The race for the office of circuit judge in Piatt County has become more interesting with the addition of a third-party candidate.
Piatt County lawyer Suzanne Jennings Wells is running as the candidate of the Lincoln Heritage Party. She’ll take on Republican Party nominee Dana Rhoades in the November election.
Rhoades, the longtime state’s attorney in Piatt County, has made news recently because of a series of legal and political conflicts she has had with county board members.
Wells, who is 58, said those controversies are “obviously” a factor in her decision to enter the contest. But she said she’s not running to challenge Rhoades directly, but to present her credentials to the county’s roughly 11,000 voters.
The resident circuit judge post is currently held by Hugh Finson, who is retiring.
A lawyer for more than 30 years, Wells graduated in 1987 with an economics degree from the University of Illinois. She obtained her law degree from DePaul University.
Wells said she’s always found the idea of being a judge appealing.
“It’s a job I could be really good at,” she said.
Wells said she decided to make the race after the primary when friends urged her to help give voters a choice between two candidates.
“People said there should at least be an option,” Wells said.
“We don’t get a circuit judge election often in our county,” she said.
Circuit judges are initially elected in a partisan, Republican-vs.-Democrat election. After serving a six-year term, they run for retention, not re-election. In a retention election, voters are asked if the judge should be kept or removed. Retention candidates who get less than 60 percent support are out of a job. Partisan elections are, generally speaking, a rare thing in smaller counties because circuit judges there often serve for decades.
The post for which Rhoades and Wells are running was held for 47 years by the late John Shonkwiler, who died in July 2012 at 79. After Shonkwiler’s death, Finson was appointed to fill his vacancy, and he was subsequently elected to the office. Wells, who characterized herself as the “experienced, ethical choice for circuit judge,” presides over a broad civil and criminal law practice that includes residential and commercial real estate, family law, juvenile law, criminal defense for misdemeanors and traffic offenses.
The current president of the Piatt County Bar Association, Wells has three adult children. Her husband, Raymond, passed away in 2014.
In other political news ...
— Champaign lawyer A.J. Ruggieri, a Republican who aspires to take on Democratic incumbent state Sen. Scott Bennett, will learn more about his battle to remain on the ballot Monday. That’s when the Illinois State Board of Elections will review a petition challenge filed by the Bennett campaign.
It alleges that Ruggieri’s petitions contain “less than the 1,000 qualified signatures” that state law requires.
GOP petition passers working for Ruggieri failed in their efforts to collect a safe number of signatures on Ruggieri’s behalf. They turned in petitions bearing just 1,182 signatures, far less than what seasoned pols consider a defensible number in the event of a challenge. Democrats have challenged more than 300 signatures on a variety of grounds.
Those include assertions that some of the signers do not live in the 52nd Senate District, are not eligible to sign Ruggieri’s petition because they voted in the March Democratic primary or provided incomplete addresses and/or false signatures.
The district is made up of portions of Champaign and Vermilion counties.
Ruggieri did not initially intend to run, failing to file as a candidate in the December filing period.
But without a candidate to take on Bennett, Republicans tried to add him to the ballot in the post-primary filing period established to fill empty ballot spots.
— Later Monday — around 6 p.m. — members of the Champaign County Republican Central Committee will choose from two applicants to fill the ballot spot for county treasurer in November.
The applicants are Jewell Cox, an employee in the office of Democratic county Auditor George Danos, and Ted Mhyre, a former university business analyst and current member of the Sadorus Village Board.
Democrats recently slated their treasurer candidate, retired U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Cassandra Johnson. Although the post was filled by election in 2018, the office is up for vote again because the Democrat who won that election — Laurel Prussing — resigned in January 2020.
Current Treasurer Marisol Hughes, who was appointed to fill Prussing’s spot, sought the Democratic nomination. But her bid was rejected by party committeepeople led by current county party Chairwoman Carol Ammons.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-351-5369.