Diverse Illinois Supreme Court candidates face big fundraising gap

In a race for the only Illinois Supreme Court seat ever held by a person of color, black and Latinx candidates have struggled to raise as much money as their white opponents.

As of March 11, the three white candidates in the Illinois Supreme Court election have outraised the four people of color by a ratio of 2-1, state election records show.

While all of the candidates trail far behind the $2.1 million raised by Appellate Judge Shelly Harris, the three lowest fundraisers are all people of color. The racial fundraising gap echoes trends from past state Supreme Court races in Illinois and elsewhere.

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Nationwide, white Supreme Court challengers for incumbent seats raise more on average and, as a result, are more likely to win, according to a Brennan Center for Justice analysis. It’s part of the reason 23 states have an all-white Supreme Court, and why Tuesday’s primary could see Illinois bring that number to 24.

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Inside the $4.7 million race for the next Illinois Supreme Court justice

A single candidate has poured more than $1.9 million of his own money into the campaign, making this race more expensive than the last two Illinois Supreme Court races combined.

When Cook County voters cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary, they will decide what racial representation looks like on the state Supreme Court and whether it returns to an all-white bench as it was before 1990, when former justice Charles E. Freeman won the election. Freeman, a black man, retired in 2018 as the first and only person of color to win an Illinois Supreme Court election. He died earlier this month at age 86.

Cook County elects three of the seven Illinois justices while voters in the other four appellate districts across the state each select one.

Appellate Judge Cynthia Cobbs, a black woman, has raised the least of the seven candidates, with $239,000. Cobbs served as director of the Illinois court system from 2002 to 2011 and clerked for Freeman. She would be the first woman of color on the state Supreme Court.

Cobbs believes that Harris’s wealth, which he’s leveraged to place more than $1 million in advertisements – and the lifting of contribution limits when a candidate self-funds more than $100,000 – created an uneven playing field.

“To not have the dollars to bring that visibility is difficult,” she said. “We all have to fundraise unless we have that visibility.”

Appellate Judge Jesse Reyes, a Mexican-American judge, has raised $356,000, the second-lowest total among the candidates. Reyes was Illinois’ first Latinx appellate judge and is campaigning to make history again as the state’s first Latinx Supreme Court justice.

Reyes said that he had been anticipating a fight against an opponent with deep pockets.

“We knew from the beginning that [Harris] was going to put in a lot of his own money,” he said. “He can do what he wants with his funds. Our race is actually directed to the people.”

Appellate Judge Nathaniel R. Howse Jr., who is black, has raised $447,000. Although he is not the Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate, Howse has won endorsements from several prominent Democrats. His supporters include Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston).

Appointed Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., who is only the second person of color ever to serve on the bench, has a campaign chest of $551,000. That includes nearly $200,000 from labor and government employee unions. Incumbent men of color tend to raise the most of any incumbents, the Brennan Center found, probably because they are the most likely to face challengers.

But Neville, endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party, still faces a tough path to keeping the seat he was appointed to after Freeman’s retirement in 2018. The state Supreme Court race is crowded and expensive.

Davon Clark

Appellate Judge Cynthia Cobbs is running for an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. Cobbs has raised the least money of the seven candidates in the race.

The white candidates, appellate judges Shelly Harris and Margaret McBride, and attorney Daniel Epstein have raised a combined $3.1 million. That’s two-thirds of all money raised in the Supreme Court race. About $2.1 million of that money was raised by Harris, who put nearly $2 million of his own money into his campaign.

Money is not a direct indicator of victory. However, a substantial amount of money is usually required to prevail in state supreme court elections, which are increasingly multi-million dollar contests.

In 2012, the last time Cook County held an election for an Illinois Supreme Court seat, Appellate Judge Joy Cunningham also struggled to keep up in the fundraising race.

Cunningham, who would have been the first woman of color on the bench, lost in the Democratic primary against appointed Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis. Theis, who is white and who outraised her 2-1, raked in $1.4 million in contributions compared to Cunningham’s $702,000.

Quentin James, president of The Collective PAC, which funds black candidates including state supreme court candidates, said that black candidates face a political environment “where money is king.”

The top challenge that all candidates polled by The Collective say they face is raising money, he said.

“Until we deal with that, African Americans will continue to struggle just to play on the same playing field,” he said. African Americans tend to have less wealth than white people, he said, meaning the networks they can tap into tend to have less wealth as well. “It’s so difficult to raise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to run for office.”

Loyola University Chicago Professor Jona Goldschmidt said that the racial fundraising gap is “just another feature of the elective process which is totally inappropriate.”

He advocates for merit-based judicial selection as opposed to electing judges, which would remove the financial barriers people of color face when fundraising in a run for judge.

“The system is just a bad one,” he said.

Some states and cities have adopted public financing of campaigns to reduce the influence of wealthy donors and special interest groups in elections while leveling the playing field for grassroots candidates, people of color, and other marginalized groups. Illinois is not one of those states.

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