Democrats endorsed for Cook County judge are diverse, experienced — and loyal

Five people in business attire, two seated, three standing, in front of a grey wall.

Maya Dukmasova

(L to R): Yolanda Sayre, Monica Somerville, Lisa Taylor, Judge Rena Marie Van Tine, and Michael Weaver, candidates for Cook County Circuit Court judge, wait their turn to address the Cook County Democratic Committee for a chance to be slated as the party’s choice for the 2022 primary election, Dec. 13, 2021.

The Cook County Democratic Party decided this week which candidates to endorse for 10 open judicial seats in the June 2022 primary elections.

The selected slate — nine candidates for countywide circuit court seats and one for an open appellate court seat — was approved by the party’s full central committee Tuesday afternoon.

The Democratic Party’s endorsement isn’t a guarantee of victory, but historically slated candidates have had a leg up in the low-information, down-ballot judicial races.

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Once they start gathering nominating petition signatures in January, the slated candidates can count on the party’s preferred election lawyers to help them fight off petition challenges. Slated candidates commit to raising $40,000 for the party’s campaign fund to benefit everyone running. In return, their names will appear on the party’s palm card and they’ll benefit from the doorknocking and campaign outreach efforts of the precinct captains and party faithful.

The slated judicial candidates are notable for their diversity: six women, three Black candidates, three Latinx candidates, one South Asian candidate, and one openly gay candidate. Four of the candidates are fluent in Spanish.

“This is a county in which the majority of people are people of color,” Democratic Party Chairperson Toni Preckwinkle, who’s also president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, was heard announcing to the circuit court selection committee as it went into its off-the-record executive session to decide on the slate Monday night. “I would suggest to you in the name of fairness — and because we’ve got to carry a diverse slate if we want to win — we’ve got to have a very diverse slate for the circuit court.”

The party endorsed Dominique C. Ross, currently a circuit court judge in the domestic relations division, for the First District Appellate Court seat vacated by Shelvin Louise Marie Hall in 2020. Circuit Court Judge John Ehrlich was selected as an alternate in the event that another appellate court seat opens up before the primaries. Ross is Black, and Ehrlich, who is white, is also openly gay.

For the nine countywide circuit court vacancies the party slated five women of color (Araceli De La Cruz, Ruth Gudino, Diana López, Yolanda Sayre, and Rena Van Tine) and four men (longtime 21st Ward Alderperson Howard Brookins Jr., Thomas More Donnelly, Thomas Nowinski, and Michael Weaver). The party will decide which specific vacancies each candidate is assigned to when the Illinois State Board of Elections announces the official list of open races early next month.

Five of the candidates are already on the bench, two as associate judges (Van Tine and López), and three who were appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to temporarily fill circuit court vacancies until the next election (De La Cruz, Gudino, and Donnelly).

Forty judicial candidates appeared before the committee Monday to vie for the party’s endorsement. Each candidate was allowed two minutes to make their case, after which committeepeople could chime in with questions. Though the selection committee’s chair, Illinois State Sen. Don Harmon, had asked the rest of the members not to offer their personal endorsements in the interest of time, party bosses paid him no mind. Most candidates weren’t asked any questions, but the ones who were ultimately slated received a litany of supportive speeches.

In addition to the 10 slated circuit court candidates, the party also chose 11 alternates, who will be slated if any additional judicial seats open up, in the order in which they were chosen. (See below for more information on these candidates.)

Experience rewarded — but so is loyalty

Two women hug in the middle of a room, with people milling about in front of a Christmas tree in the background

Maya Dukmasova

Cook County Circuit Judge Dominique C. Ross, left, who was chosen as the Democratic Party’s slated candidate for an Appellate Court vacancy, hugs Cook County Clerk and Proviso Township committeeperson Karen Yarbrough at the party’s slating meeting, Dec. 13, 2021.

All the slated candidates appeared at the party’s October “pre-slating” event, and all but one were found qualified for the bench by the Chicago Bar Association, which conducts evaluations of judicial candidates. (Brookins had not yet met with the group to be evaluated.) Most of them also have significant litigation and judicial experience and were praised for their accomplishments on the bench.

A litany of progressive committeemen stood to praise Donnelly for his initiatives to make free legal representation available to low-income litigants in the civil and traffic courtrooms that he has presided over since 2000. One of his supporters circulated a list of Donnelly’s achievements, which also included pushing for state policy changes to make legal proceedings more fair for debtors and recruiting lawyers to lead restorative justice “peace circles” for youth through the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation Center.

Van Tine, the only candidate who was rated “highly qualified” by the Chicago Bar Association, was also praised by committeepeople for the depth and breadth of her experience. In 2001, she became the first Indian American woman state court judge in the country.

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Toni Preckwinkle sits in the foreground in a green jacket, while Joanne Fehn stands at a lecturn in the large and airy IBEW Local 134 union hall

Judicial hopefuls seek Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsement for 2022 primary

A diverse lineup of judicial candidates courted the party’s central committee at the obscure “pre-slating” event.

A couple of the candidates seemed to impress the party largely based on the merits of their work as lawyers and in their community. López was in private practice focused on family law for most of her career before being selected as an associate judge in September. Weaver also spent his legal career in private practice focused on complex civil litigation and is active with LGBTQ political and community organizations such as Equality Illinois and the Broadway Youth Center, according to his resume.

The committeepeople lavished praise on the candidates who showed loyalty to the party and a willingness to support other endorsed candidates with their time and money in the past. Brookins, who is a ward committeeperson and has been active with the party for decades, was selected despite the fact that he’s spent most of his life as a Chicago alderman with limited courtroom experience.

The party bosses also rewarded candidates willing to wait their turn. Nowinski, currently the chief of staff for Clerk of the Circuit Court (and 33rd Ward Committeeperson) Iris Martinez, was slated as the fifth alternate in 2018 and a first alternate in 2020. Sayre, an attorney for the Illinois State Police who spent 22 years as a lawyer for the Chicago Police Department, was a fifth alternate in 2020.

Last week, a controversy erupted within the party after the executive office sent out a written “agreement, promise and pledge” for candidates to sign. In previous years, candidates have been asked to verbally promise not to run against the party’s chosen candidate if they are not slated. But five committeepeople and a slew of candidates denounced the idea of a written loyalty pledge.

Those slated for judge, however, didn’t seem phased by the demand for loyalty.

“I didn’t find it particularly objectionable,” said Ross as she awaited the Appellate Selection Committee’s decision in the IBEW union hall’s lobby Monday afternoon. “I knew what the spirit of not running against the party meant.”

Party commitment not enough

Party allegiance alone wasn’t enough to give every loyalist a realistic shot at the bench.

Southwest Side political operative James “Jim” Gleffe, who boasted at pre-slating that he met his wife while checking petition signatures at the Board of Elections, was found “not recommended” by the Chicago Bar Association. The bar group docked Gleffe, currently the labor counsel for the Cook County clerk, for his “very limited trial and litigation experience” as a career-long employee of government agencies. Gleffe defended his experience during his pitch to the nominating committee.

“It is wrong that the CBA focuses so much on trial experience when very few cases go to trial,” Gleffe said from the podium. “I don’t think I should be punished because I chose to serve the public.” He also reminded the committee members that he worked to get many of them elected. Still, Gleffe wound up as the eighth alternate, with virtually no shot at the bench this cycle.

In the lobby of the union hall, Illinois State Sen. and 38th Ward Committeeperson Robert Martwick consoled a visibly disappointed Gleffe. “This is a chance to get the CBA thing straightened out,” Martwick said. “(Steven) McKenzie was unqualified two years ago; he’s qualified now.”

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McKenzie, an attorney with the city who brings lawsuits against scofflaw landlords for building code violations and lack of heat, is slated as a seventh alternate, just ahead of Gleffe.

“We’ll be lucky if two spots open up; there’s no telling who’s going to retire,” Martwick told Injustice Watch, adding that the length of the list is more reflective of the party’s view of future potential judges. “If you are an alternate and you support the slated candidates then you are looked at favorably next time around.”

Some of the candidates explicitly asked to be named alternates, apparently seeing little chance of actual slating. Jennifer Callahan, the wife of 41st Ward committeeperson Joe Cook, dared to run against the party’s slated candidate, Christ Stacey, in 2020. She told the committee members that “it was a mistake” to do so and that she has now gathered endorsements from half of them as well as Judge Stacey himself.

“I ask that I be slated as an alternate so that I can prove to you that I am willing to support the slate, and I can work on their behalf to gather signatures and promote them as candidates,” she said. She was ultimately selected as the third alternate.

Tracie Porter, who was recently appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court to fill the circuit court vacancy of Michael B. Hyman and is currently assigned to traffic court, was selected as the first alternate. If another judge retires or otherwise leaves the bench before the filing deadline for the primaries, she’ll be on the ballot.

“I’m not disappointed,” she told Injustice Watch after learning of the slating decision. “I’m a sitting judge; I have a wonderful opportunity to do good things in my community. And regardless, I’m in that seat until November.”

Cook County Democratic Party’s slated candidates for the 2022 primaries

Appellate Court

Dominique C. Ross

Circuit court judge, domestic relations division

Appellate Court Alternate

John Ehrlich

Circuit court judge, law division

Circuit Court

Howard B. Brookins Jr.

Alderperson (21st Ward), attorney in private practice

Araceli De La Cruz

General counsel, Acero Schools; appointed Cook County circuit judge starting Jan. 6.

Thomas More Donnelly

Cook County associate judge, law division; appointed Cook County circuit judge as of Dec. 8

Ruth Gudino

Supervisor of the criminal prosecutions bureau, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office; Appointed Cook County circuit judge as of Oct. 15

Diana López

Cook County associate judge since Sept. 2021

Thomas Nowinski

Chief of staff for the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County

Yolanda Harris Sayre

Legal counsel for the Illinois State Police

Rena Marie Van Tine

Cook County circuit judge, law division

Michael Weaver

Attorney in private practice

Circuit Court Alternates (in the order they will be slated in case of additional vacancies)

1. Tracie Porter

Attorney in private practice, appointed Cook County circuit judge as of Nov. 12

2. Marcia O’Brien Conway

Attorney in private practice

3. Jennifer Callahan

Attorney in private practice

4. Ashonta Rice-Akiwowo

Attorney in private practice

5. Pamela Saindon

Principal attorney, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

6. James Murphy-Aguilú

Inspector general for the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County

7. Steven McKenzie

Assistant corporation counsel supervisor, City of Chicago Department of Law

8. James “Jim” Gleffe

Deputy chief of staff and labor counsel, Cook County Clerk’s Office

9. Debjani Desai

General counsel for the Illinois State Comptroller’s Office

10. Joanne Fehn

Senior assistant chief counsel for the Illinois Department of Transportation

11. Tiffany Brooks

General counsel for the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County

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