Don’t Neglect Those Down-Ballot Offices

While it is easy to get so caught up in presidential politics that we forget about local elections, it is vital that we tune in to these down-ballot races too.

By Sam Joyce

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, it feels like the presidential election has sucked up all the political oxygen on campus. More than 100 students traveled to Iowa for the caucuses with UChicago for Bernie, with much smaller contingents traveling with the Warren and Buttigieg groups, as well as unaffiliated trips organized by UC Dems and the Institute of Politics. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that half of the student body was in Des Moines this weekend. Indeed, sometimes it feels like the presidential election is the only one on the ballot.

So, at the UC Dems Election Opportunities Fair two weeks ago, it was heartening to see that the floor wasn’t dominated just by representatives of the presidential campaigns. Candidates ranging from State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, up for reelection in March, to Marie Newman, currently mounting a primary challenge to Representative Dan Lipinski, sent representatives to make their case to students. Both State Senator Robert Peters and his challenger, Ken Thomas, showed up in person, eager to persuade students to vote and volunteer for their campaigns.

These down-ballot offices are less sexy than the Presidency. No Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) Commissioner will ever declare war or sign an international treaty. Most of these local officeholders are lucky if they’ll ever be on CNN. Despite the lack of glamour, however, the results of these elections will shape life in Cook County for the next several years. Even though local races aren’t quite as glamorous as the presidential one, it is just as important to pay attention to them and familiarize yourself with the candidates.

The highest-profile local election is the race for the Cook County State’s Attorney, with well-funded challenger Bill Conway attempting to oust incumbent Kim Foxx. Foxx was first elected in 2016 in the wake of the murder of Laquan McDonald, pledging to reform the prosecutor’s office and address the problem of mass incarceration. In office, she has largely lived up to that promise: Sentences of incarceration are down 19 percent, violent crime reports are down 8 percent, and 25 percent more people have been referred to rehabilitation programs.

Conway, for his part, has criticized Foxx’s handling of the Jussie Smollett case and her connections to indicted Alderman Ed Burke. He’s already released several ads attacking Foxx on those grounds, and, with several million in his campaign account thanks to his billionaire father, he has the money to blanket the airwaves. Whoever wins the State’s Attorney’s race will decide the direction of the country’s second-largest prosecutor’s office for the next four years. They will determine whether Cook County continues to work toward criminal justice reform or whether it returns to a series of “tough-on-crime” policies.

Even further down the ticket is the election for Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court. Whoever wins this election will earn the dubious honor of helming a notoriously dysfunctional agency of Cook County government, one where—13 years after the release of the iPhone—the office still runs on carbon paper. The frontrunner is Board of Review Commissioner Michael Cabonargi, who’s been endorsed by the Cook County Democratic Party but first has to get past three challengers: State Senator Iris Martinez, former County Commissioner Richard Boykin, and self-funded attorney Jacob Meister. Whoever wins will face the monumental task of modernizing and reforming an obscure office, but one that is essential to the functioning of the County’s legal system.

The final local office on the ballot is the election for three commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The MWRD is one of the largest agencies in the county, with more than 2,000 employees and a billion-dollar annual budget. And their job is the least glamorous of all: controlling, disinfecting, and disposing of the city’s sewage. With ten candidates on the ballot, there’s a wide range of perspectives on how best to accomplish the MWRD’s critical mission of keeping Lake Michigan clean.

The presidential election can sometimes feel like the only one on the ballot, but when Illinois votes in March, voters will also decide the future of several important local offices. Whether it’s volunteering for a campaign, making a donation, or simply casting an informed ballot, these elections deserve your attention.

Sam Joyce is a fourth-year in the College.