Who will fill Brandon Johnson’s Cook County Board seat?

The application process for those interested in serving the rest of Brandon Johnson’s term on the County Board was announced Wednesday. Those already vying for the spot include three members of the Leaders Network, a West Side faith-based group.

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From left to right, Zerlina Smith-Members, Rev. Ira Acree and Rev. Marshall Hatch, Jr.

Zerlina Smith-Members (from left), the Rev. Ira Acree and the Rev. Marshall Hatch Jr. are vying to fill the Cook County Board seat vacated when Brandon Johnson became mayor. All belong to the same prominent West Side faith-based group.

Anthony Vazquez, Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

On the West Side over the past several years, at pivotal moments both joyful and tragic, members of a prominent faith-based group have taken center stage.

They played a key role in developing a transformative plan for West Garfield Park that won $10 million; they’re opening a credit union in Austin that aims to change lives; and when suicides among Black Cook County residents rose precipitously, they rallied to preach about the importance of mental health.

Now, three members of that group, The Leaders Network, are vying for the chance to have an even greater impact on the West Side by filling the Cook County Board seat vacated by Mayor Brandon Johnson.

That includes the Rev. Ira Acree of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin; the Rev. Marshall Hatch Jr. of the MAAFA Redemption Project in West Garfield Park; and Zerlina Smith-Members, an Austin-based community activist.

Also vying for the seat are Tara Stamps, an employee of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, and Claiborne Wade, a parent liaison at an Austin neighborhood public school and Catalyst charter schools board member. Stamps could not be reached for comment.

Pastor Ira Acree outside of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, where he is the church pastor. 

The Rev. Ira Acree stands outside Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin, where he is the pastor.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Johnson’s replacement will be picked by a 10-person committee of representatives elected from the district, which includes much of the West Side and Oak Park and beyond, running from Damen Avenue in West Town to west suburban Bellwood.

Each representative’s vote is weighted according to how many votes Johnson received from their respective areas in the 2022 general election.

Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, will chair the committee. Harmon announced Wednesday that anyone interested in the position can send a resume and a short cover letter “signifying their interest and qualifications” via email to firstdistrictvacancy@gmail.com until May 31.

The committee may schedule in-person interviews with a number of candidates. The appointed commissioner will serve until a special election in 2024.

Johnson hasn’t commented on the race.

County Board seats can be overlooked, said Jacob Kaplan, executive director of the Cook County Democratic Party, but it’s still “a big deal,” he said, noting that 17 commissioners control a multibillion dollar budget and “vote on everything from the hospital system to jail, taxes, roads.”

All three West Siders from The Leaders Network said they hope to continue on Johnson’s progressive path.

Rev. Marshall Hatch Jr., a minister at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and executive director of the MAAFA Redemption Project, sits in West Garfield Park.

The Rev. Marshall Hatch Jr. is a minister at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church and executive director of the MAAFA Redemption Project.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“The First District of Cook County needs a commissioner who can build upon the work that Commissioner Brandon Johnson envisioned,” said Acree, a founder of the faith-based network. “One who has a heart for the people, commitment to bringing equity and parity and relentless desire to level the educational and economic playing field for all.”

The pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church in Austin praised the county’s violence prevention grant program and said he would prioritize investing in workforce development programs and addressing homelessness.

Acree, 58, played a key role in developing the network’s credit union and has led calls for greater mental health awareness.

Hatch, the son of prominent West Side pastor and Johnson transition committee member, the Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr., commended Johnson’s efforts to address root causes of violence through the county’s initiative to forgive medical debt and guaranteed income pilot.

He said he wants to take the approach further by advocating for funding for mental health and addressing homelessness and environmental justice.

Hatch, 35, said he already works to prevent violence in the area as the executive director of the MAAFA Redemption Project, a workforce and character development program run out of the church.

“Others may say they try to address the root cause of violence, Hatch said, “but are they actually doing it? It’s what we do every day.”

He was part of the group behind a plan to turn West Garfield Park into a “walkable village” as part of a larger effort to cut the life expectancy gap between the neighborhood and downtown Chicago. That community is home to New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. Hatch preaches at the church, and his father is pastor there.

Zerlina Smith-Members at her home in the Austin neighborhood.

Zerlina Smith-Members speaks outside her home in Austin. The 45-year-old ran unsuccessfully for Cook County Board president in 2022 and hopes to fill the County Board seat left vacant by the departure of Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Smith-Members, 45, has belonged to the network since its beginning and supported its efforts in her role as a block club president and community organizer, which she became involved in organizing after losing a brother to gun violence.

She has called for mental health clinics in schools, monthly meetings between community members and elected officials and more Cook County Sheriff’s Office satellite locations in Chicago. Her husband is a Cook County deputy sheriff.

She emphasized many of the problems facing the West Side are also facing the western suburbs and need to be addressed at the county level.

“If you ride through those suburbs, you see the same thing with the disinvestment, the lack of businesses and the violence,” she said. “Everything would have to work hand in hand with the suburban district.”

The network held a rally Tuesday in support of any of the candidates running for the seat, so long as they come from the West Side.

“Historical disinvestment in West Side communities,” said David Cherry, president of the network, “has resulted in the most poorly performing public schools, limited options in health care, a high rate of violent crime, the fewest choices in banking and the most food deserts.”

Johnson’s roots on the West Side helped him begin reversing those inequities, and it would take someone from the area to continue doing so, Cherry said.

“Let’s give one of them an opportunity to keep doing the work that Brandon Johnson started.”

Wade, 33, said expanding opportunities for home ownership and investing in youth development would be among his top priorities.

“It’s about our young folks,” he said. “We’ve got to show them that they’re worthy, they’re loved and that they have a great future ahead of them.”

Claiborne Wade, 33 participates in a protest in the Loop around the proposed CPS school board map, which he and other advocates have said doesn’t match the demographics of the student body. 

Claiborne Wade, 33, hopes to fill the Cook County Board seat left open by the departure of Mayor Brandon Johnson. He joined other protesters in the Loop this week to slam a proposed district map for the new elected board that will lead Chicago Public Schools.

Michael Loria/Sun-Times

A few hours after Harmon’s announcement, Wade was in the Loop outside the CPS central office, where he and others from the Kids First education advocacy group were protesting the proposed school board map, which they said doesn’t match the demographics of the CPS student body.

“We’re trying to make sure that the CPS elected school board map looks like the students in the classroom,” said the Austin native. “If we do that, we have a better chance of addressing the issues impacting our students.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

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