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How Dorothy Brown cruised to victory in clerk’s race

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown | Brian Jackson/For the Chicago Sun-Times

The leaders of her own party abandoned her. And on the same day voters went to the polls, one of her former employees announced plans to plead guilty as part of a federal investigation of her office.

Neither was enough to stop incumbent Dorothy Brown from winning, relatively easily, the Democratic primary in the race for Cook County circuit clerk.

“I outhustled my opponents,” Brown said the day after her win. “I probably shook a million hands.”

Brown’s resiliency in a year of voter anger with the status quo — both locally and nationally — wasn’t particularly surprising to a number of political observers who followed her race.

But back in October 2015, Brown cut a desperate figure as she publicly pleaded with Cook County Democratic Party leaders to reconsider rescinding their endorsement for her campaign. Brown had lost the party’s support after the FBI seized her cellphone as part of an investigation into the possible “purchasing of jobs and promotions” in her office.

The party stood firm, but in the end it didn’t matter much for Brown, whose closest opponent, Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), was 17 percent points behind the incumbent Wednesday.

Neither Democratic party leaders nor voters were incensed enough by the federal probe to give Brown the boot, several observers said Wednesday.

“They never built up the enmity, there was never the rising anger in the black community. . . . ” said Don Rose, a Chicago-based political consultant. “She never became a villain. She was a villain to the newspapers, but nobody built up a strong case against her.”

Brown has not been accused of wrongdoing in the federal probe. She also has strongly denied any misconduct.

“Voters usually don’t turn against people under investigation,” said Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former city alderman. “They turn against them when they’ve been indicted and certainly if they then go to trial.”

Democratic party leaders, who endorsed Harris for the clerk’s office, instead largely focused on the race for Cook County state’s attorney, pushing hard to unseat Anita Alvarez over her response to the Laquan McDonald shooting, among other issues.

But Harris, who could not be reached for comment, did little to boost her chances of winning, said Chicago-based political consultant Kitty Kurth, who backed Brown when she first ran for clerk in 2000 but supported the third candidate in the race, Chicago lawyer Jacob Meister, this time.

“I don’t know why she even ran,” Kurth said of Harris. “I don’t know why she put her name out there if she didn’t want to campaign. Maybe it was part of a grand plan. [Maybe] she was just a place holder and everyone supported Dorothy after all.”

In the end, Harris split the opposition vote with Meister, who picked up 22 percent to Harris’ 31 percent. Brown had 48 percent, and now faces Diane S. Shapiro in November.

Meister said Wednesday that Brown benefited from her name recognition in a primary that drew large numbers of people intensely interested in the presidential race.

“They voted for Dorothy, not because she was necessarily their pick, but because that was the name they recognized,” said Meister, who campaigned as a reform candidate. “Dorothy has near universal name recognition.”

Brown disagreed, saying the lack of support from her party forced her to campaign longer, harder and in different ways than in the past.

Brown has traditionally drawn support from South Side African-American churches. She said this time she put a renewed effort into also reaching out to pastors at south and west suburban churches. Brown also campaigned hard in ethnic communities. For the first time, she said, she had campaign signs printed in “Chinese.”

“I had to go everywhere, be everywhere and do as many events that I could possibly do to get my message out,” Brown said.