Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough dies at 73

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Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, a prominent figure in state and local Democratic Party politics who successfully championed legislation to ban the death penalty in Illinois, died Sunday. She was 73 years old.

For decades, Yarbrough and her husband, Henderson, were political mainstays in western suburban Maywood, where he previously served as mayor, and in Proviso Township. She represented the area for years in the Illinois House of Representatives and eventually served on then-President Michael Madigan’s leadership team.

Her alliance with Madigan, the longtime chairwoman of the Illinois Democratic Party, accompanied her rise in state and local Democratic parties and continued during her successful campaigns, first for Cook County recorder of deeds and then for county clerk. . Yarbrough was elected in 2018 as the county’s first African-American clerk.

A spokesperson for the county clerk’s office announced on April 2 that Yarbrough was hospitalized with a “serious medical condition” and confirmed her death Sunday night.

Tributes poured in Sunday from his colleagues, describing Yarbrough as a dedicated public servant who fought for veterans, homeowners and civil rights.

Cook County Commissioner Stanley Moore met Yarbrough in Springfield when he was a budget analyst.

Later, at the county, they worked together on a program to record military service records for free, and the two would “host after-death property seminars throughout the county, teaching people how to protect their most valuable assets.” Moore said in a written statement. “We will miss her very much.”

Yarbrough was born in Washington, DC. His family came to Maywood in the early 1960s. He studied business administration at Chicago State University and received his master’s degree in Inner City Studies from Northeastern Illinois University.

She became a licensed real estate broker and founded Hathaway Insurance Agency in Maywood in 1975. She followed the path laid out by her father, the late Don Williams Sr., who established the first African-American-owned pharmacy in town in the 1960s and he diversified into home construction, real estate and insurance, according to his Tribune obituary.

Active in the local NAACP and a contemporary of activist Fred Hampton, Williams was elected to a term as mayor of Maywood and headed its chamber of commerce. Yarbrough herself then ran the chamber starting in 1993.

He first ran for the House in 1998 against incumbent Rep. Eugene Moore, but lost by 544 votes in a four-way primary. In 2000, after Moore left the legislature to become recorder of deeds, Yarbrough won the seat.

Yarbrough and Moore clashed often. She lost to him in a 2002 race for Proviso Township Democratic Committeeman, but beat him four years later. When Moore retired as recorder, Yarbrough succeeded him in the county seat, leaving the House seat he held for more than a decade.

His most notable accomplishments in Springfield included successfully working on legislation to make Illinois the 22nd state to ban indoor smoking in 2008, but he also secured money for essential local projects ranging from repaving a library parking lot to redoing alleys. and local urban landscapes.

Yarbrough earned his highest praise for the House’s sponsorship of an execution ban in Illinois, culminating in the legislation’s dramatic passage in the second of two votes held during one of the final days of an outgoing session in January. from 2011.

After the bill failed by one vote in the first round, Yarbrough brought it back a second time and passed the historic measure. It was the first time the House passed a ban on the death penalty since executions were reinstated in Illinois in 1977. The proposed ban was heavily criticized by some lawmakers and prosecutors who argued that violent criminals could murder multiple victims without fear. to be killed themselves.

The measure quickly passed the Senate, and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn signed the bill in a private ceremony in his Capitol office with Yarbrough and then-Sen. Kwame Raoul, now attorney general, watches with other supporters.

The approval came more than a decade after Republican Gov. George Ryan unilaterally established a moratorium on the death penalty after several people on death row were revealed not guilty.

Yarbrough, once a supporter of capital punishment, later said the exonerations served as a “painful and poignant reminder that death is an absolute penalty.” Once imposed, there is no second chance, there is no going back and no way to correct a mistake.”

“He has a strong legacy in Springfield,” state Rep. LaShawn Ford, a West Side Chicago Democrat who served with Yarbrough in the Illinois House, told the Tribune on Sunday.

Ford admired Yarbrough’s “love of family” and how she and her husband stayed together as a political power couple for so long. The association served as a great example for the black community, she said. “Karen Yarbrough and her husband really showed us how to be a couple in the black community and how to love each other and be strong together through a lot of adversity.”

He also highlighted his loyalty to local Democrats and how he worked his way to influence within the party. Yarbrough served on the state central committee and was treasurer of the Cook County Democratic Party.

“She’s a giant in Cook County and in Illinois,” Ford said. “I think a lot of times people don’t understand your value until you’re gone. People will now see the value of her to the Democratic Party.”

When Yarbrough won the recorder’s office in 2012, he inherited a federal court anti-patronage monitor who was ordered to oversee the office during Moore’s tenure, but was unable to get rid of him during his time in that office.

For years, reformers pushed for the recorder’s office, which oversees land transactions, to be combined with the clerk’s office, which oversees suburban voting and records such as birth certificates, and voters approved the merger in 2016.

Despite her initial opposition to consolidation, Yarbrough joined when she was elected secretary.

Former Cook County Commissioner Ed Moody, then a close Madigan aide now expected to testify in the former president’s upcoming federal corruption trial, was appointed acting recorder until the merger was completed.

Yarbrough filled her offices with Madigan allies and served as interim chair of the state Democratic Party when Madigan lost her chair position and resigned from the party post amid a growing ComEd lobbying scandal in 2021.

As county clerk, she was once accused of “running an illegal cronyism operation” by Michael Shakman, the lawyer whose lawsuit filed half a century ago against the Democratic political machine led to a series of anti-cronyism decrees and, eventually, federal monitors who oversee several offices, including hers.

Despite frequently being criticized for defying best labor practices, Yarbrough consistently denied the allegations and ultimately took advantage of a federal appeals court decision that lifted oversight of the Illinois government.

As a result, the Yarbrough County Clerk’s Office, the last public office under federal control, was able to end the Shakman case launched to fight the stubborn and unfair use of Democratic politics to decide most hiring, firing and promotions in state and local government. .

A federal judge officially freed her from that oversight last year despite some reservations from watchdogs that she had not fully addressed problematic staff practices.

Yarbrough briefly considered running for secretary of state in 2021 when Jesse White announced he would not seek re-election.

She ultimately decided not to run at the state level, in part because her husband, Henderson, was being treated for prostate cancer.

“He’s my rock,” the county clerk said of her spouse, according to the Sun-Times. “There’s nothing he’s done in the last 30 years that he hasn’t been by my side. He is quiet, soft-spoken, but he has a lot of wisdom, especially when it comes to this very complicated business that I am involved in, and he is the head of our family.”

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