Cook County Commissioner Monica Gordon is the Democratic Party’s choice for county clerk

After a lengthy morning of speeches, sometimes tense questioning, and closed-door negotiations, Cook County Democrats Friday tapped county Commissioner Monica Gordon to replace the late County Clerk Karen Yarbrough on November’s ballot.

A majority of the party’s 80 committeemen — some voting via proxy — also chose the current acting clerk and top Yarbrough deputy Cedric Giles to stay in the post through December, when an elected successor will be sworn in.

The group gathered at IBEW Local 134 Friday morning to hear pitches and lob questions at 15 prospective candidates and spent much of the afternoon deliberating over their picks. They were tasked with choosing an interim replacement and a nominee to place on the November ballot for a special election to replace Yarbrough.

Gordon, who entered the proceedings only days ago with strong backing from several labor unions, told committee members she was “dedicated to continuing and upholding the legacy of the high standard” Yarbrough set for the office and noted to fellow party members that she had given her “blood, sweat and tears to the Democratic Party,” and had built strong relationships across the county and state.

Gordon thanked those unions after party Chair Toni Preckwinkle, also the president of the Cook County Board, announced her appointment. Party officials said there was only one round of voting.

Elected to the County Board in 2022, Gordon was previously executive director of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, a trustee at Prairie State (Community) College and director of government relations at Chicago State University.

The vote came relatively quickly after Black committee members met behind closed doors following candidate presentations. Following that meeting, party members said one of the front-runners in the race, state Sen. Napoleon Harris, stepped aside and cleared the way for Gordon.

Gordon will have to prevail in the November election to take over the office responsible for handling vital records such as birth, death and marriage certificates; suburban elections; legislation and proceedings of the County Board; and property transfer paperwork.

The county’s Republican Party has yet to choose their nominee, but Gordon will almost certainly be the overwhelming favorite in the special election.

The clerk earns just shy of $119,000 a year and manages a roughly $75 million annual budget with a staff of 350 employees.

Asked how she would handle an office sometimes criticized as a patronage den, Gordon said she would continue “hiring the best people, putting the best people in positions has always been my motto.”

She also pledged to improve online access to records, potentially embrace AI to help with customer service, improve language access to clerk services and at polling places, and improve voter participation in suburban elections.

Several committee people also asked candidates whether they would ensure county residents using consular or city key cards as their identification could have access to clerk services. Gordon said that was a “no-brainer.”

Other candidates included state Sen. Napoleon Harris, Evanston City Clerk Stephanie Mendoza, county Commissioners Kevin Morrison and Donna Miller, and several others. Water Reclamation District Commissioner Yumeka Brown withdrew her name.

The most pointed questioning was directed at Harris.

In his pitch to party members, Harris addressed the “elephant in the room” — strong opposition from the LGBTQ and abortion rights groups Equality Illinois and Personal PAC ahead of the appointment meeting.

The office does not intersect with abortion access, but it is a key party plank. The clerk’s office does issue marriage, birth and death certificates, as well as changes to gender on vital records. Both groups urged party members not to support Harris because he did not vote on several bills, including the Reproductive Health Act, the Marriage Equality Act and Birth Certificate Modernization Act, which would have allowed transgender people to access the documents that match their gender identity.

“Let me be clear: I believe in a woman’s autonomy of her body and her right to choose,” Harris said. “To (the) LGTB community, I am not homophobic. However, I am a man that believes in autonomy to do what you want to do. Love who you want to love, and you will have my support as well, as long as we have mutual respect for each other. This election is bigger than a quote, is bigger than someone saying what you are and what you believe in.”

Senate President Don Harmon, the committeeperson for Oak Park, said Harris assured him he would be “fair, impartial and welcoming in dealing with birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, gender and identity related issues.”

But state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, one of the legislature’s strongest proponents of abortion and LGBTQ rights and the committeeperson for the 49th Ward, pressed Harris.

Harris said the Marriage Equality Act was his first vote after being sworn into the General Assembly in 2013 and he was “unsure of which way to vote because my district was kind of half and half, it was split. But more importantly, it was an opportunity for me to learn.”

Harris said he did not “personally” support the birth certificate modernization act, but as clerk, he would not “neglect or deny anyone the ability to get the documentation that they need.”

“But given the opportunity to show, rather than speak to, your support for folks who need these documents to be safe, you chose not to,” Cassidy said. “What I’ve seen is a person who has chosen not to stand up … for my marriage and my community when given the opportunity to do so.”

Harris said, “I apologize that I can’t be with you or haven’t been with you 100% of the time, but I respect your rights, and if you can’t accept that I accept you, how can we accept each other? … I’m as real as it gets, no one can push something on me and then expect me to just shove it down my throat and then I can’t be me … we’re a party of a big tent.”