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Challengers start lining up against Dorothy Brown

Sen. Iris Martinez and Board of Review’s Michael Cabonargi exploring bids for circuit clerk

State Sen. Iris Martinez
State Sen. Iris Martinez, shown at a public meeting in 2012, confirmed to the Sun-Times on Friday that she is exploring a run for Cook County Circuit Court clerk.
File Photo

A veteran state senator and a member of the Cook County Board of Review are both eyeing a possible run against The Unsinkable Dorothy Brown.

That’s the nickname some Brown supporters have bestowed on the veteran Cook County Circuit Court clerk, expected to seek election to a sixth term in 2020 despite a long-running scandal in her office that’s been going on since before her last re-election campaign.

Brown has never been charged in connection with the federal investigation, which in April saw a former top aide become the second employee convicted of perjury in the alleged job-selling scheme.

But sources say Brown’s problems have emboldened both state Sen. Iris Martinez and Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi to seriously consider the race.

Martinez, first elected to the Illinois Senate from her Northwest Side district in 2002, confirmed her interest in taking on Brown in an ever-so-brief phone chat Friday.

“I’m thinking about it. I’m exploring it,” said the assistant Senate majority leader, who then begged off the phone with the explanation she was driving her family to a wedding and getting on the expressway. I hate it when they have a good excuse.

I have yet to hear Cabonargi’s excuse for not returning my calls Friday, but sources confirm he is poking around for support, too. News of his interest was first reported Friday by Politico’s Shia Kapos.

Cabonargi was appointed in 2011 to the Board of Review, which hears property tax assessment appeals, by Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans after Joe Berrios left the board to become county assessor.

Cabonargi, a former attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission, was elected in 2012 and re-elected most recently in 2018, which means he would not have to risk giving up his office to run for clerk.

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi
Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi apparently is considering a challenge to longtime Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.
Sun-Times Media

Martinez likewise was just re-elected in 2018, meaning she would have a free shot, too, in what for her is an off-year election.

Cabonargi reported a $530,253 balance in his campaign fund as of March 31. Martinez was sitting on $116,405.

It may seem too early to be talking about 2020 election campaigns with the mayor’s race still looming in the rearview mirror.

But Cook County Democrats are now less than two weeks away from conducting what they call “pre-slating,” an introductory session for statewide and countywide candidates interested in seeking the party’s endorsement.

Pre-slating is scheduled for June 20-21; actual slating, Aug. 15-16.

That also means some potential candidates sniffing around the possibility of taking on Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx will need to start surfacing as the coming days. Foxx has been wounded politically by the Jussie Smollett debacle, but is still considered the favorite to receive the party’s endorsement for re-election.

Brown is not expected to be endorsed.

Brown’s internal nickname is, of course, a reference to The Unsinkable Molly Brown, American socialite and activist Margaret Brown who survived the sinking of the Titanic. It later became the title of a Broadway musical and movie based on her life.

Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown
Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown has survived political challenges before. And at least three people are considering running against her in 2020.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Although Dorothy Brown is certainly in danger of sinking along with the ship of state at the clerk’s office, she has proven amazingly resilient during a political career that has also seen her run losing campaigns for mayor (twice, most recently this year) and once for Cook County Board President.

Four years ago, Cook County Democrats endorsed her for re-election, only to reverse themselves when it was disclosed federal investigators had stopped Brown outside her home and seized her cell phone. It indeed seemed like a bad omen for her political future.

Party bosses then picked Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) to take her place.

But Brown won anyway and never was charged.

A third candidate in that race, lawyer Jacob Meister, has also said he is exploring another run.

African-American voters, in particular, have proven exceptionally loyal to Brown in the voting booth, although she was bounced off the ballot in the 2019 mayoral race before her current popularity could be put to the test.

At the recent trial of Beena Patel, a close friend of Brown and top supervisor in her office, jurors heard testimony Brown had taken $15,000 in cash from a man who was hired by the clerk a short time later.

Since that last election, Brown has changed her name to Dorothy Brown Cook, taking the name of her husband, Benton Cook III, who also has been implicated in the probe. The couple married in 2009.

Name change or not, you’ve got to figure the voters know who Brown is by now, and that her vulnerability will attract several challengers.