Rev. Ira J. Acree, co-chair of the Leaders Network, a West Side social justice and faith-based group, and pastor of Greater St. John Bible Church, is seeking to replace Brandon Johnson on the Cook County Board of Commissioners once Johnson is sworn as mayor of Chicago. And he is not alone.

Marshall Hatch Jr., Zerlina Smith-Members and Claiborne Wade have all acknowledged they are pursuing the soon-to-be vacant seat. 

In an interview April 26 with Austin Weekly News, Acree said, “I’ve already sent a letter of interest to (Cook County Clerk) Karen Yarbrough and I’ve already spoken to the president of the Senate Don Harmon.” 

Harmon (39th) serves as the Oak Park Township committeeperson, while Yarbrough serves as the Proviso Township committeeperson. They are both part of the Democratic party committee that will appoint Johnson’s replacement. In a weighted vote, the two suburban committeepersons control a narrow majority of the votes needed to make the appointment.

In Chicago, Acree has secured the support of Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), he said. They serve as their wards’ respective committeepersons and hold 10.98% and 13.13% of the possible votes, respectively.

Other West Siders have thrown their hat in the ring — Austin activist Zerlina Smith-Members and Marshall Hatch Jr., who heads the MAAFA Redemption Project.

A prominent West Side civil rights leader with more than 30 years advocating for social justice and improved quality of life on the greater West Side, Acree said he has the talent for the role. He is working to get the support needed to be appointed as the new commissioner, appealing to stakeholders and Democratic party committeepersons responsible for the selection. 

“It is no secret that I have spent years, just like Brandon Johnson, committed to ending the tale of the two cities. I have a body of work that backs that up,” he said. 

Acree said he shares a progressive agenda with Johnson that will allow him to continue working to improve the quality of life for residents of Cook County’s 1st district. If appointed, he is certain the relationships he has built with faith and political leaders throughout the county will help him keep the seat in the long run. 

“He’ll be mayor and me fulfilling his vacancy, it’s like a natural fit,” he said. 

Hatch is the son of Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church. Hatch, Jr., an Oak Park resident, told this newspaper he wanted to run because he respected Johnson’s progressive legacy and he wanted to support the county board as it puts more funding into mental health resources and launches the Universal Basic Income pilot. Hatch also wanted to advocate for environmental justice for minority communities that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution, saying the removal of lead pipes is a major priority.

He said his work at MAAFA Redemption Project and the larger Garfield Park Wellness Initiative collaborative project makes him a good choice to pick up where Johnson is leaving off. Hatch also said that growing up near the Austin Boulevard and Lake Street intersection, right at the Chicago and Oak Park border, prepared him for building bridges in the district that span both the city and the suburbs.

“What was interesting about growing up in Austin and literally walking across the street to another domain that felt like a different world, I think this experience has also shaped the reason why I’m running,” he said. “I think every community in the 1st District should feel like Oak Park/River Forest.”

Hatch said he didn’t feel any awkwardness about competing for the appointment against “Uncle Ira,” saying that he respects him and anyone else who is applying.

“It’s a dynamic district, it’s a district that has a lot of potential, a lot of promise, and it’s doing a lot a lot of good things already,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want to serve that district? So, I wouldn’t fault anybody for wanting to continue to Brandon Johnson’s legacy.”

Hatch said he has reached out to all committeepersons. He said he was conscious of the fact that Harmon and Yarbrough collectively hold the majority of the votes, but that he hasn’t received any endorsements from anyone. 

Smith-Members is a longtime West Side political activist and like Acree and Hatch, Jr. a part of the Leaders Network. She ran for 29th Ward alderman in 2015 and 2019. In 2022, when nurse and former 28th Ward aldermanic candidate Beverly Miles ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against incumbent Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Smith-Members served as her running mate before Smith-Members decided to challenge Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in the Democratic primary instead. 

Smith-Members announced her interest on the morning of April 26. She told Austin Weekly News that she made the announcement to try to force the process out in the open, instead of having the nominating committee decide behind closed doors. 

When Democratic Committeepersons chose a successor for the Cook County Board’s 2nd District in the summer of 2017, the names of the candidates weren’t revealed until the nominating committee conducted interviews. More recently, in April 2020, when Democratic committeepersons filled the suburban 16th District seat, the names of the candidates weren’t announced at all until after the fact. 

Smith-Members said she wanted to run because “it’s an open seat” and sitting on the county board felt like a natural extension of the activism and work she’s already been doing. If selected, she would focus on two of the priorities that have been cornerstones of her previous campaigns – improving public safety and increasing mental health services. Those happened to account for the biggest portions of the Cook County budgets. 

Like Acree, Smith-Members sent her resume and application to all 1st District Committeepersons. She said that, as of April 26, she received responses from Taliaferro, Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) and 26th Ward committeeperson Angee Gonzalez Rodriguez. 

Smith-Members said that, with her name out there, she hoped that her supporters would lobby the committeepersons on her behalf. 

“I would hope that the public would take the initiative, and reach out to the committee, and then attend whatever community forums that [the nominating committee holds],” she said. 

Claiborne Wade, also from Austin, is interested in the commissioner’s seat as he wants to bring “great opportunities” to the 1st District, where he lives with his wife and four kids. He has advocated for equitable funding in Chicago schools and an elected Chicago school board as a member of Kids First Chicago’ parent advisory board. 

He also serves as the Sustainable Community Schools Parent Liaison at Oscar DePriest Elementary School in Austin. In a letter shared with the committeemen and women, Wade said if selected he will focus on education, affordable housing and mental health, while preventing an increase in property taxes. 

“I’m a husband and a proud parent of four children born and raised in Austin,” Wade told Austin Weekly AWN, adding he was able to purchase a home in Forest Park two years ago, an opportunity he wants to bring to more residents of the district. 

Wade graduated from Michelle Clark High School and was actively involved in the school’s student government and also served two terms as the student representative on the local school council. Besides working for State Farm Insurance in Austin for 20 years, he has been involved as a community organizer in several political campaigns, including those of Illinois governor candidate Kennedy Joy, Alexi Giannoulias for the United States Senate and congresswoman Robin Kelly (IL-02). In a letter of support addressed to Don Harmon, Kelly said Wade “impressed me so much because of his hard work, enthusiasm and dependability,” asking him to be considered for the district’s empty seat. Former congresswoman Cheri Bustos, who represented Illinois 17th congressional district for 10 years, also supports Wade per a letter of support shared with the Austin Weekly for his leadership and civic engagement. 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...