Terrence Lavin seemed an ideal candidate when he ran last year for a seat on the Illinois Appellate Court.
The veteran trial lawyer had served as president of the Illinois State Bar Association and taught law school for a decade. Two years earlier he had been appointed to fill a vacancy on the appeals court, giving him a crucial edge in experience over his opponents.
Still, to leave nothing to chance, Lavin hired two campaign consultants with unlikely backgrounds: Michael Tierney, a former supervisor in Chicago’s Water Department during a scandal-ridden period in its history, and Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a colorful former high-ranking gang leader who now sells his talents as an “urban translator.”
“I approached it like I was going to try a big case. I wanted to be fully prepared for anything that might come up,” said Lavin, who won a 10-year term on the court in November. “… Once I had to deal with the electoral system, I felt I better understand it and get people who could help me understand it.”
With candidates already retaining consultants for next March’s primary election, the role these consultants play has raised increasing concern. Watchdogs who have long lamented the political nature of judicial elections fear that the growing influence of money will taint campaigns that under Illinois Supreme Court rules are supposed to focus on legal experience instead of partisan political issues.
“It’s a strange game we’re playing when we elect judges,” said Malcolm Rich, executive director of the Chicago Council of Lawyers and a longtime critic of judicial elections. “We pretend that judges are not politicians, but we make judges go through the (political) process.”
Critics are also troubled by another all-too-common reality for political candidates, judicial hopefuls included. Candidates must make hefty contributions to the Cook County Democratic Party — usually about $30,000 apiece — in exchange for being slated, an influential endorsement in a county so heavily Democratic and one that brings an army of campaigners.
Lavin gave $35,000 to the county Democratic Party — all but $5,000 of it after he won the coveted slating.
Rich called these kinds of contributions troubling because they foster “a system that allows money to dictate who becomes a judge.”
The party payments are described in disclosure forms as donations, campaign expenses or, in at least one instance, a slating fee.
In an interview with the Tribune, Tierney said the payments are a fact of political life in Cook County.
“Anybody who’s endorsed will have to donate,” he said. “Because if you’re endorsed, then the party’s going to get you the signatures” needed to get on the ballot.
Judicial elections have turned into such hard-nosed contests in part because of low voter turnout and even lower familiarity with candidates among voters. With judicial candidates so often politically inexperienced, a cottage industry of consultants — sometimes unusual political operatives like Tierney and Bradley — has emerged in Cook County.
For a fee, the consultants bring political savvy, navigating the networks of committeemen and precinct captains who can help candidates win slating, building candidates’ name recognition and smoothing introductions to the racial, ethnic or neighborhood groups that candidates might not otherwise reach. In some races, consultants handle such political heavy work as trying to knock opponents off the ballot and basics such as schooling a candidate on how and when to approach commuters for support.
Tierney downplayed the importance of his role in who becomes a judge.
“I am not the judge-maker,” he said in reference to a nickname he has earned in some quarters. “I’ve just been involved a lot.”
A plumber by trade, he got his start in political work as a precinct captain some two decades ago and developed a reputation for helping candidates win elections — all while working at the city Water Department, where employees were rewarded with promotions, raises and overtime in return for their patronage work.
A decade ago, the Hired Truck bribery scandal grew out of the Water Department, a sign of how deeply embedded political activity was in its ranks. During the investigation, Tierney said he was questioned by federal authorities and by the city inspector general’s office. His computer was even seized by investigators.
Tierney denied any wrongdoing, and he was never charged.
Tierney started working as a paid political consultant in 2000 while still employed as a supervisor at the Water Department. Before his retirement from the city in 2006, Tierney said, he confined his consulting to after work hours and on weekends. And n said, he no longer consults on campaigns because he is busy with his new job as political director of the politically powerful Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130.
Some judicial candidates criticize Tierney and other consultants for aggressive tactics once more common to other political contests — including bumping opponents off the ballot by challenging the signatures on their petitions. That was the fate that befell William O’Neal, a veteran Cook County judge who hoped to cap his long legal career on the appeals court.
O’Neal, who said he did not have money to hire a consultant, gathered most of his petition signatures after work and on weekends, sometimes with the help of friends but most often on his own. He had hoped his Irish-sounding name — though he is African-American — would help him against Lavin on Election Day. Many voters, ill-informed about the competing judicial candidates, are believed to often vote based on the perceived ethnicity of candidates’ names.
“They’re really trying to destroy you,” O’Neal, who retired from the Circuit Court last November, said of the campaign process for judges. “You have to hang in there and do the best you can.”
Tierney made no apology for his tactics, saying he would do whatever it takes to help clients win contested elections. And O’Neal’s petitions indeed contained signatures that were deemed invalid, knocking him off the ballot.
“I’ve seen too many people with great credentials lose to somebody with a great name,” Tierney said. “If someone’s got bad petitions, we’re going to get them off the ballot. That’s the rules. … It’s just trying to win the election. Should you not go all-out?”
The consultants insist they want a qualified judiciary and work only for candidates with good ratings from bar associations.
Tierney said he tells potential candidates, “If you’ve got bad bar ratings, I don’t want to be walking you around.
“You want somebody who’s a legitimate candidate,” he said.
But that wasn’t always the case. Tierney acted as a consultant and campaign manager for Chicago attorney David Adams in his 2012 bid to become a judge in the 9th Subcircuit, which runs from Chicago’s Far North Side into Evanston and Niles. Yet Adams was found not qualified or not recommended by a dozen local legal groups, including the Illinois State Bar Association, the Chicago Bar Association and the Chicago Council of Lawyers.
Tierney said he worked as Adams’ adviser as a favor to a former client.
Tierney’s clients are more than satisfied with his work. Adams, who lost his bid for judge, and Lavin both praised Tierney, saying he was indispensable to their campaigns.
Lavin paid Tierney $15,000 and Bradley $2,500 in consulting fees in 2012, according to election disclosure forms.
Adams said Tierney made key introductions for him to committeemen and other political players in the 49th Ward, helped organize campaign fundraisers and steered him to printing businesses for campaign brochures and ads. He also taught him fundamentals of campaigning — catching train riders, for instance, on their morning commute and not after work as they hurried home tired.
“I was completely blind when I walked into this thing and he was just so helpful,” Adams said.
Lavin also praised Bradley, the former Gangster Disciple, for opening doors for him in the African-American community, particularly at churches and block clubs. A former spokesman for gang leader Larry Hoover, Bradley was sentenced to four years in state prison for armed robbery and burglary years ago, but then-Gov. James Thompson pardoned him in 1990.
In an interview, Bradley said he took Lavin “from the suites to the streets.” He helps candidates tap into an African-American voting base that “everybody takes for granted” but can be a powerful force, particularly in races that require candidates to cover Cook County’s broad expanse, Bradley said.
Another consultant, Sam Morabito, a deputy engineer at the city’s Department of Aviation, focuses much of his work on the Northwest Side, where he lives, and often sticks to gathering signatures to qualify candidates a place on the ballot, according to past clients.
Morabito did not respond to requests for comment, but Diedre Baumann, an attorney who twice ran for judge, said Morabito helped her gather thousands of required petition signatures. She paid Morabito and his company, Campaign Advantage, nearly a combined $10,000 between 2009 and early 2012 for the two countywide elections, records show. She lost both races.
“Running for judge, you’re not a politician. I didn’t want to be a politician,” Baumann said. “So you have to rely on people who know better. It’s a very difficult job to try to do on your own. … Your family and your friends are the best people (to do this work). But you can only ask so much of those people.”
This story was reported in collaboration with Medill Watchdog, a project at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and Chicago Tribune, with reporter Steve Mills contributing. Medill Watchdog can be found at medillwatchdog.org.