Apr 8, 2024 - News

Karen Yarbrough forged a legacy in Illinois politics

Photo of people standing around a man signing a document

Gov. Pat Quinn signs the bill into law ending the death penalty in Illinois in 2011. With the governor are sponsors John Cullerton, from left, Barbara Flynn Currie, Kwame Raoul, Karen Yarbrough, Willie Delgado and Don Harmon. Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough died Sunday after a brief hospital stay. She was 73.

The big picture: The clerk had a long history in Illinois politics, including as the first Black woman to hold that office, elected in 2018. She is being lauded as a "trailblazer" in Illinois politics.

Context: As Clerk, Yarbrough oversaw Cook County elections and county records like birth, marriage and death certificates.

Yes, but: Her career was much more than just her last job.

Here are three things to know about Yarbrough's legacy:

1. Yarbrough cut her teeth representing the 7th district in the General Assembly in Springfield, starting in 2001.

  • She spent over a decade representing the western suburbs, rising to join former Speaker Mike Madigan's leadership team.
  • Her biggest achievements included shepherding successful legislation to end the death penalty and to ban indoor smoking in Illinois.

2. Yarbrough's career has been tied up in Madigan's. She took over the state Democratic party as interim chair in 2021 after he was removed for his part in the ComEd scandal.

  • Like Madigan, Yarbrough was accused of patronage hiring, including giving family members jobs during her time in various elected offices.
  • She consistently fought those allegations and even settled a patronage lawsuit.

3. The Yarbroughs are Maywood political royalty. Yarbrough's father, Don Williams, was the city's mayor (and a contemporary of slain Black Panther Fred Hampton, also from Maywood).

  • Plus: While Rep. Yarbrough represented the area in Springfield, her husband, Henderson, was Maywood's mayor for nearly two decades.

What's next: Chief Deputy Clerk Cedric Giles will reportedly take over the operations of the office temporarily, but Yarbrough's term isn't up until 2026.

  • Per county rules, a local Democratic Party committee can appoint a replacement in the interim, and a special election could be on the November ballot, Capitol Fax notes.
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