Candidate for judgeship cites entrenched power as main obstacle to successful run

By John Breslin | Jun 4, 2018

Laninya Cason knows where she needs to get the votes to win the race for Resident Circuit Judge in St. Clair County - the city where she grew up and where her family still lives, East St. Louis.

But the former associate judge for the Twentieth Judicial Circuit who is challenging a current one, Judge Christopher Kolker, knows it is a tough ask as a Republican to sweep up enough votes in the city.

Cason came within two percentage points of unseating long time incumbent, the late Judge Robert LeChien, in 2016.

She polled at just over 49 per cent but lost in her home town where she still has property and family still lives.

"This was my home town. I still have property there and family still there...I was heart broken," Cason told the Record.

"But elections are won and lost in East St. Louis," said Cason, adding that a "political machine" in St. Clair County relies on votes from the city.

There is a "lot of patronage," she argues, adding that the city is "stuck and cannot move forward."

"It cannot move without Belleville, where the lawyers live and work and control the minority community," said Cason, adding that she wants people to be educated on the county's political structure and not just vote straight Democrat.

Cason is up against a big pocketed opponent. Kolker has raised more than $80,000 for his campaign, mostly from law firms, while his opponent has yet to register any donations this cycle, according to the money tracking website, illinoissunshine.org.

But Cason, associate judge for 12 years until she was not re-appointed in 2015, is upbeat, claiming the campaign is going well and citing an upcoming open house later this month that she plans to use as a launchpad for her challenge. She cites her experience.

"I was a judge for 12 and a half years, more experience than my opponent, across all areas, domestic, probate tax, and presided over major civil and felony cases," Cason said. 

Kolker has been associate judge since 2013.

On a more general note, she said she is committed to what she describes as justice for all, equality and keeping politics out of the judiciary." She describes the politics swirling around the judiciary in St. Clair County as "pervasive."

"For the judiciary to be run by politics, justice takes a back seat to politics," said Cason, who switched to the Republican Party in 2012, largely motivated by what she believes were the machinations against her mother, former East St. Louis councilwoman Karen Cason, for raising issues of corruption.

St. Clair County Sheriff Richard Watson recently endorsed Kolker, claiming he was the most qualified for the job.

In a statement, Watson said, “Judge Kolker is well respected by law enforcement. I personally know his dedication to the rule of law.  Judge Kolker makes efforts to reach out to law enforcement when laws change, so we can keep up to date."

Kolker, in turn, described Watson as "the top crime fighter in our county."

The sheriff can "do whatever he wants to do," said a not-surprised Cason before citing the statistic that of the 28,000 people held at some point in the county jail over the three years to the end of 2014, 19,000 were African American, including 7,000 women.

In St. Clair County, 71 percent of those sent to the penitentiary were African American, which makes up 30 percent of the population, Cason said.  

Cason said she managed to find out the not widely available figures as she came to the end of her term in June of that year. She believes those numbers, and percentages. have changed little in the intervening years.

"Those are the statistics, let him endorse," said Cason, adding that she does, nevertheless, respect Sheriff Watson.

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