How badly did Richard Cooke want to be a judge? Badly enough to self-fund his campaign fund to the tune of $860,000 — most of which was not spent and eventually was returned to him — and to establish residency in the city of Chicago.
One year ago on this date, Cooke was running for a seat on the River Forest Village Board. But just nine days after finishing last among six candidates in the April 7, 2015 election, Cooke decided to fulfill a longstanding dream to become a judge.
On April 16, 2015 Cooke filed a statement of organization to establish a campaign committee to support his candidacy for judge. On his registration form he listed an address on North Kedzie Avenue in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago in a building first purchased by Cooke’s wife 20 years ago and now held by a land trust, apparently connected with the Cooke family.
Cooke had for years run a self-funded pro bono legal clinic from the first-floor commercial space in the building. Prior to moving to River Forest, Cooke lived in Elmwood Park, but he grew up in Chicago.
Two weeks ago in the March 15 primary, Cooke ran unopposed, securing the Democratic nomination for a seat on the bench representing the 6th Judicial Subcircuit of Cook County, a district on the Near Northwest Side of Chicago that does not include River Forest.
As of now there is no Republican candidate in the 6th Subcircuit, so Cooke is virtually assured of ascending to the bench after the November election. A candidate for a judicial subcircuit race is required to live in that subcircuit when he files his nominating petitions. Cook County judicial subcircuits were created in 1991 in an attempt to promote diversity on the bench.
Cooke registered to vote last summer from the second-floor apartment of the building on Kedzie Avenue that houses a law office on the first floor. Cooke’s wife and teenage son still live in River Forest while Cooke and his older son, a freshman at Loyola University, are registered to vote at the Kedzie Avenue address.
Recently, a Wednesday Journal reporter rang the doorbell of Cooke’s River Forest home, but no one answered. A neighbor said that Cooke lived next door.
Reached by telephone last week, Cooke declined to answer any questions from Wednesday Journal and referred all questions to his election lawyer, Tom Jaconetty. Cooke did speak to the Sun-Times for a story than ran prior to the primary.
On March 21, Cooke resigned from his positions on the River Forest Development Board and the River Forest Zoning Board of Appeals. Cooke was appointed to those two positions last year. River Forest residency is not required to serve on either body.
“As the official nominee of the Democratic Party, it would be inappropriate for me to continue my public service to River Forest as an appointed volunteer member on these Boards,” Cooke wrote in a letter to River Forest Village President Catherine Adduci, dated March 21.
Jaconetty said Cooke does indeed live at the Kedzie Avenue apartment.
“He lives on Kedzie; his wife still resides in River Forest and that is not a terribly unusual situation,” said Jaconetty, one of the most experienced election lawyers in the Chicago area. “He’s been in this community since 1997. He’s been involved in all the Puerto Rican parades, art festivals, museum things, so he looked at himself and said I have roots here, the 6th Subcircuit is a good place to live, I have this property here and he took the steps necessary to do things the right way.”
The Sun-Times story reported that Cooke said that he and his wife are separated. There is no record of a divorce case between Cooke and his wife having been filed in Cook County.
Jaconetty declined to comment about Cooke’s marital situation.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on a person’s personal, family, marital situation,” Jaconetty said. “Physically, she lives in one place and he lives in another place. Their personal living situation is a matter of privacy between the two of them.”
Cooke’s judicial campaign was also unusual because it was completely self-funded. On April 21, 2015, Cooke signaled that he was dead serious about becoming a judge by loaning his campaign fund $500,000.
Little more than two months later, he loaned his campaign another $160,000 and two gas stations owned by Cooke contributed another $100,000 each.
“He’s been successful in his law practice, he’s had good fortune in his life, and he realized that he could pretty much pay for it himself and not have to bother people for money, so he self-funded, which is permitted under the election law,” Jaconetty said.
Asked if a large campaign fund is a way to discourage opponents from running, Jaconetty replied, “It’s certainly a better position to be in than if you look as though you’re floundering about and don’t exactly know what you’re doing. I think he did all the right things.”
Cooke had sought to be slated for judge by the Democratic Party in 2014 but was not. This time he left little to chance. State records show that Cooke spent about $120,000 in 2015 from his campaign fund, much of it in donations to local politicians.
Like many candidates for judge in the county, Cooke contributed money to the politicians and ward organizations that would determine who the Cook County Democratic Party would endorse in the primary.
Cooke hired a company owned by State Rep. Luis Arroyo, a major political player in the subcircuit, to be his consultant. He paid Arroyo’s firm, Spartacus 3, $5,000 a month. Cooke contributed $3,000 to Arroyo’s campaign fund as well. He also contributed $3,000 to the 33rd Ward Regular Democratic Organization controlled by former Ald. Richard Mell.
Cooke’s campaign contributed to the campaign of Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios, who is the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and the committeeman for the 31st Ward, as well as to the campaign funds of a number of other alderman and committeemen in the district.
Covering all his bases, Cooke’s campaign fund contributed $2,000 to the state Democratic Party, which is controlled by House Speaker Michael Madigan and $500 to the 14th Ward Democratic Organization, which is controlled by Ald. Ed Burke, who oversees all judicial slating for the Cook County Democratic Party.
A couple of weeks after the filing deadline, Cooke’s campaign fund contributed $30,000 to the campaign of attorney Ed Underhill, who filed to run in another race in the 6th Subcircuit, not against Cooke. Underhill said there was no deal between him and Cooke in exchange for a political contribution.
“There was no understanding of any kind,” said Underhill, who finished third in his race in the primary. “No one was more surprised by that than I was. But I very much respected him. I could see he understood all the ward organizations.”
Underhill said it wouldn’t have made sense for him to run against Cooke since they were both Anglo lawyers in private practice running in a Hispanic district.
“I don’t think I even had a long conversation with him until after he made the donation,” Underhill said.
Jaconetty said Cooke met Underhill during the campaign and was impressed by him and just wanted to help Underhill, who ran against a sitting judge and the party’s endorsed candidate.
Shortly after the filing deadline, Cooke’s campaign repaid the $660,000 personal loan he had made to his campaign and returned $38,148.92 to each of his two gas stations.
Cooke received good ratings from bar associations. The Chicago Bar Association described him as “well regarded for his knowledge of the law, dedication, and fairness.”
In December, Cooke will don the black robe and fulfill his dream of becoming a judge.