Republican candidate wins circuit seat in unlikely place - Madison County

By Ann Maher | Nov 7, 2014

A Republican has won a circuit court seat in Madison County, and no one is more shocked than the candidate - circuit judge-elect John Barberis.

"It was absolutely unexpected," Barberis said. "I am shocked."

But, he also said he was thrilled and ready to be sworn in Dec. 1.

By an 8 point margin, Barberis defeated Associate Judge Clarence Harrison, Democrat, 41,723 to 35,114, or 54 to 46 percent.

The outcome was unexpected for a number of reasons, not the least of which was campaign financing.

Barberis spent about $5,000 of his own money and operated almost an entirely grassroots campaign. He said he was helped through the efforts of other GOP campaigns - Bruce Rauner, Rodney Davis and Dwight Kay, for instance - in reaching voters door to door.

Barberis said that his frugality helped. He saved about 160 campaign signs following his unsuccessful bid for Madison County Circuit Clerk in 2012, and invested $150 in stickers worded "Judge," matching the old signs' color and font.

"My twins and I went out to our barn and we just stuck stickers over 'Clerk,'" he said.

By contrast, Harrison raised about $112,117 in individual campaign contributions. A vast majority of those contributions came from the plaintiffs’ bar, and almost half – at least $47,000 – came from asbestos attorneys.

The fact that Barberis won despite a vast funding differential was unusual because history shows that the circuit judge candidate that raises the most money wins. And Democrat candidates get the money in Madison County, and win elections.

Barberis said he made the decision early on in his campaign not to accept money from lawyers or law firms because of "the inherent appearance of impropriety."

"Not to suggest that there is something unethical about accepting these donations, but the perception to everyone else when a lawyer gives those contributions to a judge's campaign and then wins a case in that court...people assume it was because of the donation," he said.

"I didn't want that perception to ever be a question," he said.

Regarding the issue of experience, which was raised by Harrison because of his 15 years on the associate bench, Barberis said everyone has their first day being judge.

"I could not have had the experience, because I was not a political insider," he said.

Of the less than stellar ratings received in the ISBA poll, Barberis said he was evaluated by 92 lawyers in Madison County.

"If I stood in a room will all of them, maybe 20-25 of them know me," he said.

The poll, he said, is more of a political statement.

He said that 559 ballots were mailed and 211 were returnd. Of those returned, 119 lawyers indicated that they had "no opinion."

"What upset me the most about that poll was that my health was rated low," he said. "I consider myself a pretty healthy guy."

Barberis said he believes there are many more conservative lawyers in Madison County than the political makeup of the bench reflects, but they don't announce it for career reasons.

"There are a lot of Madison County attorneys and Madison County judges who are as conservative as you'll know," he said.

He said his election might encourage more candidates to run as Republicans, and perhaps even some apply for associate judgeships.

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