Frank Haney tried exerting his perceived clout over the Winnebago County Board and the county's Democratic Central Committee.
They both clouted back and won.
Haney, the Republican County Board chairman, had an appointment to make. Democratic State's Attorney Joe Bruscato was elected circuit judge on Nov. 6 having only served about half of his four-year term as state's attorney.
Haney had the job of picking someone to be state's attorney for the remaining two years, and that someone had to be a Democrat, because that's what Bruscato is.
Traditionally in these types of situations, the chairman appoints the person chosen by the party's precinct committeemen, in this case the Democrats.
Haney went in a different direction. He asked for nominations and received nine, including Bruscato's chief prosecutor, Marilyn Hite Ross, and retiring 17th Circuit Judge Rosemary Collins. Bruscato is replacing Collins on the bench.
Haney conducted public interviews with each applicant, a laudable process that appeared to allow for no behind-the-scenes dealmaking. He picked Collins, a highly regarded jurist who had been endorsed by Mayor Tom McNamara.
Meanwhile, the county Democratic Central Committee, the Rockford Minister's Fellowship and Bruscato endorsed Hite Ross for the job.
Tuesday, the County Board thwarted Haney's appointment of Collins 15-5; then Haney put forward Hite Ross for the post. The ratification vote was 17-3. Republicans joined Democrats because they recognized that the shoe may be on the other foot someday.
As Wednesday's Register Star noted: "Fred Wescott, R-17, who voted in favor of Hite Ross said, 'I made my vote out of respect for my colleagues across the aisle.' Burt Gerl, D-17, gave a tip of the hat to his Republican colleagues who honored his caucus' selection. 'It goes both ways,' he said. 'We will remember this in the future.'"
This is a situation where Haney thought he was being a reformer by calling for applicants and having open interviews. However, the tradition of honoring party choices is honorable, because it more closely follows the wishes of voters in the state's attorney's race in 2016.
There are two important dimensions to this story. Hite Ross, a Rockfordian and mid-1970s Auburn High School graduate, was recruited personally by Bruscato a decade ago from the Cook County state's attorney's office, where she had been a prosecutor for 20 years.
Hite Ross had a sterling reputation in Cook County courts, but she always wanted to practice law in Winnebago County, where she continued to live while commuting to Cook County every day.
The other dimension is that Hite Ross is a black woman, and there have been few if any black women or men in Winnebago County leadership and certainly no black or women state's attorneys.
This appointment should not be seen as race-based affirmative action because it is not. Rather, it is merit-based; an acknowledgement that Hite Ross has been doing the job of state's attorney for some time and will not have a learning curve.
As Bruscato said, Hite Ross has won all but one of the criminal cases she has prosecuted in Winnebago County, and that one ended in a hung jury. She has earned this appointment and if she runs in 2020 the voters will decide whether or not to elect her. He said she handled the most difficult of cases well.
Collins has been an excellent judge for 29 years and is just 64; I was surprised and saddened that she retired because she has been inspirational, humane and practical in judging cases and pointing the way to reforms. Collins said she had a change of heart about retirement and by applying to be state's attorney, she indicated that she wants to remain active in county leadership.
She still can. Collins could seek appointment as an associate judge when an opening comes up, or run for circuit judge or another countywide elected office in 2020 — maybe even state's attorney.
Chuck Sweeny: email@example.com; @chucksweeny