Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans was re-elected to a sixth term Thursday, overcoming a strong challenge from Judge Thomas Allen fueled by dissatisfaction with Evans’ longtime leadership.
Evans pulled out the victory after a last-minute flurry of activity by political allies raising race as an issue and threatening retaliation against judges facing retention in November if he lost.
The final tally of circuit court judges was 129 to 103 with two judges spoiling their ballots — one by leaving it blank and the other by writing in the names of both Evans and Allen.
At first, I was thinking the person who voted for both was a weasel, but the more I thought about it, he or she was probably the only judge among many who pledged support to both candidates that actually made good on the promise.
A third candidate, Judge Sandra Ramos, informed colleagues before the meeting that she was pulling out of the race. Ramos was never regarded as a serious candidate.
Only the county’s 241 full circuit judges are empowered to vote for chief judge, a position of great influence within the court system.
That set the stage for a behind-the-scenes, up-close-and-personal campaign with Allen meeting individually with as many judges as possible to make his case that it was time for a change in the Cook County judiciary.
It was only the second re-election challenge during Evans’ tenure as chief judge, which began in 2001, and it was by far the closest.
But after the voting, Evans characteristically sidestepped my question about the vote being evidence of dissatisfaction.
“I think any time you are in a race, and you win, that’s the satisfaction,” he said. “The fact that someone else who lost got some votes means to me that I have an opportunity to reach out to those who supported [Allen] to see what issues they’d like to see addressed.”
Evans, 73, said he had invited Allen “to be a part of an ongoing dialogue, and that goes for anyone who supported him in the race. I don’t hold against anyone any decision they’ve made in this race.”
Uncharacteristically, Allen ducked reporters after the vote was announced, turning on his heel and retreating into an elevator when he saw us waiting to talk to him.
The judges met behind closed doors in the Jury Assembly Room at the Daley Center, where potential jurors normally report for duty and wait to be called.
The process of putting the judge’s names in nomination and starting the vote took only 45 minutes. Then it was a tense hour before the results were announced.
During the interim, I only found one judge brave enough to tell me how he voted.
“I voted for not the incumbent,” said Criminal Court Judge James R. Brown, who sits in Central Bond Court at 26th and Cal. “We need new ideas, new blood.”
As he headed out after the results were announced, Brown loudly complained: “More of the same nonsense.”
But the majority of judges seemed happy as they retreated to Petterino’s and other nearby watering holes to chew over the outcome, even if they wouldn’t say so.
As a couple of judges explained to me in the lead up to the vote, the outcome had less to do with external politics than whether judges were satisfied with their current assignments and willing to risk what might happen to them in a shakeup.
But others said a significant factor was the last-minute intervention of Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) and others who raised the threat of not supporting judges for retention if Evans lost.
Circuit Judge Daniel Pierce, a highly influential judge currently sitting on the Appellate Court, tried to blunt the attack with an email to colleagues decrying the “direct threats to our independence.”
Evans was first elected to the bench in 1992 and became chief judge in 2001. That followed a long career on the City Council as 4thWard alderman.
If Evans completes the three-year term, he will become the county’s longest-serving chief judge, surpassing the late Harry Comerford.
In Chicago politics, change is always a long shot.