Sham candidates for judge: an election secret you’re not supposed to know about

This article was co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times.

Attorneys Maureen O’Leary and Bonnie McGrath are both on the March 17 ballot in Cook County judicial races. But, from all appearances, voters would be hard-pressed to know they’re running.

They haven’t reported any fundraising or spending. Their opponents haven’t seen them at campaign events. Until January, neither of them even had a campaign website.

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Though McGrath is a perennial candidate and O’Leary a newcomer, they used dozens of the same people to gather the signatures needed to get their names on the ballot. O’Leary is running against Cook County Circuit Judge Carolyn Gallagher for a seat on the Illinois Appellate Court. McGrath previously has run against Gallagher.

Other candidates, consultants and judges say McGrath and O’Leary appear to be sham candidates – running not to win but to benefit the Democratic Party’s pick. It’s a practice that goes back decades in Cook County politics and something of an open secret among insiders.

People involved in McGrath’s last two races told Injustice Watch she was put on the ballot as a shill to confuse voters.

O’Leary didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Declining an interview request and responding by email, McGrath wrote: “I am running for judge to become a judge!”

Illinois Appellate Judge Michael Hyman and attorney Chris Stacey, the Democratic Party’s slated candidates in O’Leary and McGrath’s races, say they have nothing to do with their challengers running.

The practice of running a sham candidate is also known among insiders as ballot management. Though the practice aims to confuse voters, it isn’t illegal.

“There’s no law right now that prohibits someone who doesn’t have their heart into it and is only acting as a shill,” says Burton Odelson, an election lawyer who represented former U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. in 2002 when he was challenged for re-election by a truck driver and first-time candidate named Jesse L. Jackson, who ultimately withdrew. “There’s no law that says you can’t do that. In America, you can run.”

Attorney Maureen O'Leary

Maureen O'Leary for Judge

Attorney Maureen O’Leary, a first-time candidate running for an appellate seat, has all the markings of a sham candidate.

McGrath and O’Leary, who have reported zero campaign expenditures, have used paid circulators, though, to gather the signatures of registered voters that they needed to get on the ballot.

“Some people think of running sham candidates to confuse the voters as merely a campaign dirty trick — a clever tactic to outsmart the other side,” election attorney Richard Means says. “As with these phony judicial candidates, it almost always requires committing the crime of spending money [in] support of that candidate and failing to report or properly allocate political spending.”

Adding to the possible confusion for voters in judicial races, many people don’t know the candidates even exist until they see their names in the voting booth. As a result, some voters choose based on perceived gender and ethnicity.

Judges, challengers and consultants in Cook County sometimes talk about how good or bad their “ballot name” is — how electable they might be based solely on their names.

Historically, certain ethnically identifiable names generally seem to perform better than others countywide. And many subcircuits have specific demographic trends.

Female, Irish-sounding names, in particular, have a proven advantage with voters in Cook County. It might be why appellate judge Sheldon Harris is running for the Illinois Supreme Court as Shelly Harris. And why Philip Spiwak changed his name to Shannon O’Malley.

Attributes of “sham” judicial candidates
  • Often has a female, Irish-sounding name
  • In a race with a similarly named candidate
  • Little to no campaign activity
  • No reported fundraising or spending

Bonnie McGrath was Benita Taman before she took the last name McGrath in marriage and decided to go by Bonnie, her nickname.

If you don’t have a good ballot name and are up against a candidate with a great one, you could outspend your opponent, hustle harder for votes and seek endorsements.

And if somehow another candidate gets in the race with a similar-sounding name as your opponent, the resulting confusion might cut into their vote.

The Cook County Democratic Party doesn’t take a position on running sham candidates, according to Jacob Kaplan, the party’s executive director.

But current and former candidates and political consultants with ties to the Democrats say the party tacitly approves of the practice and has used it to help candidates facing tough odds.

In 2009, then-prosecutor Barbara Bailey let slip that she had run as a sham candidate at the party’s behest in 2004 and hoped the party would reward her loyalty, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

“It was my understanding that the committeemen or that people for the Democratic Party put out my petitions, I had them signed. I was told not to raise money and not to do any campaigning. I didn’t,” Bailey said.

After letting the cat out of the bag, she wasn’t slated in 2009.

The party organization added a section to its bylaws in 2018 that “encouraged” and “empowered” its executive committee to engage in ballot management. Kaplan says that referred to signature challenges, not running sham candidates.

Bonnie McGrath

Twitter

Perennial candidate Bonnie McGrath has run as a ringer twice before, sources said. Her current race parallels her last two.

McGrath maintains an active online presence, posting regularly on Twitter and her blog “Mom, I Think I’m Poignant.” She was once married to Paul McGrath, a former Chicago newspaper reporter who was deputy mayor under Jane Byrne.

Bonnie McGrath has run for judge six times. Running in 1998 under the name Bonnie Fitzgerald McGrath, she defended the name change in a Chicago Tribune column.

“If catchy names attract votes, I owe it to myself,” she wrote. “I want to win.”

She didn’t but continued to run year after year.

Campaign-finance reports dating up to 2010 show her raising money, printing signs, sending out mailers and retaining an attorney. But her reports since 2010 show she has reported spending less than $700 over the entire decade and hasn’t reported getting any campaign contributions.

She didn’t participate in bar group evaluations in 2016, 2018 or this year, which resulted in automatic negative ratings.

McGrath called the process “totally arbitrary” in 2018, saying she would no longer submit to it.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, consultant Mary Kay Dawson called consultant Rod McCulloch, who sends out paid circulators to gather signatures to get on the ballot. Dawson was representing the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate in that race for circuit judge, Sean Chaudhuri.

It appeared that Chaudhuri would face a tight race. Several men had filed to run, but only one woman was in the race, attorney Carolyn Gallagher. So Dawson hired McCulloch to gather signatures to put another woman on the ballot: Bonnie McGrath.

“Basically, what I did was I determined that having additional women on the ballot would be helpful,” Dawson says.

She says she didn’t know who had contacted McGrath, but she paid for the signatures using money Chaudhuri had given her for consulting.

Chaudhuri didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“I really wish I hadn’t done it,” says McCulloch, who was convicted of election fraud in DuPage County in 2008. “It’s a bad practice. It really is.”

Judge James Shapiro

Judge James A. Shapiro

Candidate James Shapiro won his fifth attempt at a bench seat when he used McGrath as a shill, a source said.

Despite McGrath’s addition to what turned out to be a five-candidate race, Gallagher won easily, getting more than 34 percent of the vote. Chaudhuri, the party’s candidate, got 15 percent. McGrath did better — 17 percent.

In 2018, McGrath entered a subcircuit race in which former assistant U.S. attorney James Shapiro was running against two men and a woman, Robin Shoffner, who’d been appointed to that seat and was running to keep it. Shapiro had run unsuccessfully four times before.

A source involved with the race says Shapiro and political consultant Sean Tenner discussed running a female sham candidate to eat into Shoffner’s vote and chose McGrath.

Tenner denies putting McGrath into Shapiro’s race as a sham candidate.

Sean Tenner

Cook County Democratic Party

46th Ward Democratic committeeman and political consultant Sean Tenner, said he was not involved with any of McGrath, O’Leary or Connolly’s campaigns.

“I’m familiar with the concept,” he says. “I haven’t recommended that anybody do it.”

In 2017 and 2018, Shapiro paid Tenner’s company, KNI Communications $267,750.

According to the source, some of that money was to pay for circulating McGrath’s ballot petitions, though Tenner says KNI Communications wasn’t involved in McGrath’s campaign.

Shapiro won with nearly 46 percent of the vote. Shoffner, second, had nearly 27 percent. McGrath was third with 16 percent.

This year, McGrath is running in a countywide race that includes another woman with an Irish name, Jennifer Patricia Callahan, and party-endorsed candidate Chris Stacey.

Campaign website

Attorney Chris Stacey, the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate in the circuit race with Bonnie McGrath, said he was not involved with her presence on the ballot.

Stacey has paid $92,821 to KNI Communications so far this election cycle.

Stacey and Tenner deny any involvement in McGrath’s candidacy.

“I did not instruct anyone to put her in,” Stacey says.

Tenner, who is also the 46th Ward Democratic committeeman, was involved in a 2018 judicial race in which appointed judge Gerald Cleary faced stiff competition from attorney Colleen Daly, who had the Democratic committeman’s endorsement and a great ballot name. Cleary paid Tenner’s company $51,232.

Also in that race: attorney Noreen Connolly, a first-time candidate who, along with her husband, had given $1,200 to Cleary in previous races. The Clearys and Connollys are Facebook friends and appear in photos together, according to a challenge to Connolly’s candidacy that argued she was a sham candidate. The hearing officer who heard the case said the issue of a candidate’s “underlying motivation” was outside the county electoral board’s purview.

Noreen Connolly

Noreen Connolly for Judge

First-time candidate Noreen Connolly was accused of running as a sham candidate to benefit her friend, appointed judge Gerald Cleary.

Cleary didn’t respond to requests for comment. Tenner says he didn’t put Connolly into the race.

Responding by text message, Connolly says: “I ran in 2018 for the Suriano vacancy and lost. I’m not sure why that is still relevant now.”

Daly won, getting more than half the votes. Cleary, with less than 17 percent, did only marginally better than Connolly.

A political consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says sham candidates no longer help as much as they once did.

“The results are showing they’re not really effective, and I believe it’s a waste of time and effort and money,” the consultant says. “I think its time has come and gone.”

To get onto the ballot, judicial candidates need between 1,000 and 5,050 signatures of registered voters, depending on the seat they’re seeking. Most candidates turn in two or three times as many signatures as that in case their opponents challenge the validity of their signatures to try to get them out of the race.

Number of signatures required to get onto the ballot

Subcircuit races: 1,000
Circuit races: 3,322
Appellate and Supreme Court races: 5,050

Candidates often rely on volunteers and paid circulators, who charge between $2 and $5 per signature. Supreme Court candidate Shelly Harris has reported spending nearly $58,000 on signature-gathering and verification this election cycle.

McGrath and O’Leary each turned in more than 10,000 signatures. Dozens of their petition circulators were the same. Two of the circulators told Injustice Watch they were paid.

Candidates who spend or receive more than $5,000 in a 12-month period must start reporting their expenses quarterly to the Illinois State Board of Elections. If a candidate receives in-kind contributions from another candidate, that also must be reported.

Neither McGrath nor O’Leary has reported any expenses or in-kind donations.

McGrath says she used a combination of paid circulators and volunteers and plans to report her expenses to the state board.

As for O’Leary, her campaign for a 10-year appellate court term is unusual in some ways for such a relatively high-profile race. All three of her opponents have years of judicial experience, for one thing, while O’Leary has none. She is risk and litigation counsel for Aperion Care, a multi-state, for-profit, nursing-home chain that’s been cited for a history of violations. Just last year, the chain was fined $366,800 by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

When her opponents appeared at a candidates’ forum in January, O’Leary wasn’t there. Nor has she sought major endorsements, reported printing any mailers or run any advertisements. She didn’t have a campaign committee or a website until late January, after Injustice Watch asked about her candidacy — though the “Donate” button on her campaign site doesn’t work.

Judge Carolyn Gallagher, who faced McGrath in 2016 and is up against O’Leary for an appellate seat, said O’Leary has all the markings of a sham candidate.

Incumbent Hyman and the other candidates — Sandra Ramos and Carolyn Gallagher — say they have never met O’Leary, seen her campaigning or had even heard of her until her name made the ballot.

Gallagher sees her as a likely sham candidate, “given her Irish name, her complete lack of qualifications for appellate court, that she’s never attended any candidate functions and that she didn’t disclose payments for her 13,000-plus petition signatures.”

McCulloch is “100%” sure O’Leary is a shill and that she was placed on the ballot to confuse people who might vote for the other candidate in the race with an Irish-sounding name, Gallagher.

“The party hates Carolyn Gallagher,” says McCulloch, who says he was hired to run McGrath against her in 2016.

Campaign Facebook

Appellate Judge Michael B. Hyman, the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, denied involvement with O’Leary’s candidacy.

Hyman, the slated candidate, who paid Tenner’s KNI Communications $63,000 so far this election cycle, says of O’Leary: “I have nothing to do with that candidate.”

Tenner says the same.

When sham candidates make the ballot, Ramos says it speaks to what those who put them there think of voters.

“You think the public is a bunch of brutos,” or idiots, she says.