Champaign County judge forum

From left, Democratic judicial candidates Ruth Wyman, Troy Lozar of Mahomet, Ramona Sullivan and David Moore are shown at a candidate forum Jan. 30, 2020, at the Champaign City Building.

CHAMPAIGN — Four lawyers with a collective 98 years of experience tried to quickly sum up why voters should choose one of them to be a Champaign County judge.

Ramona Sullivan believes having been widowed young and raising two children alone for 10 years gives her a life experience that no one else on the bench has and the empathy to deal with single parents. Ruth Wyman said she’d be the only judge fluent in Spanish.

David Moore said he has the most experience doing the most kinds of cases, while Mahomet resident Troy Lozar said as a native of the area, he’s passionate about keeping the community safe and has the temperament to help get the right result.

Those were just snippets of responses given by the four Democratic primary opponents in a forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Champaign County, the NAACP Champaign County and The News-Gazette, held in a packed council chambers Jan. 30 at the Champaign City Building.

The winner of the March 17 primary will face Republican Cherie Kesler, a Savoy attorney, in November. The new judge will fill the seat vacated by Michael Jones, who retired in 2018.

Backgrounds

Sullivan, of Savoy, has been a lawyer since November 1996. She has been a full-time Champaign County assistant public defender for the past eight years. Prior to that, she spent about 14 years as a legal-aid attorney for Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance serving low-income clients in Illinois and was also in private practice in Edgar County for two years.

“I have been applying since 2012 for every (judicial) vacancy,” she noted, saying she’s always been found very qualified and recommended but never chosen. Of the 14 circuit judges in the Sixth Circuit, she observed that all are Republican and all but one are men.

“I wanted to see balance on the bench,” she said of why she first ran in 2018 for a circuit-wide seat that went to Roger Webber. “I want people who come to the courthouse to have a judge like me on the bench.”

Active in organizing and promoting pro bono legal service during her career, Sullivan is now remarried and has three children, two grown and one at home.

Lozar currently serves as a co-supervisor of criminal cases in the Champaign County State’s Attorney’s office, where he has been a prosecutor since 2004. Prior to that, he had a stint in private practice in Champaign County and before that worked as a state prosecutor in Yuma, Ariz., and a federal prosecutor in Phoenix and Tucson.

He’s been a lawyer since October 1997. He, his wife and their two children live in Mahomet.

Lozar said the biggest and most “tragic” issue in the county’s criminal-justice system is gun violence and he supports the idea of a mental-health court.

Moore lives in St. Joseph and has been a lawyer in Champaign County for 36 years. He gave a long list of the kinds of cases he’s handled, calling his the “broadest base of experience” of all the candidates.

“I’m a good lawyer. I’m a good person,” he said, noting he was named an “Illinois leading lawyer” in 2018 and 2020.

Moore, who is divorced, has two children in college. His office is in Urbana.

Ruth Wyman of Urbana, a lawyer since November 2004, has the least legal experience but the most political experience.

Prior to getting her law degree, she served on the Urbana City Council for eight years. She has repeatedly been recognized for her pro bono efforts locally and is active in several community nonprofit and advocacy groups.

Her ability to speak fluent Spanish has led to her handling several immigration cases as well as representing clients in other kinds of cases.

She said she would like to see Champaign County possibly launch a mental-health court and as a judge would work on efficient scheduling. She is married and has a daughter.

Circuit clerk candidates

Also given a chance to tell voters about themselves were Democratic circuit clerk candidates Robert “Bob” Burkhalter and Susan McGrath.

Burkhalter, of Champaign, has worked in the Champaign County court system for 13 years, first as a clerk in the circuit clerk’s office and since 2011 as a courtroom clerk to various judges. He’s married and has a daughter.

McGrath, of Champaign, has lived in Champaign County since 1976. A graduate of the University of Illinois and the UI College of Law, she served on the Champaign County Board for 16 years.

She began her legal career in 1982 and was in private practice until 2005. Since then, she has worked in the state’s attorney’s office in both the civil and support enforcement divisions.

Each is vying to unseat Republican Katie Blakeman, who was elected in 2012 and is running for her third term.

Burkhalter and McGrath both said the circuit clerk’s office needs to be run more efficiently and the staff needs better training.

Burkhalter said he is the best candidate for the job because he has done the work “every day for the last 13 years.”

“In every job, you have a boss and then you have a guy you ask when you want to know how something is done. I’m that guy,” he said. “You don’t need a lawyer. You don’t need a politician. You need a clerk.”

McGrath said her experience as a lawyer and her education make her the better candidate.

“There is a definite lack of leadership,” she said of the office now.

Each also took backhanded swipes at Blakeman’s work schedule.

“Being present for work is an important part of doing the work,” Burkhalter said.

“I will be there when my people are there,” McGrath said, adding that the amount of employee turnover in the clerk’s office indicates there are problems.