clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Getting inside the outside — Circuit Court clerk candidates tout different definitions of independence

All four candidates running in the Democratic Primary have run for office in the past — and three have been elected. But that didn’t stop some from a spirited debate on who could lay claim to being a political outsider.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidates, from left, Michael Cabonargi, Iris Martinez, Jacob Meister and Richard Boykin.
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidates, from left, Michael Cabonargi, Iris Martinez, Jacob Meister and Richard Boykin met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board on Monday.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

From the White House to the statehouse, candidates often like to paint themselves as political outsiders — to give themselves a political edge with voters tired of business as usual.

But just what constitutes an outsider can be an elastic concept. Exhibit A is the race to succeed outgoing Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown.

All four candidates running in the Democratic Primary have run for office in the past — and three have been elected.

But that didn’t stop some from a spirited debate Monday on just who is on the outside looking in during an appearance before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board.

As the candidates rolled out their game plans for the office if they’re elected, some touted themselves as “independent” and “political outsiders.”

State Sen. Iris Martinez conceded her 18-year tenure in the state’s Senate has made her part of the political system.

But she argues that’s only because voters put her there.

State Sen. Iris Martinez, Democrat running for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.
State Sen. Iris Martinez, Democrat running for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

The Northwest Side Democrat said she’s “not afraid to speak up and say what’s on my mind” and that includes promising to fire at-will employees in top administrative roles in the clerk’s office because they “have to be held responsible for their mismanagement.”

Lawyer Jacob Meister, who ran for the office in 2016, said he’s the only candidate who’s “not owned by anyone, and that’s what I bring to this office.”

Former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin contended he’s the only political outsider in the race, pointing to losing his re-election battle in 2018 because of his vote against the county’s much-maligned, penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax.

Boykin called Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi and Martinez “creatures of the system.”

Former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin.
Former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, Democratic candidate for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Boykin also challenged Martinez’s proposal to fire some managers.

“You fire all the managers, you’re going to bring the court system to a grinding halt,” Boykin said of Martinez’s plan to fire the top tier of administrators. “There are 300 managers there. You fire them all on Day One, the system comes to a standstill. It’s a bad deal.”

Boykin said he’d focus on the office’s case management system to make sure “we’re keeping a good thousand records of the court system, and that, if someone calls for someone’s court file that we can pull it up in a matter of seconds.”

Better case management could mean increasing remote access to documents and allowing people to pay for court filings online instead of coming in to the Daley Center downtown, he said.

Meister said there’s a need for a better case management system to bring judges, attorneys and others in the court system on the same page.

Lawyer Jacob Meister, Democratic candidate for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk .
Lawyer Jacob Meister, Democratic candidate for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk .
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“Everyone has different workflows, each court room has different procedures and how they operate — can’t bring in a computer system and tell people ‘you have to adjust the way that your court flows around the computer system,’” Meister said. “That’s the tail wagging the dog it’s got to be the other way around so that the computer system meets the needs of the users. There’s been a complete failure to do that — judges haven’t been consulted. … It is a disaster on a daily basis.”

Cabonargi, the endorsed candidate of the Cook County Democratic Party, stayed outside of the insider-outsider debate.

Cabonargi said if he’s elected, he’d work to eliminate cash bail and reduce the amount of cash bail the office receives — the office is allowed to take up to $100 of every cash bail before the amount is returned to someone.

Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi.
Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi, Democrat running for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cabonargi says he’ll take the least amount possible from cash bails, which is $5. He’d also plan to bring in a Freedom of Information Act officer on Day One, reversing Brown’s policy to not give up records because she’s a court officer, the board of review commissioner said.

“You have to ask yourself who’s actually taken over a county office that was antiquated and had to revitalize the staff and bring in the technology, I’ve done that,” Cabonargi said.