Iris Martinez gets the job done in primary win for job-rich court clerk’s office

Iris Martinez gets the job done in primary win for job-rich court clerk’s office

State Sen. Iris Martinez files her nominating petitions for the Cook County Circuit Court clerk’s race in November. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

It was Martinez who got the last laugh Tuesday with a 50,000-vote winning margin over her nearest challenger, Cabonargi. In the process, she collected a political daily double, also winning election as the new 33rd Ward Democratic committeeperson.

In hindsight, it almost looks obvious that state Sen. Iris Martinez would have had the inside track in the Cook County Circuit Court clerk’s race as the only woman and only Latino candidate among four contenders.

That’s hindsight. Before the election, Martinez was practically taken for granted as she ran a low-profile campaign that caused some to question whether she even seriously wanted the job.

Many had expected Martinez to drop out after Cook County Democratic leaders slated Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi over her to be the party’s favored nominee.

Yet not for the first time in her political career, it was Martinez who got the last laugh Tuesday with a 50,000-vote winning margin over her nearest challenger, Cabonargi.

In the process, she collected a political daily double, also winning election as the new 33rd Ward Democratic committeeperson.

But it was her nomination to the position of court clerk, an office of little interest to the general public but a coveted prize in the political world, that cements Martinez as a new power player in Cook County politics.

Why do the politicians care so much about the clerk’s office?

Because of the jobs. The Circuit Court clerk controls about 1,400 positions, some 100 of which are Shakman exempt and eligible for patronage hires. And if we’re being real, there are ways for the pols to get their people into those other jobs as well.

The clerk’s office has long been of particular interest to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. Some of his top precinct captains have worked there over the years through various administrations.

Madigan listed Cabonargi on his 13th Ward palm card that precinct captains circulated to voters to inform them of the ward organization’s endorsements.

But interestingly, Madigan’s 13th was among the 29 city wards carried Tuesday by Martinez on her way to racking up a 36,000 vote lead in the city over former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin and 47,000 votes over Cabonargi.

She coupled that with a 3,000-vote margin over Cabonargi in the suburbs and 32,000 over Boykin.

Despite being the party’s pick, Cabonargi carried just three of 50 city wards as Hispanic and African-American wards showed a preference for their own candidates. Boykin won 18 wards.

The fourth candidate, Jacob Meister, cast himself as the only true reformer in the race and finished a distant last.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidates, from left, Michael Cabonargi, Iris Martinez, Jacob Meister and Richard Boykin meet with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in February.Rich Hein/Sun-Times file
Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidates, from left, Michael Cabonargi, Iris Martinez, Jacob Meister and Richard Boykin meet with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in February.

But Martinez’s appeal to women voters cut across racial and ethnic lines to allow her to win most of the North and Northwest Side wards as well as party strongholds such as the 11th, 13th and 14th, where the Latina woman combination proved stronger than the white ward bosses’ preferences.

It was almost as if Martinez ran a rope-a-dope strategy, waiting until the campaign’s final week to air a television commercial that attacked both Cabonargi and Boykin while ignoring the boring duties of the clerk’s office to cast herself as “a progressive fighting for women’s health, raising the minimum wage and coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

With little fundraising at her back, the Martinez campaign cobbled together enough money for an ad buy of just over $200,000, said one of her top campaign advisers, Victor Reyes, the lawyer-lobbyist who served as intergovernmental affairs director to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

State Sen. Iris Martinez, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidate.Rich Hein/Sun-Times
State Sen. Iris Martinez, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Democratic candidate.

Reyes said the campaign benefitted from the fact that more people than usual were watching television to get the latest information about the coronavirus and saw the commercial.

Campaign finance records show her largest donation was $50,000 from the owners of the Chicago Wolves hockey team. But she also got substantial help from her Democratic Senate colleagues, including former Senate President John Cullerton, new Senate President Don Harmon and Sen. Heather Steans.

Winning the Democratic nomination is usually tantamount to election in heavily Democratic Cook County, and there’s no reason to believe this year will be any different for Martinez.

If elected, she will replace Dorothy Brown, who is stepping down after 20 years in office.

“Her entire career people have underestimated her,” Reyes said of Martinez, who has represented the Northwest Side in Springfield since 1983.

I’ll have to admit I’m one of them.

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