Updated at 12:12 a.m. March 18
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx withstood a lavishly funded challenge in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, defeating the deep-pocketed campaign of Bill Conway and two other opponents to her first re-election bid.
“Transformative change is never easy,” Foxx said. “Tonight the voters have once again spoken and are calling us to continue our mandate of criminal justice reform. They are calling us to continue to make Cook County a model for this country.
“I pledge to keep pushing for that change that is fair, that is just, that is equitable — while keeping our community safe,” Foxx said.
Conway had tapped his father’s private-equity fortune to focus the race on Foxx’s bungling of celebrity Jussie Smollett’s case a year ago.
With 98% percent of precincts reporting, Foxx had 50% to Conway’s 31%. Gambling lobbyist Donna More got 14% and former Chicago Ald. Bob Fioretti finished last with 5%.
Foxx, flanked by her husband and children, addressed top campaign staffers holding #TeamFoxx signs in a downtown hotel ballroom that was nearly empty as a result of the coronavirus.
“There was an effort to make this election about one big case involving a celebrity,” Foxx said, referring to Smollett. “The voters have overwhelmingly put that fallacy to rest.”
Foxx said the Smollett case should not have overshadowed her office's day-to-day work.
“Our office handles urgent cases every day, many that go unreported," she said, specifying shooting victims and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. “This is the work of the Cook County state's attorney's office.”
Conway called Foxx to concede the race on Tuesday night and in a speech, he struck a conciliatory tone in sharp contrast to his pointed attacks during the campaign.
“The race was heated, but at the end of the day, as Democrats, we both care deeply about our justice system,” Conway said.
Foxx survived a multi-million-dollar onslaught of attack ads from Conway’s campaign and argued that she had brought about sorely needed criminal-justice reforms.
Conway said the big money he spent on the race “was necessary to get our message out there.”
Asked if he had focused too much on the Smollett case, Conway replied that he did not want to play “Monday morning quarterback” after the campaign.
Foxx will face former Cook County judge Patrick O’Brien, who won on Tuesday with 73% of the vote, in the November general election. But the Republican nominee is expected to face an uphill climb in the deep-blue county.
When she unseated Anita Alvarez four years ago, Foxx became the county’s first black female state’s attorney. In the 2016 election, she rode a wave of support for criminal justice reform after the release of a video showing teenager Laquan McDonald’s fatal shooting by a Chicago police officer.
Foxx was one of several self-styled reformers elected to the top post in prosecutor offices across the country, including Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby and Kim Gardner in St. Louis.
In her first term, though, Foxx was tripped up by the controversy surrounding Smollett. Conway’s TV ads pounded her for it.
Smollett is accused of staging a hate crime against himself in January 2019. Foxx said she tried to help Smollett when she thought he was a victim and, when he became the suspect instead, she publicly recused herself from the case. Privately, however, Foxx continued to discuss the case with her staff, records show.
Last March, her office abruptly dropped disorderly conduct charges against Smollett, prompting national headlines and condemnation by police officials and the union representing rank-and-file officers.
A Cook County judge appointed a special prosecutor to re-examine Smollett’s conduct and the handling of the case by Foxx’s office. A special grand jury last month indicted Smollett on charges similar to the ones Foxx’s office had dropped, and the special prosecutor’s investigation into the office’s handling of the case continues.
“You can’t have criminal-justice reform when the politically connected get one deal and other people get another,” Conway said of the Smollett case last week in a WTTW-TV debate.
Disparate campaign budgets
As of March 10, Conway had reported $10.5 million in contributions from his father, William Conway Jr., which accounted for most of his $11.7 million in campaign funding, according to data from Reform for Illinois, a nonprofit group that compiles candidate filings. That made the race one of the most expensive Cook County contests ever.
Foxx, 47, reported raising more than $4.1 million for the primary by last Friday, according to Reform for Illinois data. She relied on labor unions, various interest groups and a few wealthy donors.
Foxx also got help from independent groups, including the Illinois Justice and Safety PAC. That group received $2 million last month from a PAC set up by billionaire investor George Soros, who has helped elect several prosecutors across the country. By March 10, the Illinois Justice and Safety PAC had spent nearly all of that money on mail, ads, and media and website production costs opposing Conway.
And Foxx won support from Democratic heavyweights, including Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Foxx’s challengers called her a product of Democratic machine politics and accused her of not doing enough to prosecute public corruption as federal authorities pursued wide-ranging investigations that led to charges against Cook County politicians — including indicted Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th Ward), who hosted a 2016 campaign fundraiser for Foxx at his Southwest Side home.
But such criticisms and the attention on the Smollett case did not faze the reform advocates who propelled Foxx into office four years ago. Many said the decision to drop the charges against Smollett was consistent with her promises to steer nonviolent offenders away from incarceration.
Foxx’s defenders also characterized the Smollett case as insignificant compared to the office’s other accomplishments. They praised her office for moving to expunge tens of thousands of marijuana convictions, steering resources away from prosecuting nonviolent crimes such as shoplifting, helping drive down incarceration rates, reversing dozens of wrongful convictions and pushing for mental health and addiction services.
In the WTTW debate, Foxx called the attention on Smollett a “superfluous” distraction.
“What is disappointing about this whole conversation,” she said, “is that it hasn’t been about the people who live in the neighborhoods impacted by violence every day.”
Foxx’s supporters said the Smollett case was nothing compared to how previous state’s attorneys turned a blind eye to injustices such as the torture of African American suspects under the late Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.
Conway, 41, vaulted to prominence last year with TV ads touting his Navy service, including time in Afghanistan, and calling for locking up alleged gun offenders.
Conway sought to present himself as a progressive, too. But the other candidates depicted him as a phony reformer whose father was trying to buy him the office.
They noted that the Carlyle Group, the Washington D.C.-based firm co-founded by the elder Conway, had investments in the military-industrial complex and a for-profit nursing home chain that faced allegations it committed Medicare fraud and neglected elderly patients.
Tuesday’s results remained difficult to predict. Independent polls released during the final 10 days of the campaign showed Foxx with a double-digit lead over Conway but also showed more than a third of voters were undecided.
The state’s attorney heads one of the nation’s largest local prosecutor’s offices, overseeing more than 1,200 employees and an annual budget of about $130 million.