Democratic Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx facing challenge from Republican former Judge Pat O’Brien

Dan Hinkel and Alice Yin, Chicago Tribune

Democratic Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is facing Republican challenger Pat O’Brien in a high-profile contest Tuesday that has focused on whether the incumbent has made needed changes to a broken system or fueled crime.

Foxx, the first African American woman to serve as the county’s top prosecutor, is seeking another four years to continue making changes she has said will make the system fairer for Black and Latino people. Her office, for example, has raised the bar on felony shoplifting charges and pushed for the pretrial release of more detainees on bail.

Foxx is one of a slate of progressive prosecutors nationwide calling for systemic change, and she could be aided by a presidential vote in a county that has long favored Democratic candidates for the White House. The election is taking place following months of protests nationwide demanding an overhaul of the criminal justice system sparked by the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

O’Brien, a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney and judge, took a law-and-order approach and argued that Foxx has endangered public safety by letting offenders walk free. He sought to capitalize on voters’ concerns about crime at a moment when shootings and homicides in Chicago are both up about 50% over the prior year, putting the city on pace for one of the most violent years of the last quarter-century.

He also highlighted a scandal that has dogged Foxx — last year’s dropping of 16 felony counts against former “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, who had been charged with faking a hate crime against himself. Special prosecutor Dan Webb concluded in August that there was no evidence prosecutors committed any crime but that they misled the public about the extraordinary deal Smollett received.

Foxx had the support of prominent local Democrats such as Mayor Lori Lightfoot, as well as national politicians including vice presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor who recorded a robocall calling Foxx “smart on crime.”

O’Brien, meanwhile, had the support of figures including downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly, who bucked his party to support the Republican. O’Brien, who was a Democrat before switching parties, also received the endorsement of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police union, along with a $57,800 donation.

Foxx raised more cash than O’Brien overall during the full campaign, with her committee taking in some $5 million between the beginning of 2019 and the end of last month. During the same period, O’Brien’s committee took in about $1.1 million. But their fundraising was closer to even after the primary. O’Brien’s committee took in some $965,000 between the start of April and the end of October. Her committee reported a little over $1 million in donations during that period.

The sums were significantly smaller than those involved in the March primary, when Foxx’s leading opponent, Bill Conway, took in $10.5 million from his billionaire father. Foxx raised about $3.6 million before the primary, though her campaign was bolstered by a political action committee that took in $2 million from a group tied to liberal hedge fund billionaire George Soros.

Foxx received about 51% of the vote to Conway’s 31%.

Changing the system has been Foxx’s consistent theme since 2016, when she beat Democratic incumbent Anita Alvarez in the primary. Foxx had heavily criticized Alvarez for waiting more than a year to file murder charges against white police Officer Jason Van Dyke for killing Black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

O’Brien portrayed Foxx’s term as a failure, including by pointing to a Tribune investigation that found she dropped felony cases involving charges of murder and other serious offenses at a higher rate than Alvarez. During Foxx’s first three years as top prosecutor, her office dropped all charges against 29.9% of felony defendants. For the last three years of Alvarez’s tenure, the rate was 19.4%, the Tribune found.

O’Brien, among others, also blamed Foxx’s policies for looting downtown over the summer.

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Foxx defended her record. She said that her higher rate of dropped felony cases painted an incomplete picture of her commitment to keeping the public safe. She said her office had dismissed cases against low-level, nonviolent offenders so prosecutors could concentrate on violent crimes. Foxx said she has tried to create a culture where prosecutors can openly discuss dropping felony charges if a case has legal problems.

She also pushed back on suggestions that her office was to blame for looting, saying her prosecutors had not dropped such cases and pointing to the hundreds of people charged with looting-related offenses.

Foxx also highlighted O’Brien’s involvement in the prosecution of four Black teens convicted of the 1986 rape and murder of a white woman. Three of them spent about 14 years each in prison before they were freed, while another spent six years behind bars. DNA linked the crime to two other men.

O’Brien told the Tribune he believed the men were guilty during the prosecution, though he acknowledged he was part of a system that failed the men.

Also on the ballot was Libertarian candidate Brian Dennehy, a Chicago tax attorney who drew little attention.

dhinkel@chicagotribune.com

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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