Wednesday, February 26, 2020

About that shill story on Injustice Watch....

I link to Injustice Watch from the Sidebar here.

The site grew, at least in part, from out of the former Medill Watchdog group. A few elections back, FWIW readers may recall, Medill Watchdog and WGN partnered on a series investigating whether subcircuit judges and judicial candidates were really residing in the subcircuits where they were running. Injustice Watch co-director Rob Warden was one of the founders of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. The site does have a definite point of view; a commenter in the last election cycle called Injustice Watch about as neutral as Bernie Sanders' birthday party.

Whether one embraces or rejects the site's predispositions, it does good and useful work: Injustice Watch is one of the few places interested persons can go for original reporting about judges and judging in Cook County.

Sometimes, though, its reporting is of the "yes, but..." variety.

A recent case in point is John Seasly's February 14 article, "Sham candidates for judge: an election secret you’re not supposed to know about," a piece also published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

If you haven't yet read the article, please do.

Then come back.

I've read Mr. Seasly's article now several times; I am acquainted with many of the persons named in his story. And shills -- shill candidates for judge -- is perhaps the number one topic on which I have probably flushed the most comments over the years. (If it's not 1A, it's 1B.)

And some of those who submit comments here get very agitated with me when I don't repeat their accusations that so-and-so is a shill. Why do I protect these persons? they will will demand.

These always-anonymous commenters must have experienced great joy and vindication in Mr. Seasly's article.

But... did you notice?

For all the accusations that this person is a shill, or that one, and even an expression of remorse by one person in aiding and abetting a shill, no one in the article copped to being a shill. No candidate admitted recruiting a shill. The one person identified in the article as having admitted to being a shill was allegedly a shill in 2004 -- and her confession was recorded in a 2009 Abdon Pallasch Sun-Times article (linked here).

Unnamed sources are the ones who point the fingers and connect the dots in Seasly's piece -- which is no different, in my view, from anonymous commenters here hurling accusations from the shadows.

And no more reliable.

Seasly's story also quotes an anonymous "political consultant," who says that "sham candidates no longer help as much as they once did":
“The results are showing they’re not really effective, and I believe it’s a waste of time and effort and money,” the consultant says. “I think its time has come and gone.”
I see no evidence in Seasly's piece that shills have ever helped in a judicial race.

I admit that I am naive... but I have read a little.

Here's my understanding of how the use of shills might actually benefit a candidate. First, the candidate would have to be a long-time incumbent, a state representative or alderman, for example. Second, the incumbent would have to represent a district whose ethnic balance has shifted away from the incumbent.

If an incumbent in these particular circumstances finds that a candidate from the incoming ethnic group is circulating petitions, the incumbent's supporters might then recruit one or more persons with names similar to the challenger's and circulate paper for them, too.

The first priority would be to knock the interloper off the ballot. The Election Code provides a series of obstacles to fend off unwanted challengers.

Only if that fails would the shill candidates be needed to siphon some votes away from the true challenger.

But this only works with an established incumbent because only an established incumbent knows that, in a primary, he or she can count on a minimum core of x votes. This core group will come out, rain or shine, whether from force of habit, family or ethnic ties, personal loyalty, or to protect their political jobs.

Successful politicians can count. They know their likely turnout, maximum and minimum; they know the likely overall turnout. Before using shills, the incumbent has to calculate whether the challenger's support can realistically be brought down below the incumbent's core number. If so, the incumbent can use shills, along with time-honored, if not honorable, voter suppression shenanigans -- moving polling places, for example -- to tamp down the opposition.

Judicial candidates only have to win one contested primary. So there's no certain way to determine, in advance, what any judicial candidate's 'core' will be. And no judicial candidate is likely to have any say in moving polling places.

Therefore, in my opinion, any judicial candidate who invests in the recruitment of shills is wasting money. And maybe recruiting someone for the job of a lifetime to boot. Although it may not always be so, judicial candidates should be smarter than that.

And one more thing -- before branding any candidate with a Scarlet S -- one needs to look at a factor besides fundraising and campaign expenditures.

A true shill candidate would be expected to do exactly nothing in furtherance of his or her campaign. As Pallasch summarized in the 2009 Sun-Times article,
The rules are clear for ringers, if unwritten: Don’t campaign, not even a sign in your front lawn. Your job is to siphon votes from Irish women candidates really running for judge — not to win, though sometimes that happens, and then you get to be judge.
A 2018 candidate named in Seasly's article did have a campaign website, and did respond to a Law Bulletin questionnaire -- but did not submit to screening before either the Chicago Bar Association or the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening.

Both current candidates named in Seasly's article have done more than that.

Countywide candidate Bonnie McGrath (Mason vacancy) submitted an "in her own words" essay to FWIW; she obtained an endorsement from Personal PAC. She loaned her campaign $12,500 on February 4, 10 days before Seasly's article posted. McGrath did not submit her credentials for bar association screening -- but she explained why in a 2018 essay on her Chicago Now site. Heck, she has a Chicago Now website. McGrath can be found. I recall stories about columnists trying to find sham candidates in other races in the past -- with about as much success as quests for Bigfoot or the Yeti.

Appellate Court candidate Maureen O'Leary has a campaign website. She has not raised any money from anyone else, but the Illinois State Board of Elections documents that a political committee was created on her behalf on January 21, before Seasly's article ran. There are some errors in the filings, novice errors perhaps, but she has apparently put $25,000 of her own money into the campaign. More, O'Leary apparently did submit her credentials to both the CBA and the Alliance. The submission to these screenings can be described in a single sentence, but these are not minor undertakings. And whether one receives favorable ratings or not (and O'Leary did not), why would a "shill" bother to expose herself to such scrutiny?

I'm not saying Seasly is wrong; it is possible, that, despite their denials, both McGrath and O'Leary are shills. Or one may be, and the other not. A possible means of proving that Candidate A recruited Candidate B is hinted at in Seasly's article, but not followed up on: If paid circulators were used to gather signatures for either or both of these candidates, as Seasly's anonymous sources suggest, who paid them? Seasly quotes election law attorney Richard Means as saying the law requires disclosures of these kinds of expenditures. (But not every nickel must be accounted for; basically, disclosure requirements kick in when $5,000 is raised or expended in support of, or opposition to, a candidate.)

Seasly's article quotes consultant Mary Kay Dawson (another frequent subject of flushed comments here) as claiming she helped get Bonnie McGrath on the ballot for a countywide vacancy in 2016:
So Dawson hired [Rod] McCulloch to gather signatures to put another woman on the ballot: Bonnie McGrath.

“Basically, what I did was I determined that having additional women on the ballot would be helpful,” Dawson says.

She says she didn’t know who had contacted McGrath, but she paid for the signatures using money Chaudhuri had given her for consulting.
Looking at Chaudhuri's ISBE disclosures, I can't find where Chaudhuri paid money to Dawson for anything. And, according to Seasly, Dawson denies that she recruited McGrath; Dawson doesn't even know who contacted McGrath.

The 2016 race Dawson refers to was for the Johnson vacancy. There were five candidates on the ballot in this contest, three men and two women. One of the women was Bonnie McGrath; the other was the woman who won the race, Carolyn Gallagher, the same Carolyn Gallagher now running for the Appellate Court and who is quoted in Seasly's article.

If alleged shill candidates aren't the most frequent subject of flushed comments at this site, Carolyn Gallagher is.

John Seasly did another article for Injustice Watch, on January 22, about Judge Gallagher's feud with Mary Kay Dawson, "Appellate candidate’s heated letter causes stir among party members, fellow judges." Unlike the Chaudhuri records, I can find, going through the ISBE records of the now-closed Gallagher for Judge Committee, where Gallagher paid money to Mary Kay Dawson for consulting.

That doesn't mean that Dawson didn't also do something for Chaudhuri. I have been told that some consultants subcontract work out to their peers; a candidate may not know who is actually toiling on his or her behalf. I do not report this for the truth of the matter asserted; I merely acknowledge the possibility that the statements made in Seasly's article may be accurate even though a direct expenditure trail may not exist.

But... if the goal was to siphon off votes from Gallagher, in a race with three men, why stop with just McGrath? Why not scrounge up five or six colleens? Chaudhuri had a difficult ballot name, but he had, in addition to the Democratic Party's slating, a potential core of South Asian voters. For a shill game (as opposed to a shell game) to work, votes must be peeled off from the indecisive, uninformed, and uncommitted until the favored candidate's core vote can be the winning total.

Here's the thing about shills and why I haven't accused anyone of being a shill on this site: The shill accusation is a double-edged sword. It is an insult to the candidate who may or may not be a shill (who may instead have expended all his or her resources on getting on the ballot, or staying there, or who is relying on his or her name alone to carry the day, or whose campaign for whatever reason gains no traction). It also injures the candidate who is allegedly responsible for putting the shill in the race.

And that's the point of these accusations, really, to hurt the alleged recruiter.

Besides, a candidate need not be actually recruited and still have the effect of being a shill.

Let's take a non-judicial race for an example. Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx is running for reelection against three opponents, newcomer Bill Conway, Donna More, and Bob Fioretti. It does not take any special prophetic ability to predict that more Cook County voters will vote against Foxx than for her. She can only win renomination if the anti-Foxx votes don't coalesce around any one challenger. On Monday, Shia Kapos reported on Politico that, according to a recent poll, Bill Conway has pulled within striking distance. Conway's camp is sending out mailers -- I've seen two so far -- that paint Fioretti as a tool of the party bosses trying to engineer Foxx's retention.

Given Fioretti's past campaigns against Party Chair Toni Preckwinkle, you'll never have me believing that Fioretti is a shill for Preckwinkle's preferred candidate, Foxx. Fioretti and Preckwinkle are almost certainly, as Michael Sneed would say, a don't invite 'em item. On the other hand, if (and it's always a mighty big if) the poll results reported on Politico this week are correct, then a vote for Fioretti is effectively a vote for Foxx.

Moreover, a candidate might be made a shill in a race without ever being recruited or even knowing that he or she was intended to be a shill.

A person might be flattered, cajoled, or maneuvered into a race instead.

Let's take another non-judicial race as an example. I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories as a general rule. But if future historians discover that, prior to the 2016 election cycle, a certain wealthy New York socialite, interested in the Democratic presidential nomination, flattered, cajoled, or otherwise maneuvered another wealthy New York socialite to run as a Republican -- not intending that he win, mind you, but hoping he would sow confusion and dissension in the ranks of the enemy -- I would not be surprised. Maybe she used her scamp of a husband, a golf-playing, party-going buddy of the targeted New York socialite, to give the nudge.

The targeted New York socialite would never have jumped in if he understood that he was just being used as a bull in a china shop. His colossal ego would never have permitted it. But he might have been persuaded, especially if the wealthy New York socialite interested in the Democratic presidential nomination persuaded her friends and classmates in the media elite to treat the planted candidate with kid gloves, just as if he were a legitimate candidate. By the time they all realized that things had gotten totally out of control, it was too late.

Here in the real world, a person interested in running for judge necessarily has a strong enough ego to believe that he or she would do a good job if elected. Accordingly, without assurances that they'd receive real consideration in a future race, such a candidate would not be receptive to accepting the thankless, invisible role of shill. But that same judicial candidate, especially a first-time candidate, might be manipulated into choosing one race over another -- maybe there's a promise of help with petitions in this race... but not that one. There's plenty of advice available to the candidate, especially one who's willing to pay for it, but not all of the advice is necessarily well-meant. And even well-meant advice may not actually work out. Taking bad advice, or making a bad choice about which race to get into, does not make a candidate a shill. Even if the accusations eventually see the light of day.


Anonymous said...

I have an amusing “shill” story, Jack. And I promise it is civil and not a veiled slight of someone else. (Yes, I have noticed people try that move to escape the flush). A few years back I thought I might want to run countywide. But let’s just say I have a rough ballot name. So I did some research and compiled a list of Irish candidates from the past. I wrote each of them a letter — signed anonymous of course — encouraging them to run again. I mailed at least 15 letters. And in each letter i gave them all the same advice: run as a slate. Well Jack, one of those candidates took my advice and has now run twice. That candidate did the slate thing much better in 2020 than in 2018. But the ironic thing: the move has created numerous contested races with multiple Irish females running against each other. It’s not just the Irish though. Every cycle Mr. Jett tries to recruit an all-black slate. Many don’t make the ballot because they are novices and their signatures are bad. Here is the moral of the story people: pick your opponent and run YOUR race how you want. There are more than enough wannabes so you don’t need shills.

What’s my name? No, I am not Iqbal Twombly or EP. My name is Svengali. And I am recruiting my 2022 slate as we speak. No shills necessary because there will be plenty of 2020 candidates returning in 2022.

By the way, I run appellate court races too. I believe there will be lots of women running for the seat in 2022. There will likely be multiple seats because I doubt that certain justices will stick around if they don’t win the Freeman vacancy on March 17. That’s too bad because most of them are nice enough people and solid judges. But this election game turns many candidates crazy. The trash-talking and half-truths being peddled by Injustice Watch, the Sun-Times and yes, some comments to grace this site drive so many of you absolutely nuts. Get therapy.

Svengali out.

Anonymous said...

Every cycle candidates are "absolutely convinced" that other certain candidates are "shills." But it is more likely the case that there are just a lot of people who have come to realize that this whole judge election thing is like playing the lottery so people with nothing to lose are not worried about playing the game. And it just so happens that more women -- Irish, black and Hispanic -- are playing the game more because they think that the odds are in their favor. The fact that the greater influx of candidates is creating more intra-interest group contested races is not evidence of there being shills. So for those of you complaining that you are victims, welcome to the process. Save your money and spend it on television because those yard signs aren't cutting it.

Anonymous said...


When the dust settles you should do some special posts about different aspects of the election process. How about "Petitions 101," "The Choice: Countywide or Subcircuit?" or "Shills: Friends or Foes?" You could even invite past candidates to provide their insights. I mean, to this day, I still want to know the real story about how so many candidates got eliminated in 2018, but so many survived in 2020. I know there is somebody out there who could tell us the real deal about that situation.


Neophyte Wannabe Judicial Candidate

Anonymous said...

Hey Svengali! Will your slate be "diverse?" If so, count me in! I will be sitting at the bar in Krolls on March 17, 2020 watching this state elect Comrade Bernie.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Some of you are just so Machiavellian. But I must admit I would relish watching some of these candidates in a re-match in 2022. I'm not saying which candidates, but most of you are already thinking the same names. It's better than reality television.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused: which candidate in the appellate races is allegedly the shill? From my review of the State Board of Election campaign filings, most of these candidates have put in relatively the same amount of money in their respective campaigns. And let's be honest, unless you have $100K to waste to litter the entire county with yard signs, everybody is playing the lottery to some extent -- countywide and in a subcircuit.

Anonymous said...

True story. I knowingly voted for a shill this election.

Play with fire, and you will eventually get burned.

Anonymous said...

Objection! Anon 2/26/20 at 3:12 continues to miss the point. These articles are laden with half-truths and opinions; rarely complete facts. But you are certainly entitled to your opinion Anon. I hope to see several of the appellate court candidates return in 2022 for the rematch. Even sprinkle in a few more gals the second time around and watch the sparks fly.

Anonymous said...

The “shill” has spent just as much money as the alleged aggrieved candidate. Just because a candidate decides to campaign in circles outside the the political scene doesn’t make them a shill. There are plenty of candidates who simply put their name on the ballot and wait to see what happens. In fact I am starting to think that the alleged aggrieved is just phoning this one in. Four years ago she at least got a billboard and this time nothing. At this rate she might have to run again in 2022, possibly against the same opponents less one, of course.

Anonymous said...


Albert said...

I while back I looked into this-—identified candidates who were highly likely to be ringers. Found 33 instances of them in countywide circuit court contests between 1994 and 2004. And yes there were instances where a ringer meant the difference between victory and defeat for a slated candidate. But the success rate was less than 25 percent. So it’s no surprise that there were none after 2004. Benefits didn't justify costs.

Part of the challenge in identifying these candidates is that just because someone with a favorable name and no active campaign chooses to run for judge, that doesn’t automatically make them a "shill" for the party-—even if they accept assistance from someone else who benefits from their being on the ballot. Campaign spending has almost no detectable impact on the vote totals in countywide circuit court contests. So why wouldn’t an aspiring judge put his/her name on the ballot and see what happens? The odds aren’t favorable, especially with no bar/newspaper endorsements, but they’re far from zero. The right mix of names and get a high ballot position, who knows.

Anonymous said...

Does Clint Krislov qualify as a shill? Couldn’t help but notice he used a lot of the same circulators as McBride.

Anonymous said...

Moose and Squirrel flattered so many people into so many races this cycle. So many more for the next.

Anonymous said...

Injustice Watch is a bunch of lazy hacks who only investigate as far as their sources lead them -- which is often a preconceived narrative with no relationship to concrete facts.