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Theis steamrolls Dem rivals by 2-to-1 margin in State Supreme Court race


Illinois Supreme Court

Updated: March 20, 2012 10:10PM

Propelled by impressive piles of endorsements and campaign cash, Mary Jane Theis moved a step closer to taking the “appointed” label off her Illinois Supreme Court seat Tuesday by steamrolling her three rivals by a more than a 2-to-1 margin.

“I feel very good,” said Theis, who celebrated her Democratic primary win for the state’s high court at the Palmer House with about 100 supporters, including Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago). “I’m not quite ready to exhale yet. It’s been more than a year of campaigning. It’s going to take a while to relax.”

The contest for one of three Cook County districts on the state high court was one of the most closely watched and – with $1.8 million raised collectively among the candidates — expensive campaigns on the spring primary ballot.

With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Theis had 49 percent of the vote, easily fending off challenges from appellate justices Joy Cunningham and Aurelia Pucinski.

Cunningham had 23 percent of the vote, compared to 21 percent for Pucinski. Fourth-place finisher Thomas W. Flannigan had 7 percent.

Theis will face Republican James Riley in November. He ran unopposed Tuesday.

Appointed in 2010, Theis flexed the most organizational and fund-raising muscle during the campaign, with backing from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and a $1.2 million political bank account. Emanuel called Theis to congratulate her an hour after polls closed.

Universally praised by bar groups, Theis went negative against Pucinski in television ads, calling her a conservative Republican and saying she was found unqualified by lawyers’ associations. That tactic represented an unusual step for a judicial campaign, where judges often stay above the fray and tout their own credentials.

But polling a week before Election Day showed even after Theis had spent about a half-million dollars, she was locked in a statistical tie with Pucinski — an apparent outlier that disappeared Tuesday night.

“I do believe that voters care about things like experience and bar ratings,” Theis said.

Pucinski, an appellate justice, was the best known of the Supreme Court field even though she lagged drastically in fund-raising, didn’t score blue-chip endorsements and got panned by the leading state bar associations, including the Chicago Council of Lawyers and Illinois State Bar Association.

Pucinski’s father, Roman, was a popular Northwest Side alderman and congressman. She was a two-term Cook County Circuit Court clerk and mounted unsuccessful campaigns for Cook County Board president and secretary of state.

Late Tuesday, Pucinski issued a statement congratulating Theis but took aim at groups that helped bankroll her, such as Personal PAC, which funded mailers attacking Pucinski’s “anti-choice record.”

“This Supreme Court election demonstrates the way that special-interest money can buy a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. This was a low-turnout election, about 20 percent, and it shows why the other 80 percent of the voters need to become involved,” Pucinski said.

Cunningham, who had previous corporate legal experience with Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and Loyola University, came in a close second to Theis in ratings from bar groups.

The first black woman to be president of the Chicago Bar Association, Cunningham had backing from Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and amassed a respectable campaign fund of her own: more than $513,000.

“We have a lot to be proud of and nothing to regret,” Cunningham told about 60 of her supporters at the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

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