For the first time in decades, Cook County Democrats are heading into an election cycle without Ald. Ed Burke running the party’s judge-picking process.
That would be no small matter in any election, but with a rare vacancy on the Illinois Supreme Court at stake next year, Democrats can expect more attention than ever on their system of endorsing judicial candidates.
In place of the once all-powerful Burke, Cook County Democratic Chairman Toni Preckwinkle has tapped three different party leaders to take over his judicial slating duties.
State Sen. Don Harmon, the Oak Park Democratic committeeman, was named in March to chair the party committee overseeing endorsements for circuit court judges.
The switch came after Preckwinkle came under political pressure during her mayoral campaign when Burke was charged in federal court with attempted extortion.
Even before Burke’s problems surfaced, Preckwinkle a year ago quietly took away the 14th Ward alderman’s role in picking the party’s choices for Supreme Court and Appellate Court. She gave the Supreme Court slating job to state Rep. Robert Martwick Jr., the 38thWard committeeman, and the Appellate Court responsibility to New Trier Township Committeeman Dean Maragos.
Obviously, taking away Burke’s formal slating duties doesn’t remove all his power, part of which comes from his personal relationships with other party leaders. But it’s bound to limit his influence.
Harmon concedes he won’t have the same power as Burke.
“No, and I don’t want that much power,” Harmon said.
Martwick says he isn’t sure quite what to expect, having only recently become a committeeman, although his father was boss of the Norwood Park Democrats and sometimes brought him along to slating sessions when he says the “big power players” roamed the room. Most of those power players are now long gone.
“I’m probably as fascinated as you are, because I haven’t been through this,” Martwick said.
Judges don’t stand for election until 2020, but like the presidential candidates already wooing voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, that means the campaign starts now. Candidates can begin circulating nominating petitions in September.
With that in mind, Cook County Democrats plan to pick their slate of endorsed candidates in August. What they call pre-slating — a more informal get-acquainted opportunity — is scheduled for June 20 and 21.
In addition to the Supreme Court seat, the biggest local offices on the ballot next year are Cook County state’s attorney and circuit court clerk, all destined to draw tough primary battles.
Although having the party’s nod is no longer the surefire ticket to election success that it once was, and can sometimes prove a handicap, it’s still considered an advantage in most cases for candidates running for judge.
In what they say is part of an effort to make judicial elections more open and transparent, Democrats hosted a “Road to the Robe” seminar in March to teach lawyers how to go about running for judge.
In the past, kissing Burke’s ring might have been a good place to start.
Harmon, who was conducting legislative business in Springfield, did not attend, instead sending a videotaped introduction that could have come from a good government primer.
There are currently seven circuit court vacancies up for election. More are expected as additional judges retire. The same is true for the Appellate Court, where there are currently two vacancies.
But the big prize is the spot on the Supreme Court created by last year’s resignation of Justice Charles E. Freeman. Freeman was the first African-American to serve on the state Supreme Court and the only one until P. Scott Neville Jr. was appointed to take his place.
Among those who are said to be interested in running for the seat in addition to Neville are: Appellate Court judges Cynthia Cobbs, Shelly Harris, Nathaniel Howse Jr., Margaret Stanton McBride and Jesse Reyes, plus Circuit Court judge Sandra Ramos.
Three of the candidates — Neville, Cobbs and Howse — are black, which could complicate an expected political push to unify behind one candidate to keep the seat in African-American hands.