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New clerk of circuit court eyeing replacement for her former Senate seat

Iris Martinez was a member of the Illinois Senate until earlier this week, when she resigned to become Cook County clerk of the circuit court. It now falls on Martinez and 10 others to decide who will fill the seat she held for 17 years in the state’s upper chamber. 

State Sen. Iris Martinez, Democrat running for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk.
Former state Sen. Iris Martinez, was installed into the office of the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk on Tuesday.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Newly inaugurated Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Iris Martinez said she’ll likely call a meeting to pick her replacement in the Illinois Senate in the next couple of weeks, the end of a process that could result in the successor she’s identified being appointed to the post.

A former opponent of Martinez for that position says he’s been shut out of that process.

Martinez was a member of the Senate until earlier this week, when she resigned to take on her new role as clerk the county’s Circuit Court. It now falls on Martinez and 10 others to decide who will fill the seat she held for 17 years in the state’s upper chamber.

The former senator has the largest share of the weighted vote — the winning candidate must receive 50% plus one to get the seat.

Martinez said she’s been “watching and grooming” Cristina Pacione-Zayas for a long time, and “she is the person I would like the committeemen to support,” though that doesn’t mean she won’t leave the position open to others.

“Many of them know her and were happy to hear about her,” Martinez said. “I think we’ve got ourselves a really good person who is committed to the neighborhood.”

Pacione-Zayas holds a Ph.D. in educational policy studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is currently the associate vice president of policy at the Erikson Institute and secretary of the board for the Illinois State Board of Education — a role she was appointed to last year by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

She is a former education director for the Latino Policy Forum and a culture of calm coordinator for Chicago Public Schools, a role she called “an amazing opportunity to really think about how schools” can serve the communities they’re in.

“I am a child of community organizers,” Pacione-Zayas said. “... It was, for me, an early childhood experience that really kind of made concrete the understanding that community is family, and that you must be proximate to the problems to be able to help inform those problems, and when you are afforded leadership opportunities you are accountable to those that you represent.”

Pacione-Zayas was the sole candidate to appear at a Wednesday forum hosted by the United Neighbors of the 35th Ward and independent political organizations representing the 1st, 32nd, 33rd and 39th Wards, among others.

Anthony Quezada, the committeeperson of the 35th Ward, which has the second largest weighted vote, said Pacione-Zayas gave “promising” answers when asked about “an array of progressive legislative priorities,” including economic, housing and environmental justice.

Quezada said Pacione-Zayas “has that political perspective … and I think her experience working in community organizations strengthens” her qualifications for the job.

Bart Goldberg, who ran for the position in 2018, said he “would have loved to be invited” to the forum. Only two committeepeople have been willing to speak with him, he said.

“I think I have a really really unusual skill set, and I think I could address the big fundamental problems and help bring them to light in Springfield over the next two years,” Goldberg, who has previously run for alderman and state rep, said.

He added Pacione-Zayas “looks like an intelligent woman who is going to be very sharp when it comes to issues of child care and very protective of immigrant rights ... and those are all important things to me as well, but they are not the larger issues that threaten our very ability to provide humane government.

“I think part of the reason I could be so effective is that I am an outsider,” Goldberg said. “Always been able to deal with other people, but we have to bring more people to the table ...”

First Ward Ald. Daniel La Spata said Pacione-Zayas is “impeccably qualified.” He said he’s heard from others who are interested in the position and is setting up a time to meet with them.

La Spata said he and Goldberg planned to talk on Sunday.

Martinez is the first Latina to be elected to the clerk position, which puts her in charge of keeping all the records and documents for the country’s second-largest consolidated court system.

The former state senator bested Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi, former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin and attorney Jacob Meister in the March primary and walloped Republican challenger Dr. Barbara Bellar last month, winning about 71% of the vote.

Martinez campaigned on being an independent politician who would modernize and bring transparency to the clerk’s office. She’s previously said she plans to conduct an audit of the office and will bring in Freedom of Information Act officers to handle public records requests.