In the six weeks since Cook County Circuit Judge Thomas Allen announced he would challenge Chief Judge Timothy Evans for election, their campaign has been a low-key, behind-the-scenes affair visible mainly to the 241 judges empowered to vote.
That all changed in a hurry Monday evening when Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) took to Facebook to chastise fellow Democratic officials for “double-crossing” Evans by urging support for Allen.
Austin called it a “crying shame” that some black Democratic committeemen are backing Allen, her former City Council colleague, who she wrote “has Not Done A Darn Thing for Blacks.”
With the voting scheduled for Thursday, I took it as the first outward sign Evans’ re-election hopes could be in trouble.
Austin later tried to walk back her references to race when questioned by reporters Tuesday prior to a meeting of the Budget Committee she chairs.
But there wasn’t much doubt the veteran South Side alderman, a vice chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, was intentionally trying to rally African-Americans behind Evans and give pause to any politician who might consider abandoning him.
Austin’s comments came at the same time as Democratic political operative Maze Jackson was devoting his WVON radio commentary to the effort to dump Evans, which he said should be a “wakeup call for black people.”
To the judges who actually get a vote on Evans’ fate, Jackson said: “Remember black people are the ones who vote to retain you, and we are watching.”
Austin offered a less explicit threat regarding the possible fallout from dumping Evans.
“What’s that going to do with Hillary? What would that do to Tammy? What would that do for those that will be running for retention?” she said, referring to prominent Democrats on the November ballot.
In a more sedate vein, a group of 19 former members of the Cook County Bar Association, the local bar group devoted to African-Americans, issued a letter endorsing Evans for re-election.
Evans, 73, has served 15 years as chief judge. He went on the bench in 1992. Like Allen, Evans was a long-time and well-liked member of the City Council. Evans lost a race for mayor against Richard M. Daley in 1989, then lost his re-election as 4th Ward alderman to Toni Preckwinkle.
Daley was later instrumental in Evans’ ascension to the chief judgeship, but Preckwinkle, now Cook County Board president, has remained a detractor.
Austin singled out Preckwinkle as among the Democratic committeemen she said she was told are working against Evans.
“If that be the case, then she would be one of the committeemen I would be at her throat,” Austin said.
In response, a Preckwinkle spokesman said the County Board president “has been clear that this is an election for the judiciary to decide and that she is not involving herself in this matter.”
But Preckwinkle has made no secret of her frustration with Evans’ leadership of the court system and what she has seen as a lack of cooperation with her efforts for criminal justice reform.
Some say Preckwinkle’s tacit support of Allen — by not defending Evans — gives political cover to judges who might want to remove him.
But Thursday’s vote will be by secret ballot, and besides that, Preckwinkle’s involvement cuts both ways. She is not particularly popular with the judiciary.
Several judges with whom I spoke Tuesday told me they still expect Evans to win, having seen no indication of any major push by any Democratic powers outside the judiciary to influence the outcome.
But everyone agrees it’s the tightest race for chief judge they’ve seen.
“There’s tension,” I was told.
The best part about this election is that it should be over by Thursday.