal investigation of state grants he’d sponsored. Hendon was never charged.

Meister paid Hendon $4,370 last year to help him gather nominating-petition signatures. “He’s had his history, but he knows what he’s doing on the petition side of things,” Meister says.

Though Meister doesn’t have the county Democratic Party’s backing, he’s notched endorsements from several Chicago aldermen — including Scott Waguespack (32nd), who has given Meister’s campaign $10,000, and Nick Sposato (38th) — as well as several suburban township Democratic organizations. He’s also endorsed by Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who has cut a Spanish-language TV commercial with Meister.

Both Meister and Harris have attacked Brown, saying her office is technologically inept.

“This has been a quiet little office that is loaded with patronage jobs and has never really been answerable to the public as to what goes on,” Meister says. “It’s gotten to such a critical point where there is near unanimity between lawyers and judges that it is a disaster.”

Jacob Meister (left) and Dorothy Brown in 2016.
Democratic primary candidates for clerk of the Circuit Court Jacob Meister (left) and Dorothy Brown meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.| Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Harris, Meister says, has been “very absent from the campaign trail,” “has no background in law or court administration” and “doesn’t have a clear grasp of what the office does.”

Harris strongly disagrees, saying she’s been “zigzagging all over the county, from churches to mosques to social events” to court voters.

“I don’t think he could find any other way to kick me, so he says I’m not an attorney,” Harris says of Meister. “We’ve had an attorney in there for 16 years, and the office still hasn’t moved forward.”

Brown has shrugged off the attacks that her office is behind the times, saying she’s implemented online case-filing and traffic-ticket payment systems.

The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary will face Diane S. Shapiro, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary and will be the party’s nominee in November.

VITAL STATS: Dorothy Brown, Michelle Harris, Jacob Meister

Dorothy Brown

Age: 62

Background: Cook County Circuit Clerk since 2000; has been heavily involved in 5LINX, a multi-level marketing company

Education: J.D., Chicago-Kent College of Law; M.B.A., DePaul University; bachelor’s degree, Southern University

Lives in: Calumet Heights on Chicago’s South Side

Michelle Harris

Age: 54

Background: 8th Ward Alderman since 2006, longtime government worker

Education: bachelor’s degree, Chicago State University

Lives in: Avalon Park on Chicago’s South Side

Jacob Meister

Age: 50

Background: Lawyer for 25 years; civil rights/LGBT advocate; former U.S. Senate candidate

Education: J.D., University of Wisconsin Law School; bachelor’s degree, American University

Lives in: Logan Square on Chicago’s North Side