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ELECTIONS 2020 COOK COUNTY CLERK Jacob Meister talks hopes for reforms
by Matt Simonette
2020-02-19

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Attorney/activist Jacob Meister is making his second attempt vying for the Cook County Court Clerk post that is being vacated by Dorothy Brown. The openly gay Meister has long been been active in LGBT community-politics, and has also been a longtime critic of the inefficiencies and outdatedness of the Court Clerk's operations.

Among his goals are expedited records-transfers, increased automation and online court-filing accessibility. "We have to stop thinking in old ways, and think about what the court system of the future will look like," Meister said.

Windy City Times: Why are you making another attempt at winning this office?

Jacob Meister: [Former Gov.] Pat Quinn is the one who said, "Run again. You're going to see that there's power in running more than once. … He had to run for state treasurer twice before he won. Dick Durbin ran three times. It's a building process."

At first I was skeptical, but it really is a building process, having run county-wide before and having gotten 230,000 votes, I'm out there again, in places I haven't been in years, and people are remembering me.

WCT: What would you want to do on your first day in office?

JM: That would be a really long first day. I don't know if it's "first day," but one of the ethical priorities has to be rally cleaning that office up. We really need to come to terms with the fact that the Court Clerk's Office has really been at the center of what's been broken in Cook County government. That's an office that's seen decades of patronage hiring, where personal and political enrichment has come at the expense of the public interest. Those issues have to be addressed. … We need to have merit-based promotions so that the public interest is put ahead of the private, [Chicago] Machine political interests.

That's really an essential to address right up front—put into place an Inspector General to put in place to make sure that these bad political practices are irradiated.

WCT: You are billing yourself as being outside the Machine, but this job by definition requires interaction with a variety of stakeholders who are within it. How would you manage those relationships, then?

JM: I have been an advocate for this job being appointed by circuit court judges. There's over 300 voting circuit judges. I would be an advocate for this position not being elected, but voted on by those judges—the same way it is with chief judges. The Illinois constitution provides that as an option if the Illinois General Assembly [wants to] do that. Ultimately, it's the judges and the lawyers—all the stakeholders, including the general public—who have an overriding interest in seeing that the office runs as efficient an operation, as free from political influence as possible. I am the outsider in this race. I'm the only run who's free from the political influences.

At least two of my opponents have made very clear that they are seeking higher office. … None of my opponents have practiced in their careers in the circuit courts—one's not a lawyer at all. One had a career in the federal system and another is a Washington lobbyist. This office needs to be run by someone with intimate knowledge of how the courts work.

WCT: Are they any particular responsibilities to the LGBT community you think that the court clerk has?

JM: There are a lot of ways that the court clerk interacts with our community. I have dedicated a good portion of my career to making sure that public offices—and private places of employment—are open and affirming to the LGBT community. I absolutely will make it a priority to make sure the clerk's office is welcoming and affirming to the LGBT community in the same way that I have for decades. … The work that I've done for LGBT civil rights will translate to my work in the clerk's office, to make sure that the clerk's office is open and affirming—whether that's in the area of probate, where same-sex couples enter into the court system when there's a death, or transgender issues, as another example. In the area of divorce, we're seeing [same-sex] couples, like any other couples, are getting divorced. There are matrimonial issues, child-custody issues. We need to make sure that the clerk's office is 100 percent respectful of the LGBT community and doesn't discriminate.

WCT: You do have a long history of activism—speak about two or three moments or events that have been particularly meaningful for you.

JM: Certainly the work that I've done in workplace discrimination has been one of the centerpieces of my work as a civil rights earlier. We brought an action against the Chicago Transit Authority ( CTA ) and were successful in mandating changes at CTA and making sure that every single CTA employee has training in LGBT non-discrimination [practices]. My work against Hobby Lobby for their anti-transgender discrimination is ongoing and headed for the Illinois Supreme Court. That is a case of first-impression in Illinois and is going to be important in transgender workplace rights.

I also was instrumental in marriage-equality. I was on the board of Illinois Fights for Marriage, and a good portion of the marriage-equality campaign was headquartered in my office. With Chick-fil-A, we were the ones who called out their discriminatory practices and worked very hard to make sure that, in Chicago, we made a declaration that we were open and affirming of LGBT-rights and that businesses that businesses that provided accommodation were not entitled to make our community feel unwelcome and unwanted.

WCT: What's been the biggest challenge in this campaign?

JM: The population of Cook County is bigger than 27 states. The average person is not familiar with what the county clerk does, or how vitally important the clerk's office is for the administration of justice. It's a challenge to get out in a down-ballot race that most people aren't attuned to in an area as big as Cook County. We need to educate people and get them to care.

See JacobForClerk.com .


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