Propelled by support from top Democrats including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis easily won the party’s nomination for a 10-year term on the high court Tuesday, topping her two closest challengers by overwhelming margins.
“I've spent my life's work and this campaign committed to improving access to justice and promoting fairness for all. I'm looking forward to continuing my work,” Theis said in a statement.
For a Supreme Court seat from Chicago and Cook County, winning the Democratic primary likely leads to a general election win in November. Theis faces Republican James Gerard Riley, a circuit judge who ran unopposed in his party’s primary.
The Democratic contest had evolved into a 3-woman race featuring Theis; appellate judge Joy Cunningham, an African-American supported by top black politicians including Secretary of State Jesse White; and Aurelia Pucinski, an appellate judge and former court clerk with deep Chicago roots and a famous name.
With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, Theis had 49 percent to 23 percent for Cunningham and 21 percent for Pucinski, a former circuit court clerk and daughter of late longtime alderman Roman Pucinski. Chicago attorney Thomas Flannigan, who had no judicial experience and raised no support, had 7 percent.
Cunningham, who called Theis to concede, said in a statement “we have a lot to be proud of and nothing to regret.’’
Pucinski issued a statement reiterating her frequent complaints that Theis was beholden to party leaders who gave her access to deep pools of campaign money.
“This Supreme Court election demonstrates the way special interest money can buy a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court,” Pucinski said. “This was a low turnout election, about 20 percent. And it shows why the other 80 percent of the voters need to become involved.”
Theis is seeking a full term as she is completing her 2010 appointment to finish the term of retired Justice Thomas Fitzgerald. She had joined two other women on the court with her appointment that year, marking the first time three women had seats on the state’s highest court at one time.
Theis had downplayed the involvement of Emanuel and party bosses in the run-up to the primary election, instead suggesting voters focus on her nearly three decades of judicial experience.
Theis, a former public defender, had served at every level of the Illinois judiciary, beginning as an associate judge in Cook County in 1983.
In the waning days of the campaign, Pucinski had tried to label Theis the “big money” candidate being pushed by the mayor and his Rolodex. Theis brought in more than $1 million during the campaign, state records show, and Emanuel raised about $100,000 for her at a single fall fundraiser at a Loop restaurant.
Theis also had enjoyed support from groups of lawyers at some of the city’s most prestigious law firms, including more than $65,000 from lawyers at the notable firm of Kirkland and Ellis, where Theis’ daughter-in-law practices.
Pucinski this week also had attempted to call attention to the involvement of Personal PAC, an organization that supports candidates it believes are protective of abortion rights. The group had sent a trio of mailers supporting Theis and calling Pucinski unqualified.
Both the Theis campaign and leaders of Personal PAC said there had been no coordination between the two on the mailings.
As for her backing by Democratic leaders, Theis had said she respects the party and welcomed the support of Emanuel, as well as Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton.
People understand campaigning is part of the process of choosing judges, Theis said, adding she would not feel like she owed someone something for her post.
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