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Tuesday night a cakewalk for Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown

Dorothy Brown votes at Jesse Owens Park on Tuesday morning. Brian Jackson / for the Chicago Sun-Times

Four-term incumbent Dorothy Brown easily won the Democratic primary for Cook County circuit clerk on Tuesday night, just hours after one of Brown’s former employees formally agreed to plead guilty as part of a federal investigation of her office.

“This election trail has been a trial more than anyone should have to endure,” Brown’s husband, Benton Cook III, said in his prayer kicking off Brown’s election-night party.

In the end, Brown endured it all quite well, overcoming more than just the federal probe. In October, the Cook County Democratic Party rescinded its endorsement of Brown, giving its backing to Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris (8th). On top of that, all three major Chicago-area newspapers endorsed Brown’s other opponent, Chicago attorney Jacob Meister.

As election returns started coming in, all of that seemed like ancient history at Brown’s event at the Letter Carriers Union Hall, 3850 S. Wabash.

“I thank God that the Cook County Democratic Party dumped me because the Cook County Democratic people picked me up,” Brown said moments before declaring victory. “That’s the only machine I need.”

With 97 percent of precincts reporting, Brown had 47 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for Harris and 22 percent for Meister.

Brown supporters hit the dance floor early in the evening, doing the wobble before a Michael Jackson impersonator started performing. There was jewelry for sale, and the 150-plus party-goers grabbed sweets from a life-sized cupcake model of the circuit clerk.

Cupcake display at Dorothy Brown’s victory party. Photo by Mitchell Armentrout
Cupcake display at Dorothy Brown’s victory party. Photo by Mitchell Armentrout

Brown’s huge victory was all the more stunning given the money that flowed to Harris’ campaign — about $370,000 — in the wake of her getting the Cook County Democrats’ endorsement. That cash included nearly $100,000 from labor unions; $50,000 from Michael Sacks, a key ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Sacks’ financial firm, Grosvenor Capital Management; and $10,000 from House Speaker Michael Madigan’s 13th Ward Democratic Organization.

Said Brown to her supporters: “We didn’t have the millions of dollars. We didn’t have the big donors. But I had my husband,” an apparent reference to Cook working on her campaign.

The circuit clerk’s office serves as record keeper for the county’s massive court system. Long known as a haven for patronage workers, it has about 2,300 employees and a budget of $74 million, according to the Cook County government website.

Initially, the Cook Democrats endorsed Brown for a fifth term. But in October, the FBI seized Brown’s cellphone as part of the investigation into the possible purchasing of jobs and promotions in her office. Shortly thereafter, Harris jumped into the race.

Brown suffered another setback in November, when 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 Cook shortly before being re-hired by Brown’s office, according to his indictment. Rajaram, who initially 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 has been accused of wrongdoing. But as voters headed to the polls Tuesday, a federal judge set a change-of-plea hearing for Rajaram for April 20.

News stories about Rajaram’s upcoming guilty plea didn’t appear to affect Brown. She held double-digit percentage-point leads in both Chicago and suburban Cook County.

“He was a great worker. He is a great person. That’s all I can really say about that,” Brown said of Rajaram, who is no longer employed by her office. “I’m praying for him.”

Meister, who finished third in the circuit clerk’s primary, said he wasn’t totally surprised by Brown’s victory.

“A lot of people voted for the name that they recognized,” Meister said. “I don’t think the electorate was paying as much attention to this race as they were the presidential election and, certainly, the state’s attorney’s race.

“The voters made a major change on the state’s attorney’s side,” electing Kim Foxx over Anita Alvarez, Meister said. “It didn’t move further down the ballot to the clerk’s race.”

Brown will face Diane S. Shapiro in November. Shapiro ran unopposed in the Republican primary.