Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough dies at 73

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Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, who was recently hospitalized for a serious medical condition, has died. She was 73 years old.

Yarbrough died Sunday afternoon surrounded by her family and her husband, former Maywood Mayor Henderson Yarbrough, according to Sally Daly, assistant secretary of communications for the county clerk’s office.

“We have lost one of the brightest lights in public service in Cook County and the state of Illinois and we will never be the same,” Chief Deputy Clerk Cedric Giles said in a statement.

Yarbrough had been hospitalized and was being treated for a medical condition that Daly described last week as serious without disclosing details.

The Maywood Democrat was the first Black person and first woman to serve as Cook County clerk. She held elected office for more than two decades, including as Cook County Recorder of Deeds and as a state representative.

He was also active in Democratic Party politics, working for both the Cook County Democratic Party and the Illinois Democratic Party. She was a Democratic committeewoman representing west suburban Proviso Township for the Cook County Party, where she was also treasurer. She is a member of the Illinois party’s state central committee.

Yarbrough was sworn in as a state representative in 2001, elected Cook County recorder of deeds in 2012 and clerk in 2018. When the recorder’s office was eliminated, she assumed all duties of that position as county clerk in 2020.

Yarbrough has said that helping people is what he finds most exciting about elected office and his party’s positions.

“I think people get energy from other people,” Yarbrough told the Sun-Times in a 2020 interview.

However, Yarbrough’s tenure was not without scrutiny.

she faced various accusations of clientelistic contracting in different positions she held, the first of which began in 2012 when her niece was hired as an executive assistant in her office with an annual salary of $114,000, along with other alleged political ties to her.

A federal hiring supervisor criticized his hiring decisions, finding “a variety of problems, from consistently poor hiring documentation to suspicious interviews and [employee] selection meetings. Then-Cook County Inspector General Pat Blanchard recommended that some new hires and high-ranking staff be fired, although Yarbrough refused.

In 2018, Yarbrough was sued by attorney Michael L. Shakman, who sued to end political cronyism more than 50 years ago, over similar hiring issues. A court-appointed monitor was tasked with observing the office’s hiring practices in 2020, although he ended his oversight of the agency when the the suit was closed in 2023 cost taxpayers $3 million in compliance efforts and legal fees, Yarbrough said at the time.

She wasn’t just a politician. Yarbrough was a licensed real estate broker and founder of Hathaway Insurance Agency. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Chicago State University and a master’s degree in inner-city studies from Northeastern Illinois University.

Condolences poured in from Illinois elected officials, many of whom remembered Yarbrough as a pioneer.

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said Yarbrough was a dedicated public servant who “was always encouraging” and paved the way for many. “Above all, she was a wonderful human being loved by many, including her family and friends who mourn her loss,” Stratton said in a statement.

“We are praying for them and their colleagues in the Cook County Clerk’s Office as they grieve and sending them strength for the journey.”

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi remembered Yarbrough as a pioneer who inspired others through her public service work.

“I was proud to work alongside Karen within the Cook County property tax system and applaud her efforts to help veterans throughout the region,” Kaegi said in a statement.

Similarly, Mayor Brandon Johnson said Yarbrough “forged a path for officials like me and others” as a pioneer and tireless legislator.

“His passion for ensuring that communities experience the full support of their governing bodies and benefit from the fruits of our democracy will truly be missed, as will his radiant smile,” Johnson said.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet

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