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County Dems want written loyalty pledge from candidates seeking party endorsement

Scott Cisek, then executive director of the Cook County Democratic Party, passes out resumes of judicial candidates to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle; then-Party Chairman and Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) a
Cook County Democratic Party Chair Toni Preckwinkle, shown here conferring during a past party endorsement session with former Assessor Joseph Berrios and Ald. Edward Burke.
Sun-Times file

In a first, Cook County Democrats are asking potential countywide candidates who want the party’s endorsement to sign a written loyalty pledge.

The pledge would require any office seeker endorsed by the Democratic organization to “solemnly” promise not to endorse or support any candidates other than those chosen by the party’s leaders.

Judicial candidates who do not receive the party’s endorsement — but are instead designated as alternates — would be required to make the additional promise not to run against the endorsed Democratic picks.

So much for independent-minded Democratic politics.

County Democrats are scheduled to meet Monday and Tuesday to endorse candidates for county board president, sheriff, assessor, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and various judgeships for the June 28 primary election in Illinois.

The two-page loyalty pledge, approved unanimously by the party’s Executive Committee at the urging of county Democratic Chair Toni Preckwinkle, lays out the obligations of an endorsed candidate — with an emphasis on absolute fidelity.

The pledge agreement was distributed by email to candidates earlier this week by Jacob Kaplan, the party’s executive director.

“The pledge is simply intended to promote Party unity,” Kaplan wrote the recipients by way of explanation.

But Jhonmar Castillo, a political consultant who is representing two candidates for judge, complained the pledge is undemocratic and designed to allow the party’s judicial candidates in particular to run unopposed in the primary.

“This is not democracy. This is out of the Communist Party playbook,” said Castillo, a native of Venezuela.

Rick Garcia, Castillo’s business partner and a longtime LGBTQ rights activist who is running for a seat on the Water Reclamation District, wants the party’s endorsement but said he won’t sign.

“I hope Democrats who are running reject this attempt to bully them,” Garcia said.

For as long as I can remember, Democratic Party officials have asked candidates seeking their endorsement whether they will continue to run if they don’t receive the party’s nod.

It’s considered bad form for someone to say they will run regardless. Some candidates pledge to honor the party’s decision. Some demur. Some lie. On occasion, some admit they intend to run no matter what.

At first blush, I thought the written pledge was an extension of that traditional oral commitment, locking candidates to not buck the party. But it doesn’t go quite that far, except in the case of candidates for judge.

Still, my problem is with anything that seeks to limit voters’ choices, especially in a Democratic primary, which for most of us in Cook County is the only game in town. Too many candidates already run unopposed.

I’m told the loyalty pledge requirement was enacted because of frustration by party leaders with the large number of judicial candidates especially who seek the party’s backing and then run without it, often successfully.

“Why are you asking for support if you’re going to run against the party?” one official told me.

The honest answer to that question is that having the party endorsement can be helpful to a candidate but is hardly a prerequisite and can even prove a hindrance.

The loyalty pledge also seems designed to prevent any of this year’s other countywide candidates from making alliances outside the approved party slate.

At present, the most serious political fight at the county level is the race for assessor, where Water Reclamation District Commissioner Kari Steele is running against first-term incumbent Fritz Kaegi, who defeated party boss Joseph Berrios in 2018.

Preckwinkle also is up for re-election as county board president, but no serious opposition has surfaced so far.

It’s been a long, long time since the party’s endorsement assured victory in the Democratic primary, but Preckwinkle is not the only party leader who would like to restore some of the organization’s former influence.

One area in which the party endorsement is still valuable is in races for judge, which makes the judicial candidates especially vulnerable to the party’s demands.

Candidates selected as alternates by the party may be tapped to fill judge slots that open up later in the election process.

Those who choose to run against an endorsed candidate will forfeit their alternate status, according to the pledge.