A Guide to Local Primaries You Need to Know About

A Guide to Local Primaries You Need to Know About

We can’t escape bombastic national election coverage. However, the national election is often not the most impactful election to your daily life. 

“Local government oftentimes has more to do with your life than national power,” said DePaul political science professor Wayne Steger, listing functional infrastructure, safe and reliable public transportation, clean water, education quality and racial court disparities as examples of the instrumental role local government plays in citizens’ day-to-day. 

We’re sure you’re aware of the national Democratic primary and the contested and massively expensive Cook County State’s Attorney bonanza between Kim Foxx and DePaul business professor Bill Conway, but check out some lesser-known, but equally as important, races on the ballot. 

How we reported this story: 

When reporting this story, we selected races that we determined to be especially relevant for DePaul University students based on our own knowledge of Illinois politics as reporters and the advice of the 14 East staff. 

Once we determined which elections were most useful for DePaul students, we went through and contacted every single candidate for whom we could find contact information. Candidates Kina Collins and Craig Cameron of the 7th district were unavailable for comment after attempts at interviews via email for Collins and Twitter for Cameron. Candidates Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., Richard Boykin and Congressman Mike Quigley were unavailable after attempts at interviews via phone and email. Candidates Shelly Harris, Nathaniel Howse and the Green Party Candidates were unavailable for comment after attempts to contact via email. Tommy Hanson was unavailable after attempts to contact via phone. Shundar Lin’s contact information could not be located.

Clerk of the Circuit Court:

After 20 years of disarray under Dorothy Brown, the Clerk of the Circuit Court is finally up for grabs.

While in many cities this position is appointed, the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court is an elected administrative position. The clerk is the official keeper of records for judicial matters in the Circuit Court of Cook County, one of the largest unified court systems in the country. The office retains every court record in Cook County and makes those records accessible to judges, lawyers and the public.

Under Brown’s leadership, the office has seen a fair share of controversy. It has been criticized for a slow modernization process in digitizing court case files, federal investigations and accusations of patronage and gift accepting.

All four candidates are running on the same basic principles  – corruption and patronage needs to cease, the office needs to be digitized and services need to be more accessible to the public.

According to Steger, candidates also need to balance the press for automation with the fact that many of the more than 1,400 employees could be eliminated and that it’s expensive to automate.

And because of these paper files, documents can get lost.

“Not having technology in place means that prisoners’ paperwork gets lost regularly and they end up spending days and weeks in jail,” said court clerk candidate and attorney Jacob Meister.

The Clerk of the Circuit Court oversees a $124 million budget and racks up roughly $70 million in fees and fines. The winner of the primary will face Republican Barbara Bellar, attorney and physician running unopposed, in the November general election.

The Candidates

(All images either provided by candidate or from their campaign website)

Supreme Court Vacancy First District:

The Supreme Court of Illinois is the highest judicial body in the state of Illinois made up of seven members from five appellate districts of Illinois, with three justices from the First District, which contains Cook County. They each serve for 10 years. With this vacancy in the First District, the winner will be replacing the first Black justice elected to the Supreme Court, the late Chief Justice Charles E. Freeman, who retired in 2018. The 5th Judicial District in southern Illinois also has a vacancy with the retirement of Republican Justice Lloyd Karmeier.

The First District seat has been held since 2018 by candidate Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., the second Black justice, who was appointed to fill the vacancy. Because there is no Republican primary candidate running for the First District, this vote will determine who will take the seat. Diversity on the court has been a prominent issue in this race. Freeman was the only Black Justice, so the Supreme Court of Illinois has the potential of an all-white panel for the first time since 1990.

The court is the final decision maker on important issues. Candidate Cynthia Cobbs listed marriage, divorce, sales and consumer service contracts, landlord-tenant matters, traffic rules and regulations, driving under the influence, driver’s license suspensions/revocations and debt collections as some examples. Recently, the court decided to not drop charges against Jussie Smollett, and last year they rejected a prosecutor’s bid to re-sentence Jason Van Dyke.

“The Illinois Supreme Court does more than just decide cases,” attorney and candidate Daniel Epstein said. “It writes all the rules of procedure, evidence, and ethics that control how our courts operate. In other words, the Illinois Supreme Court is a policy maker…”

Candidate Margaret McBride emphasizes how the Supreme Court doesn’t necessarily have a constituency. This makes it difficult to run a campaign or, in many cases, have a set platform, so they run on their (typically very extensive) credentials which can be explained in much greater detail than we can manage on their website.

“Judges really impact everyone’s lives and you don’t realize until you go into the court,” McBride said. “The Supreme Court of Illinois decides important issues that affect all of us all the time, but we’re at the bottom of the ballot.”

The Candidates

(All images either provided by candidate or from their campaign website)

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioners

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) oversees water-based infrastructure for the metropolitan Chicago and 128 suburban communities. The nine elected commissioners are in charge of safeguarding waterways and Lake Michigan, treating wastewater and providing stormwater and flooding management.

Commissioners serve on the board for six years, with three commissioners getting elected or re-elected every two years. On March 17, voters will elect three board seats currently held by MWRD Chairman of Finance Frank Avila, Cameron Davis and Kimberly DuBuclet. The Republican primary MWRD race was canceled this year so one Republican candidate, Shundar Lin, is running as a Democrat.

Founded in 1889, the district has been deeply rooted in Chicago’s aquatic history. In the early 1900s, MWRD, then known as the Sanitary District of Chicago, reversed the flow of the Chicago and Calumet rivers so waste wouldn’t dump into Lake Michigan. They also constructed the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, designed to reduce flooding and improve water quality by capturing and storing rain water and sewage.

“We’re not a part of the city, county or state. We are a separate agency created to protect the health and welfare of the citizens of Cook County,” Avila said. “We’re not a judge that sentences people. We’re not a legislator that passes laws. We’re an operational agency to protect the health and welfare of the public.”

Twenty percent of the world’s surface fresh water comes from the Great Lakes, and with climate change increasing stormwater levels in Illinois, this special-purpose district is critical to ensure infrastructure remains intact.

“The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is bearing the brunt of climate change in our region… and Black and Brown communities are disproportionately impacted by flooding in the region,” candidate Eira Corral Sepulveda said, referencing a study by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

But much like the lead pipes beneath our feet, the MWRD isn’t untarnished. In 2014, the district lost millions of dollars after being sued over a construction dispute that was upheld at the Illinois Appellate Court. In 2017, two MWRD cops were fired after a video tape was released of them bragging about sleeping on the job and using racial slurs. As of 2016, MWRD employees are some of the highest-paid city workers, averaging salaries of nearly $98,000 a year, according to the Better Government Association.

The Candidates

(All images either provided by candidate or from their campaign website)

Quigley v. Burns – 5th congressional district

DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus sits right in the middle of the 5th congressional district, which includes parts of Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown and Rogers Park.

The seat has been held by former Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley since a special election in 2009, when Rahm Emanuel became President Obama’s chief of staff, leaving the seat vacant. As a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Quigley has contributed to the Russia and impeachment investigations and helped secure funding to protect local elections.

His highest priorities are holding the president accountable, infrastructure development and gun violence prevention.

According to FiveThirtyEight, there is a 99.9 percent chance that Mike Quigley will win the seat.  He won in 2018 with over 76 percent of the vote.

His opponent, Brian Burns, graduated from DePaul in 2009 and is running on a progressive platform of Medicare for All, infrastructure investment and attacking climate change with acts like subsidizing green building practices. He considers himself a political outsider, and has criticized Quigley’s ties to the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Candidates

(All images either provided by candidate or from their campaign website)

The Republican Candidates

(All images either provided by candidate or from their campaign website)

7th Congressional District

The race has been heating up in the 7th congressional district—where DePaul’s Loop campus is located—as incumbent Danny K. Davis faces off against three challengers in the Democratic primary.

The Candidates

(All images either provided by candidate or from their campaign website)


Just like ancient Greeks in Athens who voted directly on the issues in their city, ballot initiatives are the way that the average voter can directly vote on issues in their communities. While many of us may go into voting booths without paying much attention to the long questions on referenda, these initiatives can change the way a city is run, the local government is structured and much more.

This year in Burr Ridge, Lynnwood and Westchester, there is a ballot initiative to make each community a home rule unit. Home rule units in Illinois are municipalities or counties that either exceed a population of 25,000 or have passed a referendum to make that community a home rule unit.

Once home rule status is granted, the municipality or county can elect a chief executive officer and govern over local issues with autonomy, rather than having to go through state-level governing bodies. There are 217 Illinois municipalities with home rule, but Cook County is the only county in the state that is a home rule unit as an entire county, and as a result, can impose taxes and initiatives county-wide without approval from state-level governance.

Burr Ridge Mayor Gary Grasso is a strong proponent of the referendum as a way to supplement the police pension fund and make sure that young people do not get stuck with footing the bill later.

“We’re only 66-68 percent funded in our police pension fund,” Grasso said. “If we become home-ruled, we can use $700,000 that would be used for tourism to beef up our pension fund and improve infrastructure.”

Without the referendum, Grasso said that in 7-10 years, Burr Ridge residents will be faced with making up the gap in the pension fund that this referendum would fill in.

Burr Ridge Trustee Anita Mital opposes the referendum—she said it places too much power in the hands of a small group.

“I am not for it simply because I don’t think it makes sense to give the power to the board to raise taxes,” Mital said. “Once Burr Ridge becomes a home rule unit, you’ll give a lot of power to the board, but I don’t think they should have so much.”

Mital said there are other revenue streams the Board of Trustees can pursue that would be better than raising taxes.

“There are other ways of generating revenue, which we need to look at,” Mital said. “We have some real estate which we can use maybe for sale or build some facilities that can be rented out and generate revenue. That’s something the board would have to research.”

In Blue Island this year, a different kind of ballot initiative is up for a vote: they want to cut the number of aldermen they have in half. The city is split into seven wards, with each ward represented by two aldermen. If this initiative passes, each ward will be represented by one alderman moving forward. Citizens will also be asked if the city should establish a fund dedicated solely for road maintenance, and if the savings from halving their number of aldermen should be funneled into that fund.

Fred Bilotto, 2nd Ward Alderman in Blue Island, opposes the referendum because it fundamentally alters the type of representation that Blue Island residents will get in their city council.

“The town is majority-minority, but there are only three minority aldermen on city council,” Bilotto said.

According to Census data, Blue Island is 28.2 percent African American or Black alone and 49.1 percent Hispanic or Latino alone, compared to 20.1 percent white alone. The 1st Ward in Blue Island is represented by two African American aldermen.

“This ward would automatically lose a voice that represents them,” Bilotto said.

Both Mital and Bilotto stressed the importance of being educated about referendums.

“[Referendums] fundamentally change things, things have been done for years,” Bilotto said. “Referendums that are binding, like [the Blue Island referendum] will drastically change things, for better or for worse.”

Mital said the long-term changes from referendums are not often talked about.

“Referendums make long standing changes,” Mital said. “They’re really important, but people need to understand the long-term ramifications of referendums.”

Bilotto, a government teacher at Thornwood High School, stressed the general necessity of being educated about local politics and being an active voter in local elections.

“In general, I always say, local people that you elect that you can shake their hand, are more important to your daily life than Congress,” Bilotto said. “You want your streets fixed, local issues heard, the local politicians are the ones who will affect your Monday through Friday. Referendums are directly tied to that.”

Header image by Mohamed Hassan