Illinois Supreme Court Justin P. Scott Neville will face Appellate Court Judge Jesse Reyes and attorney Daniel Epstein in the March contest for a 10-year term on the state’s highest court. [Submitted]

During the mid-century heyday of the Cook County Democratic Party, candidates considered a party endorsement the start of a countdown clock to their inauguration.

Those days are gone.

Contenders who were left off the party ticket in three high-profile races during slating last week’s slating event vowed Monday to see their campaigns through to March 17, when Cook County voters will pick a Democratic nominee in each contest.

Their campaigns will seek to exploit the party’s wounded reputation amid a sea of corruption scandals and hone in on the anti-establishment messages that swept Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi and then Mayor Lori Lightfoot into office. 

Party leaders still anticipate being able to nudge challengers out of down-ballot races for appellate and circuit court judgeships, where endorsements remain a make-or-break factor in each contest.

But fresh off their approval by a majority of the party’s 80 committeepeople on Friday, incumbent Illinois Supreme Court Justice P. Scott Neville, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Cook County Circuit Court Clerk candidate Michael Cabonargi are all set to face organized and fell-funded challengers next spring.

“I respect the party, but I think the endorsement doesn’t really carry the credibility that it used to,” said attorney Daniel Epstein, who is running to unseat Neville on the Supreme Court. “There’s a distrust among some folks who don’t see it as a mark of merit, but as a mark of insider-ism and pay-to-play.”

Social media has made it easier to bypass traditional party structures to “get in front of people,” especially for campaigns that have enough money to promote ads on digital platforms, Epstein said.

That’s sure to include Epstein himself, who dropped $300,000 into his own campaign fund this summer, blowing the fundraising caps in the race for the Supreme Court seat.

Appellate Court Judge Nathaniel Howse, whose powerful band of supporters tried to keep the party from backing Neville last week, suggested last week that he may back out of the race rather than take on the Democratic powers that be.

Howse is “speaking with his core supporters over the next few days” and will “make a final decision with his family” about whether to stay in it, a campaign spokesperson said in a statement Monday.

But Appellate Court Judge Jesse Reyes, whose candidacy was boosted by members of the party’s Latino caucus, plans to keep his campaign alive, he told The Daily Line on Monday.

“I felt from the beginning that politicians should not be slating with regards to the Supreme Court,” Reyes said. “We should let the people decide who sits in the people’s court.”

And when a committeeperson asked last week if Appellate Court Judge Sheldon Harris would stay in the Supreme Court race without an endorsement, Harris said he would.

“I’ll win, and I’ll carry the entire slate,” said Harris, whose name will be printed on the ballot as Shelly Harris.

Multiple candidates said they saw an opening to challenge the party after last year, when Kaegi defeated former Assessor Joe Berrios. The former assessor had been chair of the party organization and won its endorsement before the March 2018 contest.

Despite that high profile loss, 15 of the 19 party-endorsed candidates went on to win their races in the 2018 primary, which should give challengers pause, according to Cook County Democratic Party Executive Director Jacob Kaplan.

“I wouldn’t expect anyone to immediately drop out the Monday after slating,” Kaplan said. “But if you look at the resources available to candidates who are slated, I would hope that anyone planning on running against them would have second thoughts.”

Even in 2019, those resources are formidable. Each slated candidate is required to pay $40,000 into the party’s campaign fund, which is used to create a single professionalized superstructure to help candidates collect petitions, defend against signature challenges and circulate campaign literature.

“There are 80 committeepeople across all the wards and townships, and each of them has some level of organization,” Kaplan said. “If you do the math, that’s a lot of help.”

And come election season, the party will send “hundreds of thousands of pieces of literature to all corners of the county,” nudging voters in races they may not have known about otherwise, Kaplan said.

The power of an endorsement remains near-absolute for lower-profile judge races, and the party flexed its judiciary muscle when it dumped Judge Matthew Coghlan from its ticket last year. Months later, Coghlan lost his retention bid at the ballot box — the first judge in decades to do so.

Most candidates running for appellate and circuit court judgeships in 2020 said last week that they would likely drop out of the race if they didn’t make it onto the party ticket.

The same is not true for the five candidates running to succeed Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, all of whom told The Daily Line that they plan to keep ramping up their campaigns.

Two of the contenders, attorney Jacob Meister and former Cook County Comm. Richard Boykin, both told The Daily Line on Monday that they were “in it to win it.”

“We’ve got a one-party system, and 80 people meeting in a room should not dispense the need for an election,” Meister said. “Why even have a primary, if the party thinks it’s just going to anoint the winner?”

Jason Hernandez, a spokesman for State Sen. Iris Martinez’s campaign for circuit court clerk, said the senator has a “moral obligation to ensure that Cook County has a qualified Latinx candidate at the top of the ticket.”

And Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Comm. Mariyana Spyropoulos told The Daily Line on Friday that party endorsements have lost their luster, in part because they don’t guarantee unified party support. 

“I want to bring my message to the people, and let the people decide,” Spyropoulos said. “Obviously you’d like to have more people than not, but the party from the 80s when you presented then got support across the board is not the case anymore.”

In the case of Foxx’s bid for re-election, her only intra-party challenger, naval intelligence officer Bill Conway, did not even ask the party for an endorsement. Instead, his campaign is playing up the party stamp as an Election Day liability.

“The Cook County political machine might not have listened to me but their decision will only serve to remind voters that I will not be beholden to anyone besides the people of Cook County,” Conway wrote in a statement Monday.

Spyropoulos and Conway each dropped $500,000 into their own campaign funds since last month, state election records show.