An Eyeview of
Steven G. Watkins, Candidate for Cook County Circuit Court Judge
By Jill Wallace
At 49, Steven G. Watkins decided to run for Cook County Circuit Court Judge again. An unsuccessful run in 2010 prepared him with lessons of perseverance, grit and grind. Watkins says he has always “relied on these traits as a private practicing attorney for over 22 years, and now they serve me in a different way.” He uses them to thrive as a criminal defense and civil attorney while working to outshine his opponent, and earn the respect and votes from voters in the 2nd Subcircuit of Cook County in his quest to become judge.
In October 2013, I began a research internship with Attorney Watkins to gather material for a documentary. The internship has turned into much more than research as I find myself working sometimes 12 to 16 hour days as secretary, receptionist, researcher, clerk, photographer, navigator, editor, organizer, greeter, writer and doing any job necessary, not only because I’m the intern, but also because as he reminds me, “You have skills and must use them all.” My access has allowed me to observe him up close, and usually without filters. His character traits and flaws are many and represent the sum of who he is as a man, father, husband, attorney and possibly judge.
His gray speckled, closely cropped mane, finely tailored suits and shined shoes align with his beliefs in presenting the best image possible and building friendships. “The first thing people notice is how you look, the last thing they remember is how you make them feel and whether you’re a friend to them”, he says. He prides himself on being his own barber since he doesn’t have time to visit a barbershop. Last week, during a candidates’ forum at the PUSH headquarters, his campaign manager, Ed McCann, chided him on his appearance and not adhering to a GQ Magazine standard. “Godson (McCann calls him), I know I taught you better than that. It (tie) has to come all the way down and the suit jacket closed,” said McCann referring to Watkins’ opened suit jacket and too short tie.
Watkins builds relationships with his clients and spends time getting to know “regular people” as he calls them, way into the evening past 9 p.m. on many days. “My lights are always on”, he says. People often stop by his office unannounced because sometimes they need an ear to listen. His office at 75th and St. Lawrence has stood the test of time and remains a community staple even after being burglarized and shot at. . The bullet hole is still visible in the front window just below the awning bearing the name, Steven G. Watkins and Associates, P.C. His passion for providing legal clinics and pro bono work over the years in the crime-ridden neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago is the reason he receives a huge number of referrals for legal representation. Watkins is humble, but not modest. He articulates his weaknesses and knows his strengths. He remains a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom as he is known to take his opponent on on the battlefield fighting for justice and exposing the wrongdoings of prosecutors and police officer’s actions with his clients. Yet he remains respectful and with a controlled temperament toward colleagues.
Watkins can often be found reclining in his chair with his feet propped on the desk, in a zone, preparing for a trial or campaign speech. He’s oblivious to interns and employees preparing documents, completing tasks and attempting to ask him questions. When interrupted, he looks up in confusion not knowing the question asked or needing to give an immediate response. His desk is covered with law books and research material. He hates Post-it notes, tedious tasks, forms, paperwork, cheap liquor and cheap shoes. His desk is a mess and mirrors his mind of many thoughts, nonstop actions, repeated directions and forgetfulness. Notepads, loose papers with numbers and amounts, names and times are scattered. Strangely though, his gift and talent seems to be remembering any and all things related to numbers.
He’s gentle but a tiger and uses his in-depth knowledge of the law to defend, protect, counsel and initiate deals for his clients. He’s effortlessly likeable, charming, wears a wide smile, but he’s late; often late for client appointments.
His mother, one of the first female conductors for the CTA, has had a “talking to” with him on several occasions about the importance of being punctual. Once during a “talking to” on a Sunday, she said that he “Promised to be on time for appointments beginning that Tuesday.” When she asked why not Monday, he replied, “Because I have a trial that starts on Tuesday”, not remembering what appointments were scheduled for Monday.
He loves the adrenaline from doing criminal trials and was endorsed last week and in 2010 by The Chicago Tribune as “being a good trial lawyer endorsed over five other judicial candidates.”
Early on, his committee was challenged with the task of keeping a tight leash on his calendar, making sure he balances his law practice with campaign events. His advisors faced two problems. First, Watkins’ calendar was usually overbooked as he spent most days literally running from courtroom to courtroom around Chicago, visiting clients, leaving very little time for his campaign. Secondly, his campaign staff did not reach a consensus early on about the strategies for helping him connect with voters. There were very few campaign meetings resulting in campaign volunteers, staff and interns not knowing what was needed and who was completing what task. Everyone appeared to take on the role of just doing whatever without a plan causing many questions to go unanswered and the staff relying on past campaign experiences and deadlines.
As Watkins learned personalities and skill-sets, he began leading himself in the school of campaigning and elections 101, relying mostly on his relationships and the skills of the individuals on his team to delegate tasks. He acknowledges his rookie status in the school of politics and running for elected office. He swears that he’s not a politician. He began to place people in roles where they exhibited natural talent, had experience, expertise or just knew they’d grind and get the assigned job done. Often the lessons were learned after mistakes were made but could’ve been prevented with some degree of teaching. Teaching though, is a role that Attorney-Candidate Watkins refuses to subscribe to or embrace, at least during his campaign. Though teaching is not his forte’, he leads with conviction and sometimes with a bit of uncertainty.
Even with the guidance of an experienced campaign manager presenting ideas and ways to handle obstacles and decisions, Watkins usually ponders a thought and makes the final call himself, using his gut instinct and guided by his utter dislike for confrontation, offensive comments or rudeness. During a judicial forum sponsored by Citizens Newspaper, Watkins missed an opportunity to use the strategy decided upon by him and his campaign that he must begin to highlight the differences and fact that he and his opponent are not equally qualified to be elected judge. His son, Zack, scolded him afterwards saying, “Dad, you missed the chance to point out the differences between you and your opponent. She is not ready.” Watkins smiled and shared later that “Judges and judicial candidates can’t demean each other and I’m a man.”
Currently Watkins is a member of several community organizations. He serves as general counsel for the 100 Black Men of America, Chicago chapter and as the Tenth District Representative for Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. He has also coached basketball, baseball, served on the board of CASA Esperanza and continues to mentor aspiring law students.
Watkins has a way about him that puts people at ease. And perhaps people, his people and clients want more of his time, more face-time. He has a way of making strangers, his clients and friends feel bigger, prouder and more confident.
At a campaign stop and Christmas party in December, Watkins was still a bit reserved with showing that he really is as common and regular as the voters he wants to represent. Finding a way to highlight that has been difficult for his advisers and campaign staff. After all, many of the voters in the 2nd Subcircuit are poor, haven’t attained an undergraduate degree, law degree or sent 3 kids to top colleges (2 college graduates, 1 in law school, 1 a college freshman and 1 working on his campaign). Most of them have not maintained a successful and private law practice representing mostly poor people of color. He’s a thrill seeker, rides motorcycles, has completed several Triathlons and is a member of St. Ailbe’s Catholic Church. He’s been rated qualified and recommended for Circuit Court Judge by the Chicago Bar Association, Cook County Bar Association, Illinois State Bar Association, Black Women Lawyers’ Bar Association, Chicago Council of Lawyers and the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Illinois. He’s been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, Thornton Township led by Supervisor Frank Zucarelli, Worth Township, the 21st Ward, the 19th Ward, the 34th Ward, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #7, Dearborn Realtist Board and Father Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina Church.
Carrie Austin, Alderwoman of the 34th Ward was sponsoring the Christmas party. Watkins wanted her support. His campaign staff urged him to escort her on the dance floor for a line dance. He did. Without much rhythm, he smiled and stayed on beat clapping his hands, “taking it to the floor, hopping and doing the Cha Cha” as the song lyrics instructed. A round of applause met him as he left the dance floor.
He won that night. Let’s see what happens on March 18, 2014.