Written by By Joe Boyle
Chicago Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) heard the rumors and her suspicions were confirmed after receiving a phone call.
“I was told that the Democratic Party was rescinding its support for Dorothy Brown for the Clerk of the Circuit Court and was supporting me,” recalled Harris after receiving the decision of the Cook County Democrats. “It’s amazing. I had overwhelming support.”
Brown has been Circuit Court Clerk since 2000 and originally had the support of the Cook County Democrats. But an ongoing federal corruption investigation of Brown resulted in the local Democrats looking in another direction.
The Democratic Party informed Brown on Oct. 23 that they rescinded their support and were backing Harris. Despite a passionate plea by Brown, the Democrats told her at the slating meeting that the decision was final.
Harris was formally introduced that night at the Cook County Suburban Publishers dinner. Not to be outdone, Brown was also in attendance trying to sway party members.
Along with Brown and Harris, Jacob Meister, an attorney who has been practicing law for 25 years, is also running in the Democratic primary. The winner in the Democratic primary race will face Diane Shapiro, the Republican committeeman from Chicago’s 46th Ward. Shapiro is unopposed in the primary.
In an election year that Harris said is “upside down,” she said her greatest challenge is to inform the public on what the duties of the Circuit Court Clerk are.
“There needs to be a culture change,” said Harris. “Government is there to serve the public, not the other way around. We need to be cross-trained in all departments. We are in the people-pleasing business. It’s about delivering what people want.”
The office of Clerk of the Circuit Court keeps court records, decisions and events, handles fines, bail bonds, records storage, microfilming and automation.
Harris has lived in the 8th Ward for over 40 years and has been a member of the 8th Ward Regular Democratic Organization for over 30 years. She is a graduate of Chicago Vocational High School and received a bachelor’s degree in General Studies from Chicago State University.
She said that Cook County Board President John Stroger served as a mentor. She was chief of staff under her aunt, Ald. Lorraine Dixon (8th), for over five years. Dixon died of breast cancer in 2001 at the age of 51. Harris was also a liaison to Peoples Gas and ComEd for Dixon.
Harris has been a member of various committees and served as superintendent of Streets and Sanitation for the 8th Ward, which she took great pride in. She often went with workers and assisted in dispensing garbage. Harris said she wanted to get a better idea of what the job entails. She held the position of superintendent for four years.
In 2006, Harris was appointed alderman by former Mayor Daley to replace Todd Stroger, who became Cook County Board President after his father, John Stroger, suffered a debilitating stroke. Harris has won aldermanic elections in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
Harris said one of her first goals, if elected, is to update criminal records. She said the system has to be updated because it creates frustration for the judicial system and attorneys who have to wait lengthy periods to receive records of information. Even bail bond information has to be improved, said Harris. Hand-written carbon copies may not be clear and the information is often recorded incorrectly, said Harris.
“That’s why we have to do this first,” said Harris. “Waiting for files and incorrect information costs money.”
Brown said her system is not antiquated and that her department has introduced programs such as electronic filing, the online traffic ticket payment system, mortgage surplus outreach and a new mobile app. Brown added that she seeks to deliver new and enhanced services at the clerk’s office.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Brown.
Harris disagrees, stating that Brown is “on an island” and doesn’t work enough with other agencies.
“What I have learned as alderman is that you have to learn to work with people,” said Harris. “The people will let you know how they feel.”
Meister calls for the circuit court to become completely automated and said that it will need more funding. Harris agrees that more technology is necessary but said costs have to be considered initially. More computer terminals can be added when not enough manpower exists, she said.
Harris disagrees with her critics who say she lacks managerial experience. The alderman said she has worked with former Gov. Quinn to build an improved sewer system in her ward and worked with state Sen. Donne Trotter (D-17th) to raise funds for infrastructure improvements at Chicago Vocational High School.
Facing the challenges as alderman has prepared her to lead the circuit court, Harris said. She has also served as chairman of the City Council Rules Committee.
She was criticized in some circles for not holding a hearing on an ordinance to empower Inspector General Joe Ferguson. However, she joined other members of the Black Caucus calling for the firing of Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who she said did not listen to the needs of the communications he serves. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has a mostly positive relationship with Harris, dismissed McCarthy that month.
“People want to see you,” said Harris. “I can’t depend on the Democratic Party to get the word out. I appreciate it. Government puts me in a position to help people. It’s all about the community. It’s not about Michelle Harris.”
The primary election is Tuesday, March 15.