The Adopt-a-name Game; or bait-and-switch game in judicial elections

January 16, 1998|By R. Bruce Dold

Since I’ve never gotten enough credit in this town for my indomitable Irish grandmother, and since Dold doesn’t exactly sound like it traces a direct line to County Cork, I’ve decided to give my journalism career a boost by taking an Irish name.

My wife’s 100 percent Irish, so I could just take her name. But it’s Norris, and that could sound like I’m English so it won’t work. Being English doesn’t get you anywhere in Chicago.

So I’ll just pick a good one out of a hat. From now on, it’ll be R. Bruce Fitzpatrick. The R. will stand for “Rory.” This should bring me legions of faithful readers in Chicago, whether I deserve them or not.

All right, this is not an original idea. I’m stealing it from some clever lawyers.

It’s election timefor judges in Cook County, and at election time for judges in Cook County, genealogy takes some strange detours. Just  like on St. Patrick’s Day, everybody becomes Irish.

Or, at least, everybody who thinks a phony Irish name will help them get elected as a judge. Recently, reporter Abdon Pallasch at the Chicago Lawyer picked out a few genealogical bait-and-switches.

Like Bonnie C. McGrath, an attorney in private practice who decided her husband’s Irish name wasn’t enough of an edge, so she is running for judge as Bonnie Fitzgerald McGrath.

And Terrie Adrienne Rymer, an attorney with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, who is running for judge as Terrie Fitzgerald Rymer.

Then there’s the former Edwin Hearn Korb, an assistant public defender who took his wife’s name and became Edward K. Flanagan, and the former Richard Joseph Owens, who picked up his mother’s maiden name and became Richard O’Connell Owens. They’re on the ballot, too.

They did this because few people who go to vote in the March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day, of course) primary will know anything about the candidates for judge, unless they follow the newspaper endorsements very carefully or have a helpful precinct captain who will point out which lawyers kissed enough wingtips to get the Cook County Democratic slatemakers to put their names on a palm card.

At least once, this ruse has worked. Circuit Judge David Donnersberger changed his middle name from Rayelle to Riley and got elected in 1996.

People with Irish names seem to have uncanny luck at winning elections in Cook County. Sometimes, it seems, just having the right name on the ballot is all it takes.

Of course, most of those people got their Irish names when they were born, because they actually had a father or a grandfather or a great-grandfather who came from Ireland.

Bonnie Fitzgerald McGrath does not. McGrath is her husband’s name. But even having one, adopted Irish name wasn’t enough for her.

She has a very plausible explanation for her decision to magically become Bonnie Fitzgerald McGrath. “It was my lawyer’s idea,” she said.

Well that’s interesting, because her lawyer is Michael Lavelle, a former chairman of the Chicago Board of Elections, where he apparently learned the ins and outs of putting one over on the voters. When Lavelle was on the elections board he had a running feud with Mayor Harold Washington, who bitterly complained that Lavelle used his power to hurt Washington’s allies.

“Mike said Bonnie McGrath is not good enough. You need to expand it and make it more attractive,” she said. “There were some Fitzgeralds on my husband’s side, very distant, but I thought, well, we’re coming by it a little more honestly. My dearest friend’s mother’s maiden name is Fitzgerald. I thought, maybe this is a sign from God.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with tricking the voters into thinking you’re somebody that you’re not, mind you. As Ms. Fitzgerald McGrath will tell you, would-be judges are just picking up on an advantage that movie starlets have known and employed for decades.

“Norma Jean Baker didn’t work, so she became Marilyn Monroe,” Ms. Fitzgerald McGrath said. Of course, the closest Marilyn Monroe ever got to a courtroom was her three divorces. She never asked the voters to let her dish out death sentences.

But, you do what you have to do.

I think Rory Bruce Fitzpatrick has a nice ring to it. And newspaper circulation has been falling, you know.

People in Chicago really do pay close attention to these things. A couple of months ago I wrote some columns about the peace talks in Northern Ireland. A reader called to rip me for being harsh and grossly unfair to the nice folks in the Irish Republican Army.

“By the way,” he asked, “what does the R. stand for?”

Robert, I told him.

“Aha, Robert the Bruce,” he said, “You’re named after the 14th Century Scottish conqueror. No wonder you hate the Irish.” He didn’t want to hear about my grandmother.

So, no more of that. It’s Rory Bruce Fitzpatrick. Now all I need is a law degree.