Cook County Democrats to choose Karen Yarbrough’s replacement

Members of the Cook County Democratic Party meet Friday to choose an interim replacement for the late county Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who died earlier this month.

Seventeen interested applicants sent their credentials to the party by the Wednesday deadline, including several County Board members, a sitting state senator and the current clerk of Evanston.

Yarbrough’s passing came too late for Democratic voters to choose from a slate of candidates — as they did for Mayor Brandon Johnson’s replacement on the Cook County Board in the March primary. Instead, the party will choose both an interim clerk who will serve through December and a candidate to be placed on the November ballot.

The clerk’s office is a sought-after countywide position. It has a roughly $75 million annual budget and 350 employees. It handles vital records such as birth, death, and marriage certificates; suburban elections; legislation and proceedings of the County Board; and property transfer paperwork. The clerk earns just shy of $119,000 a year.

Party members have signaled they prefer another suburbanite to take over the role, given the office’s responsibility handling suburban elections.

And they told the Tribune there is strong support among members to appoint Cedric Giles to the role on an interim basis. Giles was Yarbrough’s top deputy and had already been acting as clerk since her hospitalization.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who was unanimously selected to continue as party chair earlier this week, argued Giles would be a steady hand to handle the upcoming November election. Party members will each have one vote on the interim clerk position.

The more heated debate will be choosing a candidate to place on the general election ballot: interested contenders have jockeyed in recent weeks to win over fellow Democrats and several early favorites have dropped out. The dropout list includes Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Kari Steele, 4th Ward Ald. Lamont Robinson and county Commissioner Stanley Moore.

Still in the race: county Commissioners Monica Gordon, Donna Miller, and Kevin Morrison; state Sen. Napoleon Harris, Water Reclamation Commissioner Yumeka Brown, Evanston city Clerk Stephanie Mendoza and 11 other candidates.

Gordon’s name emerged shortly after Steele withdrew. If Steele was appointed clerk, the party did not have a clear mechanism in county or state code to appoint a fresh candidate to fill her MWRD slot on the November ballot. The threat of a potential lawsuit raised sufficient concerns within the party for Steele to step back.

Gordon quickly snapped up labor support, with SEIU Local 73, Operating Engineers Local 150, Operating Engineers Local 399 and LIUNA endorsing her Tuesday evening. Elected to the County Board in 2022, Gordon is the former executive director of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, trustee at Prairie State (Community) College and director of government relations at Chicago State University.

But there are other candidates from the south suburbs, including Miller, elected to the County Board in 2018; Brown, former Matteson village clerk and water commissioner since 2022; and Harris, elected to the legislature in 2013.

Harris’ candidacy earned a swift rebuke from two outside progressive organizations this week: the abortion rights group Personal PAC and the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Illinois.

Personal PAC said Harris had “repeatedly shown through his no votes in the General Assembly on the Reproductive Health Act, HB 40, and the repeal of parental notification that he does not support the right to bodily autonomy” or stood with the group “to expand abortion access in Illinois.”

It warned those who support Harris’ candidacy “will not be considered as 100% pro-choice incumbents in their next race for committeeperson.”

Equality Illinois similarly said in a statement that Harris “refused to vote” for marriage equality, birth certificate modernization laws, or gender identity in death laws – all issues that touch on clerk responsibilities.

“Given his refusal to support the full dignity of LGBTQ+ people in these critical areas, we are alarmed over the possibility that he might serve in a position with tremendous authority over birth, death, and marriage certificates,” Equality Illinois CEO Brian Johnson said in the statement.

Commissioner Morrison — who has support among a number of party progressives — has pitched members on his youth and potential to be the first countywide LGBTQ+ official.

Mendoza, Evanston’s current clerk, also has support from progressives and the Latino contingent of the party, who have been pushing for stronger representation countywide. With Iris Martinez’s defeat in the 2024 primary, there will not be any Latino elected officials serving countywide.

The winner will be decided based on a weighted vote of committeemen that is calculated based on turnout in the most recent primary. The party typically votes behind closed doors, sometimes over several rounds. Sen. Harris and house Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, who succeeded Yarbrough as Proviso Township committeeperson, have the largest share of the vote, at about 2.75% each.

Yarbrough, a Maywood Democrat, was previously a state representative, the county’s recorder of deeds, and a Democratic committeeperson in the county and state party. Her home township, Proviso, had some of the highest voter turnout of any in the county. She was the first woman and African American elected clerk.