Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman was a trailblazer, no doubt about it.
The first black judge elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, the first black man to become chief justice of that seven-member court, the first black member of his political generation to rise to the top of the state’s and Cook County’s prestigious judicial heap.
When he died recently at age 86, the Chicago news media paid homage to his no-doubt difficult and undeniably impressive professional journey.
“In his more than four decades as a jurist, Justice Freeman helped write and shape history — in his legal opinions, his pioneering achievements and in the generation of other African American lawyers he guided to the bench,” The Chicago Sun-Times reported.
He was the first, and the thing about firsts is that there is only one of them.
That’s why the March 17 primary in Cook County to fill Freeman’s vacant First District (Cook County) seat is so interesting.
Seven candidates are competing, and the winner of the primary will the de facto winner of the general election in November because Republicans, being a rare species in Cook County, didn’t field a candidate.
In the old days, white politicians ran Cook County with an iron fist, most prominently the Irish — the Daley family, led Mayor Richard Daley I, represents Exhibit A for that proposition.
But times have changed. Black politicians have come to the fore, and Hispanics are a rising force. Time was when the only politicians indicted and sent to prison there were white. But as this country has become more egalitarian, those indicted now reflect all races and colors.
In that context, what’s to be done with Freeman’s seat on the court, the nominal black seat?
Freeman sought to handpick his successor, in 2018 appointing P. Scott Neville Jr., a black appellate court justice, to fill the vacancy created by his resignation. Cook County Democrats are seeking to make Freeman’s choice stick by giving him the party endorsement in the March primary, and Neville is arguing that his election is necessary to ensure public confidence in the judiciary.
“If the court is all white, how can nonwhite people have confidence in the decisions that that court makes?” he has been quoted as saying.
That may be true. Or it may not. How much thought do ordinary people give to the racial and sexual makeup of the high court?
For the record, Neville is joined on the court by three white women — Anne Burke, Mary Jane Theis and Danville’s Rita Garman — and three white men — Robert Thomas, Lloyd Karmeier and Thomas Kilbride.
On a partisan basis, four of the justices are Democrats, and three are Republicans.
Neville may be the Democratic Party’s choice, but that doesn’t mean as much it used to mean because political traditions and power bases have shifted.
His six opponents include two blacks, Cynthia Cobbs and Nathaniel Howse; one Latino, Jesse Reyes; and three whites, Margaret McBride, Sheldon Harris and Daniel Epstein. All but Epstein are appellate court justices.
So who, specifically, is the multicultural candidate in that group?
Politics generally is about addition and subtraction. But this contest is equally about division — if blacks, whites and women divide their votes among the candidates representing their tribes, does that mean Reyes — the only Hispanic — wins?
He’d be a trailblazer, kind of. But so many trails already have been blazed, the symbolism isn’t as potent as it once was.
The number and castes of the candidates reflect a shift in ambitions — from group to individual. Each is seeking to blaze his/her own trail regardless of the dictates of party or pride.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at email@example.com or 217-351-5369.