Dorothy Brown, the longtime Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, has maxed out her pension and chosen to retire. Better outcome for her than the indictment threat that has been hanging over her head seemingly forever. For Cook County voters it is just good riddance to another machine Democrat who ran an important office incompetently and without ambition.
You ever visit an office of the court clerk? A trip back in time to a send-up of a 1960s office. Piles of file folders stacked on top of file cabinets, bored staffers and a chronic shortage of carbon paper. Pitiful.
The March primary is coming and, because this is Cook, the winner of the Democratic race will be the next court clerk. There are four contestants. One is the party-backed Michael Cabonargi, who has experience on the county’s Board of Review. Iris Martinez is the first female Hispanic elected to the State Senate. Jacob Meister is running again for this office having lost to Brown in 2016. He stakes a claim to being a party outsider with deep understanding of technology needed to fix what’s broken.
Then there is Richard Boykin, the Oak Parker in the race. You’ll remember Boykin as the former 1st District Cook County Commissioner who unexpectedly to many lost his first re-election bid. The man has a taste for public office — for public service he would say — having tested the waters for races for the U.S. Senate, for county board president against his nemesis Toni Preckwinkle, all before he lost his seat to current Commissioner Brandon Johnson. And, of course, Boykin is the perpetual rumored backup to Cong. Danny Davis if Davis ever decides to retire, which will not be this November.
I liked Boykin. Partly that was because of my strong disdain for his predecessor, the invisible Earlean Collins who held the 1st District seat for decades without accomplishing anything for the West Side, the near west ‘burbs or Proviso Township. I also liked Boykin for his independent streak, for his passion for complicated issues such as urban violence. In contrast to the somnambulant Collins, I admired his willingness, his desire to get himself on TV and in the newspapers talking about the district. That desire tilted toward showboating at times and was reinforced by his experience as a minister claiming a bully pulpit.
Last week we sat down to talk about why he is back at it and what path he sees to winning this race against the party candidate and two others.
When I suggested that reforming the court clerk’s office seemed fundamentally a technology job that didn’t suit his passions, he inevitably pushed back, calling the office “the front door to the justice system.” The county’s “most vulnerable” find themselves up against a court system that is confusing, punitive in its fines and fees, in its inequities in bonding out those with some wealth while jailing before trial those without resources.
Poorer residents, mostly people of color, he says, lack digital access to the courts, are poorly represented with a shortage of legal aid organizations and not simply in criminal matters but when it comes to filing a will or other standard legal documents.
“For lawyers it may be a tech issue. Yes, get rid of paper. Make it cloud-based. All for that. But my vision is for transformation of the office. It is about access and accountability,” said a revving-up Boykin.
While he says his goal is to “root out waste and abuse, the party wants to control the office for the 1,400 jobs.” County board President Preckwinkle, he says, already controls the State’s Attorney and the Public Defender’s offices. “They can’t control me,” he says.
I’ve long ago given up predicting election outcomes. But when it comes to control, if Boykin were to win this race, Oak Parkers would hold both the County Court Clerk’s Office and the County Assessor’s Office via Fritz Kaegi. And there are ongoing rumors that Maywood’s Karen Yarbrough, the current county clerk, contemplates an Oak Park move.
For what that’s worth.