What's in a Name? Lots
Various bar associations found Michael B. Hyman “highly qualified” when he ran for judge in Cook County, Ill., and the former appellate lawyer—who also had numerous jury trials under his belt—had only recently served as president of the Chicago Bar Association.
But he was still worried. Hyman, currently sitting by appointment on the Cook County Circuit Court bench, was listed last on the February 2008 primary election ballot, and it had been 12 years since someone with a Jewish surname won a countywide election.
“He was extremely well-qualified and had all this on paper,” says Philip Molfese, a Chicago political consultant who worked on Hyman’s campaign. “I told him that all that was great, but his last name was going to be an extremely hard sell.”
If Hyman had a last name that sounded Irish, getting elected would be easier, says Molfese, explaining that surnames associated with the Emerald Isle usually go over well among Cook County voters.
Having a preference for certain names in judicial races, political consultants say, is not unique to Cook County. People often vote for candidates they think are like them.
“In New York City women tend to do exceptionally well, and Jewish women have a higher probability of being elected judge in Manhattan,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant there. “But in Brooklyn, black women do well.”
Los Angeles County voters often prefer candidates whose last names appear to be Hispanic or white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, says Fred Huebscher, a Hermosa Beach, Calif., political consultant. In 2006 he worked on a judicial campaign for Lynn Olson, an attorney who had left the law to run a bagel and sandwich shop.
Olson ran against Dzintra Janavs, a sitting judge who received an “exceptionally well-qualified” rating from the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
“People couldn’t pronounce that name, they didn’t know what [ethnicity] she was and they didn’t know if she was a man or a woman,” Huebscher says. “You couldn’t come up with a worse name if you tried. I knew we could win that race.”
And they did. Olson, who was found “not qualified” by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, won 54 percent of the vote.
Names are so important in judicial races, Huebscher says, that he sometimes advises candidates to tweak theirs. Hyman says that some told him he should run as “Michael O’Hyman.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” he says. Instead, he devised an association strategy. While his surname might lose him votes, Hyman thought he could win if he got enough votes in the county’s traditionally black wards. He hired Wallace “Gator” Bradley, a black political consultant who is well-known in Cook County for both his community outreach work and his association with the Gangster Disciples, one of Chicago’s largest street gangs.
A convicted felon, Bradley claims to have turned his life around. Hyman took Bradley at his word, and that went over well with the voters he courted.
“He hired this person knowing he had been in trouble 20 years ago, who was good at what he did now,” Molfese says.
The plan did not go over well with Bryan Sexton, a gang prosecutor who ran against Hyman, or with some of Cook County’s black lawyers and judges.
But the strategy hit the right note with voters. Hyman won the primary and will run unopposed, as a Democrat, in the November 2008 general election.