Aileen Bhandari talks to a voter in front of the Oak Park library during the primary. Credit: Igor Studenkov/Staff Reporter

Attorney Aileen Bhandari is projected to win 11th Subcircuit judge race against Chicago Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) based on the preliminary results from Chicago Board of Elections and the Office of Cook County Clerk.

While Taliaferro led in the city portion of the subcircuit – which includes about half his ward – Bhandari did better in the suburbs, and the alderman’s lead in the city narrowed as the results came in. With no Republican or Independent opponents running for the seat, the victory in the June 28 primary amounts to a victory in general election.

Throughout the race, Taliaferro had the advantage in fundraising and received endorsements from several state Democratic party officials, while Bhandari touted two decades of legal experience. If her victory is confirmed, she will become the first Asian judge to be elected in the 11th subcircuit. Bhandari said Wednesday morning she wasn’t ready to declare victory until the final results are released, but if the current projections hold, she hopes that her qualifications were what made the difference.

As the results from the city came in Taliaferro was leading. The suburban results were delayed because some of the polling places opened late and had to stay open until 8 p.m., but, as the suburban results came in, Bhandari emerged as a clear leader. Meanwhile, Taliaferro’s edge in the city narrowed throughout the night. According to the preliminary results, Bhandari beat the alderman by 1,451 votes.

Bhandari said she was pleased with the way campaign panned out, describing Taliaferro as a “class act.”

“If the final results [do show I won], I’d say that I’m excited and thrilled to win the election,” Bhandari said. “I spoke to Ald. Taliaferro this morning. He ran a good campaign, and I wish him all best in his future endeavors.”

Taliaferro said that he conceded the race.

“Aileen ran a good race, and I congratulated her,” he said. “I think she’ll make a fine judge.”

Taliaferro confirmed that he planned to run for re-election as a Chicago alderman next year. The 2022 remap largely kept his ward intact, so he would be facing similar constituents.

Bhandari worked for the Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney for the past 20 years. She started out with child support cases. After working in the Domestic Violence division, she went on to prosecute misdemeanor cases before going into Felony Review, serving as one of the legal professionals who decides whether a felony case has enough evidence to go to trial.

Most recently, Bhandari became the head of Community Justice Center West, 2650 S. California Ave., one of the four Community Justice Centers set up to serve Chicago and the suburbs. According to the program website, the centers “collaborate and partner with police, businesses, faith-based organizations, elected officials, schools, government entities, social service agencies and community groups” to “not only prosecute cases but to solve public safety problems, prevent crime and improve the quality of life for communities.”

Circuit court judges are elected either at large or from a district known as a subcircuit. The latter is meant to give minority groups that would normally get underrepresented a chance to elect a judge that represents them. The 11th subcircuit includes Galewood and other parts of Austin north of North Avenue, the Chicago neighborhoods further North, the entirety of Oak Park and about half of Proviso Township, including most of Maywood, and portions of several northwestern suburbs.

Bhandari unsuccessfully ran for one of the at-large seats in 2020. She reflected that she underestimated just how large Cook County was, and she thought running for a subcircuit seat would be more manageable. The reality proved to be a bit more challenging.

“It just seems like a shorter time frame and a lot more to cover,” she said.

This newspaper caught up with Bhandari as she was passing out her campaign literature in front of the polling place in the Oak Park Public Library’s main branch, 834 Lake St. She said she was impressed by how informed Oak Park voters were.

“A lot of people here seem to have done their research, but some have not,” she said. “Either way, it’s always nice to put a name to the face.”

Taliaferro wasn’t campaigning on June 28. A member of his household tested positive for COVID-19, and he said he was self-isolating out of an abundance of caution. But his campaign signs blanketed Galewood, and his campaign workers were out at most polling places. The flyers touted endorsements from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, retiring Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and Illinois Senate President Don Harmon.

Brandon Askew said he lives in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, but he got involved because his mother runs Tabitha House, an Austin addiction recovery center, 500 N. Pine. As the day wore on, he joked with the voters and directed them to the polling place at Oak Park Township building

“I love the energy, campaigning here,” Askew said. “I get to talk to people and get paid. [that person] can relate to me and I can relate to him.

Most voters who spoke to this newspaper said that they had no strong opinion on the judicial races. Dominick Foster, of Galewood, said that he researched the candidates a great deal, and he’s been following Taliaferro’s career since he was a police officer.

“I believe he’s qualified to be a judge,” he said. “He served well as an alderman of the 29th ward. He doesn’t have any scandals. I think he’s a man of integrity.”

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Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...