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Eileen O'Neill Burke in white blouse waving hand

Former Illinois Appellate Court Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke declared victory over Clayton Harris III on Friday in the race for the Democratic nomination for Cook County state’s attorney.

Anthony Vazquez

Eileen O’Neill Burke declares victory in the Democratic state’s attorney primary

With few votes left to be counted and a mathematically insurmountable lead, former Justice Eileen O’Neill Burke declared victory Friday, with a majority of primary voters electing her to be the Democratic nominee for Cook County State’s Attorney.

After almost two weeks of uncertainty, O’Neill Burke edged out Clayton Harris III for the nomination, according to the Associated Press, with mail ballots tallied Friday sealing the most hotly contested race of the primary a full 10 days after polls closed.

“It was worth the wait. I am so honored to be the Democratic nominee for Cook County State’s Attorney,” O’Neill Burke said in a statement declaring victory. “I’d like to congratulate Clayton Harris on a hard-fought campaign. While we may have had our differences in this election, we share a love for our beautiful city and Cook County.”

A spokesperson for Harris’ campaign didn’t have any immediate comment. There was no signal yet that Harris would concede, and elections officials won’t certify a winner until April 2.

O’Neill Burke saw her slim lead on the night of the March 19 election shrink further by the day as batches of mail ballots were added to the tally. But the AP called the race for the former appellate justice Friday night as the number of remaining ballots that could be counted continues to dwindle.

With 99% of the vote counted, O’Neill Burke had 50.15% compared to 49.85% for Harris, a University of Chicago lecturer and former lobbyist for the ride-hailing giant Lyft.

O’Neill Burke led by a margin of just 1,556 votes in a race with more than half a million total ballots cast.

Up to 53,011 mail city ballots could still arrive for tabulation, but nowhere near that many are expected to arrive by Tuesday, when counting officially ends. All ballots postmarked by Election Day on March 19 will continue to be counted through April 2.

O’Neill Burke saw her lead of about 10,000 votes on election night dwindle to fewer than 1,600 this week, with Harris getting steady boosts of support from city precincts.

While the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners reported a snafu in vote totals counted over the weekend, poll watchers from both campaigns have observed the mail ballot tabulation and haven’t raised any concerns about the process.

Now, O’Neill Burke will enter the fall as the favorite over Republican Bob Fioretti in the general election to succeed outgoing State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

The bruising primary fight between Harris and O’Neill Burke was viewed in many circles as a referendum on Foxx’s progressive policies, which have drawn criticism from the right as being soft on crime, and praise from the left as addressing generations of inequity in the criminal justice system.

Harris was backed in the race by the Cook County Democratic Party and its powerful chair, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a mentor to Foxx who helped her win two terms as the top prosecutor.

Harris, who worked as an aide to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and later for ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, also had the endorsement of the Chicago Teachers Union, further burnishing his left-leaning credentials. His campaign raised more than $1 million, largely from major union political action committees, fellow attorneys and businessman Fred Eychaner.

O’Neill Burke tripled that total for her campaign, raising $3.2 million including large contributions from wealthy investors, like Daniel O’Keefe, who have frequently contributed to Republican campaigns.

Preliminary precinct totals showed Harris drawing support in many of the same areas Foxx did in her 2020 reelection campaign, with broad support on the South and West sides, and along the North Side lakefront.

O’Neill Burke ran up massive margins on the Northwest and Southwest sides, while also outperforming Harris in the suburbs.

In appealing to suburban voters and centrist Democrats in the city, O’Neill Burke tried to position herself as the tough-on-crime candidate — but she essentially ran on a progressive platform herself, joining Harris in embracing many Foxx policies that have rankled conservatives.

The former judge said she supported expanding restorative justice alternatives to prosecution and praised Foxx on her office’s review of alleged wrongful convictions.

“We want less crime and safer communities, not by locking everybody up but by turning people around,” O’Neill Burke told supporters on election night — hardly the language of the overbearing, closeted Republican that Harris’ campaign portrayed her to be.

O’Neill Burke’s most consistent policy difference from Foxx was to charge retail theft as a felony for amounts over $300, as opposed to Foxx’s policy of $1,000. She also claimed her office would seek to hold more people in custody under the SAFE-T Act, which eliminated cash bail in Illinois last year.

Harris scarcely articulated specific policy goals beyond saying he supported Foxx’s agenda and wouldn’t make significant changes. The closest he came to criticizing Foxx was implying his decades of experience in public policy positions would make him a better manager of the office.

“My platform is safety and justice. I believe we can be safe and just at the same time,” Harris previously told the Sun-Times, a well-worn mantra on his campaign trail. “I think the way we do that is we hold everyone accountable, but we hold everyone accountable appropriately.”

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