Thursday, January 12, 2006

Why do Irish-sounding names attract voters in judicial primaries?

The musical response is, "I don't know why, but they do...."

I was something of a witness at the birth of this phenomenon, years ago, at a meeting of the CBA Operation of the Circuit Court Committee. This was a committee that chose its members -- not open to the general membership -- but (and not for the first time) I slipped by because my name was confused with my father's. He was a contemporary of most of the other members, many of whom were sitting judges, as the committee's title might suggest. They were too polite to admit their mistake in admitting me to their group, so for one year (and one year only) I got to attend the monthly lunch-time meetings.

One such was held the day after the primary election -- an election in which several slated candidates had gone down to defeat, beaten by persons (I think they may all have been men at the time, but I haven't researched it) with obvious Irish surnames.

Slated judicial candidates did not lose primary elections in Cook County, Illinois. I thought I'd stumbled in on a wake when I came into that lunch meeting: The members of the committee were in mourning for the aspirations of their friends.

From that day, 20 or so years ago, to this, the judicial primary election ballot in Cook County has looked like a Dublin phone book.

There's a new wrinkle in this old story, according to a story in yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times (link still live as of this morning) about Park Ridge resident Frederick Rhine -- who admitted he legally changed his name to Patrick Michael O'Brien because he hoped he might get elected Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County under the new name.

Apparently the paper had reported the name change story last fall because yesterday's story referred to a prior article in which Rhine/O'Brien admitted that the name change "bothered his wife and some law partners... [but, he claimed] they also conceded he'd have better luck becoming a Cook County judge if he changed his name."

The writer of yesterday's article seems to be surprised that, after going to all this trouble, the newly minted Mr. O'Brien failed to follow through on his judicial aspirations: He did not file to be a candidate in the upcoming primary.

Please. The Sun-Times was obviously waiting in the weeds for him. Had he followed through, he would have been skewered. Even the Tribune might have picked up the story. (Every election cycle, about two or three weeks before the primary, the Tribune publishes one 'news' story -- and only one per election cycle -- highlighting one candidate who is spectacularly underqualified or who has raised too much money or who has done something controversial, as in our new Mr. O'Brien. In fact, one year, the Tribune's victim was a woman who changed her middle name to a very Irish surname, to go along with her husband's very Irish surname. She was not Irish -- and still isn't, in fact, although I personally don't think that justified the Tribune ridiculing her that year. Each of these Tribune stories closes with pleas for merit selection of judges attributed to a variety of worthies. The identities of the worthies changes; the angle never does. Then the Tribune follows with an admitted editorial in which it complains how little the voters know about the wanna-be judges -- remember, the paper runs only one story about the judicial primary -- and calls for merit selection of judges.)

You know what merit selection of judges is, don't you? That's where the politicians pick the judges directly without the inconvenience and uncertainty of an election.

The thing that the former Mr. Rhine has going for him is that the newspapers have a limited attention span. Don't be surprised if "Patrick Michael O'Brien" files for the primary in 2008.

I have particular interest in, and sympathy for, Mr. O'Brien because I have also harbored judicial aspirations. I ran twice in the primary. I did well with the bar associations -- was rated qualified or recommended and so forth -- and finished dead last both times.

When I ran the second time, my wife started house shopping. I wasn't around to object -- and, by the time I realized she was serious, she was ready to bid. "Look at it this way," she told me, "this way you'll have two lawns on which to put your signs." She wasn't far wrong about the total number of lawns on which my signs appeared.

So -- to get back to the point of this essay -- I've given a great deal of thought to why Irish-sounding names attract votes at primary time.

Note that I said "Irish-sounding." I actually have an Irish surname -- but it's not obviously Irish as in "O'Brien" or "Quinn." (My own stunning failures at the polls are attributable to this alone -- that's my story and I'm sticking to it -- although my absolute lack of any political connections can't have helped.)

Some have speculated that Irish surnames attract votes because the Illinois primary is held in such close proximity to the Feast of St. Patrick. I don't agree. I believe the best explanation for the phenomenon was advanced by the late Mike Royko: He said, all other things being equal, voters looking at a long line of names of persons they do not know on a primary ballot will vote for persons of their own ethnic group first. The Italians will vote for Italians. The Poles will vote for Poles. And the Irish will vote for the Irish. But, if no one in a race is from the voter's ethnic group, voters will choose an Irish name. That way, no Italian accidentally votes for a Pole. No Pole mistakenly votes for an Italian. Whether true or not, it's an explanation that fits the facts -- there are not enough Irish left to elect anyone on their own. But that's why the surname must be obviously Irish -- so Irish its unmistakable for the Poles and the Italians.

1 comment:

Frederick Rhine said...

Not willing to deal with any more grief than I'd already gotten - including an Illinois law to inhibit other people from doing what I'd done! - I changed my name back. Since it would be a waste of time running for judge with the name "Rhine" (ask me and the two others in Illinois who've tried), I will never be a judge. The people who were born with or married into Irish surnames will continue to be elected judges, irrespective of their qualifications. That's how it should be, right?