Sunday, April 03, 2016

Getting behind some of the numbers in the judicial primaries

Many people with whom I've discussed the outcome of last month's primary election mentioned voter anger and discontent as a motivating factor in the turnout. People are dissatisfied with the status quo, I was told, and that discontent was represented best in the outpouring of support for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and for (Heaven help us all) Donald Trump in the Republican.

Of course, these opinions are not particularly novel: Virtually any talking head on cable news, when MSNBC, CNN or Fox, is spewing something similar at any given moment.

(Speaking of anger, have you ever noticed how angry the cable news talking heads are? When the light above the camera lens goes out, do they ever deflate, even a little? How awful would it be to go through life being that angry all the time?)

Just because these tales of voter anger and discontent are widely shared and believed does not make them false -- or true.

But voter anger is, I think, too general an explanation to account for any outcomes in judicial elections. I did ask a number of people whether voter discontent in African-American communities with the State's Attorney might have spilled over into an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment vote generally in those areas. I found no one willing to agree with that hypothesis.

Instead, a number of people told me that the poor performance of Democratic Party judicial candidates in the primary, at both the countywide and subcircuit levels, stemmed from defections among the committeemen and defective strategies in some campaigns.

There's no question that there were some Election Day defections by committeemen from the judicial slate. It was ever thus: Some candidates are more slated than others.

On March 15 I tried to keep track of palm cards that were posted to Twitter (primarily by @Aldertrack) that showed instances where committeemen had strayed from a unified front:

Of course, I didn't come close to catching them all... such as this palm card from the 41st Ward showing the organization there supporting Carolyn J. Gallagher over slated candidate Chaudhuri.

And I live in the 41st Ward, too... but there wasn't anyone passing out these cards when I went to my polling place on that Tuesday afternoon.

Gregory R. LaPapa was supported over Sean S. Chaudhuri and Patrick J. Powers was supported over Judge Fredrick H. Bates according to this 23rd Ward palm card posted by @Aldertrack:

Of course, not every story about a committeeman's alleged infidelity to the slate is necessarily true. I heard tell of one slated countywide judicial candidate complaining directly to 14th Ward Ald. and Committeeman Ed Burke that he, Burke, was supporting the candidate's opponent. If this 14th Ward palm card, posted on Election Day by @Aldertrack, may be believed, however, the candidate was mistaken:

But that brings up another point. Some judicial candidates have more skill at politics and campaigning than others.

The skills that make someone a good lawyer, such as a talent for research, a dogged determination to understand and organize facts or precedents, a cautious and thoughtful mode of expression -- these skills may serve a judicial candidate well before the bar associations... but not be very helpful on the cocktail party circuit or in dealing with professional politicians, where a certain amount of bonhomie and 'glad-handing' is required.

I have often insisted that judicial candidates are different than candidates for other political offices because most judicial candidates are not professional politicians. One of my favorite examples dates back to the 2008 primary, when I first did my Organizing the Data posts. When I put my post for this particular candidate's race, he immediately sent me an email. I had inaccurately stated a bar rating for one of his opponents, he wrote. I had said that his opponent received a "Qualified" rating from one of the bar groups when in fact that candidate was actually rated... wait for it... "Highly Qualified."

I don't think that happens too often in races for the state legislature or the City Council.

Some judicial candidates, who might be very productive judges if given the chance, may find venturing too far out of their comfort zone and onto the campaign trail highly stressful. On the campaign trail, judicial candidates invariably run into opponents, or opponents' supporters. In my spectacularly unsuccessful career as a judicial candidate, I always felt a kinship with those I saw out on the hustings; maybe being thrown together on so many occasions gave us all some form of Stockholm Syndrome. But some candidates may react to their opponents and their opponents supporters in an adversarial way. Well, we are supposed to be zealous advocates after all; that is our training, but it is not a way to win friends and influence people in a campaign.

Other judicial candidates may seek to avoid the stress of the campaign trail by not venturing out at all -- or on as few occasions as possible.

I have heard that at least some slated candidates may have chosen to sit back and let the 'establishment' carry them into office. If the rumors about these particular candidates are true, their expectations were not realized.

I have previously suggested that slating -- and the $40,000 payment to the Democratic Party for countywide slating (I don't know what is asked of slated subcircuit candidates; no one's ever told me) -- buys only credibility and access. Frustratingly, for some candidates, "access" means access to invitations to spend still more money -- everyone needs to raise funds and judicial candidates are apparently expected to be a gift that keeps on giving.

As aggravating as that may be for some candidates, it would be far worse to put one's fate in the hands of a consultant who can get a candidate slated -- but who does nothing thereafter to advance the candidate's chances.

And the demands for money are not limited to politicians' fundraisers. Candidates are asked to spend money for advertising, for 'street money' -- to pay people, for example, to hand out reminders for the candidate at the polls.

What should the candidate spend money on, even after being slated? The best one word answer I've been given is: Everything.

Case in point: I've been told that several African-American judicial candidates did not advertise on African-American radio stations in the weeks leading up to the primary. Judge Patricia S. Spratt, who is not an African-American, did advertise on African-American radio stations. Is that alone enough to explain Spratt's fairly narrow margin of victory in her 7th Subcircuit race over Jennifer Ballard? Maybe not; one must also take into account the significant support given to another African-American candidate in that same race, Mable Taylor.

While we're on the subject of Judge Spratt, an anonymous commenter sent me a link to this contribution record on the ISBE website, showing that Spratt's campaign made a $10,000 donation to something called the Illinois Alliance on March 11, the Friday before the election.

Illinois Alliance, in turn, appears to have been formed on March 3 by former Ald. Ike Carothers, a nephew of recently retired Judge Anita Rivkin-Carothers, whose vacancy Spratt was seeking. Former Ald. Carothers, you may recall, did some jail time a few years back after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges. A couple of other candidates put some money into this venture as well, but no one put as much money in as Spratt's campaign.

Now I suppose that this is the part of the story where I'm supposed to wring my hands and decry the corrosive influence of money in judicial elections... but I'm finding it hard to work up the requisite dander. Here's why: If judicial candidates are different than political pros, they particularly need the assistance of those more, um, familiar with the realities of finding votes in Chicago. I haven't the faintest idea what, if anything, Mr. Carothers did with the donations Spratt and others made to the "Illinois Alliance" or whether any actions he may have taken had any influence in that subcircuit race. If Judge Spratt's campaign managers were smart enough to find someone who gave value for money received, good for them.

Some campaigns never quite get going. The Travis Richardson campaign may be an example of this. Like Judge Steven Watkins before him, Richardson lived in the 3rd Subcircuit for some time before deciding to seek a 2nd Subcircuit vacancy. (Watkins, FWIW readers may recall, ran from the 3rd Subcircuit in 2010 before relocating to the 2nd Subcircuit in time to win election there in 2014.) Richardson moved into the 2nd Subcircuit in time to file for 2016, but his family remained behind in the 3rd. Two challenges were made to Richardson's residency and a hearing officer decided to rule him off the ballot. Although there was a dissent, the Cook County Electoral Board reversed that decision, holding that Richardson had successfully planted himself in the 2nd Subcircuit and was eligible to run there (Electoral Board decisions here and here). The challenge to Richardson's candidacy was carried into the Circuit Court on judicial review, and the Electoral Board ultimately affirmed, but this came apparently too late in the campaign season for Richardson's campaign to regain lost traction, his positive bar ratings and Tribune endorsement notwithstanding.

According to my sources, Richardson was strongly supported by 21st Ward Ald. and Committeeman Howard Brookins and 34th Ward Ald. and Committeeman Carrie M. Austin, but Richardson trailed the field in these wards just as he did in the subcircuit as a whole. Is Richardson's unhappy showing entirely attributable to the distraction of the lengthy petition challenges? From my vantage point, I can not say. But I can say without hesitation that it didn't help.

Next up: Another guest post, this one from frequent FWIW contributor Albert J. Klumpp, PhD.

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