Clayton Harris III answers questions from the media
Clayton Harris III, who is running for Cook County state’s attorney, during a candidate debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Clayton Harris III answers questions from the media
Clayton Harris III, who is running for Cook County state’s attorney, during a candidate debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As the Democratic Party’s pick to replace outgoing State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Clayton Harris III has faced repeated questions about whether he plans to carry on Foxx’s progressive legacy.

During her two terms as Cook County’s top prosecutor, Foxx attracted controversy and criticism for her approach to running her office, building a reputation — which she and her supporters reject — that she is soft on crime.

Despite the critiques, her approach helped her win election and reelection in landslides.

But now, Foxx is not seeking reelection in the March 19 Democratic primary, where Harris faces Eileen O’Neill Burke.

“When Kim decided she wasn’t going to run, it was clear it was going to be a real challenge to find a candidate as forward-looking and progressive as Kim,” said Cook County Board President — and Democratic Party boss — Toni Preckwinkle. “I think it’s really important that we try to continue the good work on criminal justice reform that Kim has been doing and I’m expecting Clayton will do that.”

As the Cook County Democratic Party’s choice, Harris has to decide how closely he wants to align himself with Foxx, a high-profile figure who has been an almost constant topic of conversation and criticism during her eight years in office.

“I appreciate the hard work that she’s done and the achievements that she’s racked up. … I think what’s fair to say is that I’m going to … chart my own course in this office,” Harris told WBEZ.

As state’s attorney, Foxx helped win bail reform, took on wrongful convictions and forced the county’s justice system to deal head on with institutional racism. But her critics — including former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Police Superintendent David Brown — accused her of not being aggressive enough in pursuing gun crimes, carjackings or retail theft.

At a recent candidates forum at City’s Edge Pub in the Edgebrook neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, Harris was asked by someone in the audience if he would actively seek Foxx’s endorsement.

After a pause, Harris said yes, which was greeted by silence from the crowd that numbered at least 50 people. By contrast, O’Neill Burke enthusiastically responded, “No I would not,” which drew applause.

At the forum, some in the crowd expressed hostility toward Foxx’s prosecutorial approach. 

“I’m looking for a candidate who is actually going to enforce the laws and allow the state’s attorney office to charge people,” the audience member, who declined to provide her name, said. “They aren’t doing that now. Kim Foxx is the worst state’s attorney we’ve ever had.” 

A month from Election Day, Harris insists he doesn’t have to choose — and neither do voters — between Foxx’s progressive policies and a safer county.

“The time is right now for focusing on safety and justice. I keep telling people that these are an ‘and’ proposition. Safety and justice,” Harris said. “It’s not an either-or.”

Harris is pledging as state’s attorney to use the special prosecutions unit to go after carjackings, gun crimes and retail theft rings. He said he would aim for a “hard reset” of the relationship between Cook County prosecutors and police, including a pledge to meet with all police chiefs in the county. And Harris said he will work with Chief Judge Timothy Evans to expand community courts.

A winding path to state’s attorney candidacy

Harris worked as an assistant state’s attorney until 2003 and for the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois until 2009, including as chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

He has worked as a government and transportation consultant and he served as director of the Illinois International Port District on the city’s South Side until 2020. Most recently, he was director of public policy and government affairs for Lyft, according to his LinkedIn page. 

Clayton Harris III outside City Hall
Harris outside City Hall on Feb. 6, 2024. In the early days of his career, Harris worked as assistant to Mayor Richard M. Daley and as general counsel in the city department of transportation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

He has been a lecturer for 15 years at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, teaching a course on the challenges surrounding race and policing. He also served a stint at the Pentagon.

Living in the Washington Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side with his wife and two sons, Harris said he understands crime firsthand.

“Walking from my house to the park, and those two blocks, I have to worry about bullets flying and crime. But it’s the same way walking home from that park that I have to worry about being profiled by the police,” Harris said.

If elected, Harris said he wants to create a special prosecutions division focused on gun crimes and carjackings.

Retail theft policies show disparate candidate philosophies

A difference between Harris and his primary opponent O’Neill Burke that shines a light into the candidates’ philosophies: Harris said he will continue a controversial policy of Foxx’s not to prosecute retail theft as a felony unless the value of the stolen goods is over $1,000.

O’Neill Burke is pledging to go back to following state law — which sets the felony threshold at $300.

Harris’s approach didn’t sit well with some at the North Side forum, like Cate Dunlap.

“One candidate wants to keep the shoplifting threshold with $1,000, like Kim Foxx has it, and that’s not the law. I’m hoping to hear more why that would be because it doesn’t seem to be helping businesses,” Dunlap said.

Preckwinkle said any problems with public safety aren’t because of progressive policies in the prosecutor’s office.

“One of the problems we have in Chicago is police ineffectiveness. If the police don’t arrest people, the prosecutor can’t prosecute them. That’s a big challenge,” Preckwinkle said. “We need more effective policing in the city of Chicago, not just around murders and shootings but around things like carjackings and retail theft as well.”

Despite his backer’s criticism of the Police Department, Harris said he wants to improve the office’s relationship with the city, the mayor’s office and police to combat crime.

“I think that’s extremely important to make sure that we’re communicating with them. We have to keep and maintain the bright line between the state’s attorney’s office and law enforcement, but we have to make sure that we’re working with law enforcement to ensure that crimes are solved and moving forward appropriately with and for prosecutions,” Harris said.

Funding disadvantage remains

Despite the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, Harris is behind in fundraising, reporting $578,243 in donations through Tuesday afternoon, according to a WBEZ review of his Illinois filings. O’Neill Burke has reported $748,405, about 29% more.

Among Harris’s major funders, unions have donated $114,500, including $68,500 reported Tuesday from a Service Employees International Union state committee and $10,000 each this month from the Illinois Nurses Association and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Harris filing nominating petitions
Harris files nominating petitions with the Cook County Clerk’s office to run for Cook County state’s attorney on Nov. 27, 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Harris also has received help from about two dozen current and former Democratic elected officials. A political fund of Preckwinkle’s has provided $10,000. State Rep. Tracy Katz Muhl has donated $11,000. State Sen. Robert Peters has contributed $2,500. State Sen. Mattie Hunter and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi have donated $2,000 each.

A total of $30,700 has come from former Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, her political fund, her husband Leo Smith, and her sister Jennifer Steans.

Business leaders donating the $6,900 individual maximum include real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom, Democratic megadonor Fred Eychaner, Loop Capital founder Jim Reynolds, Ariel Investments founder John Rogers Jr. and Ariel co-CEO Mellody Hobson.

Last week, Harris also accepted a total of $2,500 from two companies tied to Illinois asphalt and construction magnate Michael Vondra. Both are managed from a northwest suburban Bartlett office the FBI raided in 2019 as part of a probe that led state Sen. Martin Sandoval to plead guilty to bribery and tax charges the following year.

Harris also has received significant support from civil-rights attorneys, including $7,500 this month from Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago firm that frequently sues the city for victims of police abuses.

Reporter Michael Puente is part of WBEZ’s Race Class & Communities team. Follow him on X @MikePuenteNews or reach him at mpuente@wbez.org.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

Clayton Harris III answers questions from the media
Clayton Harris III, who is running for Cook County state’s attorney, during a candidate debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Clayton Harris III answers questions from the media
Clayton Harris III, who is running for Cook County state’s attorney, during a candidate debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

As the Democratic Party’s pick to replace outgoing State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Clayton Harris III has faced repeated questions about whether he plans to carry on Foxx’s progressive legacy.

During her two terms as Cook County’s top prosecutor, Foxx attracted controversy and criticism for her approach to running her office, building a reputation — which she and her supporters reject — that she is soft on crime.

Despite the critiques, her approach helped her win election and reelection in landslides.

But now, Foxx is not seeking reelection in the March 19 Democratic primary, where Harris faces Eileen O’Neill Burke.

“When Kim decided she wasn’t going to run, it was clear it was going to be a real challenge to find a candidate as forward-looking and progressive as Kim,” said Cook County Board President — and Democratic Party boss — Toni Preckwinkle. “I think it’s really important that we try to continue the good work on criminal justice reform that Kim has been doing and I’m expecting Clayton will do that.”

As the Cook County Democratic Party’s choice, Harris has to decide how closely he wants to align himself with Foxx, a high-profile figure who has been an almost constant topic of conversation and criticism during her eight years in office.

“I appreciate the hard work that she’s done and the achievements that she’s racked up. … I think what’s fair to say is that I’m going to … chart my own course in this office,” Harris told WBEZ.

As state’s attorney, Foxx helped win bail reform, took on wrongful convictions and forced the county’s justice system to deal head on with institutional racism. But her critics — including former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Police Superintendent David Brown — accused her of not being aggressive enough in pursuing gun crimes, carjackings or retail theft.

At a recent candidates forum at City’s Edge Pub in the Edgebrook neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side, Harris was asked by someone in the audience if he would actively seek Foxx’s endorsement.

After a pause, Harris said yes, which was greeted by silence from the crowd that numbered at least 50 people. By contrast, O’Neill Burke enthusiastically responded, “No I would not,” which drew applause.

At the forum, some in the crowd expressed hostility toward Foxx’s prosecutorial approach. 

“I’m looking for a candidate who is actually going to enforce the laws and allow the state’s attorney office to charge people,” the audience member, who declined to provide her name, said. “They aren’t doing that now. Kim Foxx is the worst state’s attorney we’ve ever had.” 

A month from Election Day, Harris insists he doesn’t have to choose — and neither do voters — between Foxx’s progressive policies and a safer county.

“The time is right now for focusing on safety and justice. I keep telling people that these are an ‘and’ proposition. Safety and justice,” Harris said. “It’s not an either-or.”

Harris is pledging as state’s attorney to use the special prosecutions unit to go after carjackings, gun crimes and retail theft rings. He said he would aim for a “hard reset” of the relationship between Cook County prosecutors and police, including a pledge to meet with all police chiefs in the county. And Harris said he will work with Chief Judge Timothy Evans to expand community courts.

A winding path to state’s attorney candidacy

Harris worked as an assistant state’s attorney until 2003 and for the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois until 2009, including as chief of staff at the Illinois Department of Transportation.

He has worked as a government and transportation consultant and he served as director of the Illinois International Port District on the city’s South Side until 2020. Most recently, he was director of public policy and government affairs for Lyft, according to his LinkedIn page. 

Clayton Harris III outside City Hall
Harris outside City Hall on Feb. 6, 2024. In the early days of his career, Harris worked as assistant to Mayor Richard M. Daley and as general counsel in the city department of transportation. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

He has been a lecturer for 15 years at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, teaching a course on the challenges surrounding race and policing. He also served a stint at the Pentagon.

Living in the Washington Park neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side with his wife and two sons, Harris said he understands crime firsthand.

“Walking from my house to the park, and those two blocks, I have to worry about bullets flying and crime. But it’s the same way walking home from that park that I have to worry about being profiled by the police,” Harris said.

If elected, Harris said he wants to create a special prosecutions division focused on gun crimes and carjackings.

Retail theft policies show disparate candidate philosophies

A difference between Harris and his primary opponent O’Neill Burke that shines a light into the candidates’ philosophies: Harris said he will continue a controversial policy of Foxx’s not to prosecute retail theft as a felony unless the value of the stolen goods is over $1,000.

O’Neill Burke is pledging to go back to following state law — which sets the felony threshold at $300.

Harris’s approach didn’t sit well with some at the North Side forum, like Cate Dunlap.

“One candidate wants to keep the shoplifting threshold with $1,000, like Kim Foxx has it, and that’s not the law. I’m hoping to hear more why that would be because it doesn’t seem to be helping businesses,” Dunlap said.

Preckwinkle said any problems with public safety aren’t because of progressive policies in the prosecutor’s office.

“One of the problems we have in Chicago is police ineffectiveness. If the police don’t arrest people, the prosecutor can’t prosecute them. That’s a big challenge,” Preckwinkle said. “We need more effective policing in the city of Chicago, not just around murders and shootings but around things like carjackings and retail theft as well.”

Despite his backer’s criticism of the Police Department, Harris said he wants to improve the office’s relationship with the city, the mayor’s office and police to combat crime.

“I think that’s extremely important to make sure that we’re communicating with them. We have to keep and maintain the bright line between the state’s attorney’s office and law enforcement, but we have to make sure that we’re working with law enforcement to ensure that crimes are solved and moving forward appropriately with and for prosecutions,” Harris said.

Funding disadvantage remains

Despite the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, Harris is behind in fundraising, reporting $578,243 in donations through Tuesday afternoon, according to a WBEZ review of his Illinois filings. O’Neill Burke has reported $748,405, about 29% more.

Among Harris’s major funders, unions have donated $114,500, including $68,500 reported Tuesday from a Service Employees International Union state committee and $10,000 each this month from the Illinois Nurses Association and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Harris filing nominating petitions
Harris files nominating petitions with the Cook County Clerk’s office to run for Cook County state’s attorney on Nov. 27, 2023. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Harris also has received help from about two dozen current and former Democratic elected officials. A political fund of Preckwinkle’s has provided $10,000. State Rep. Tracy Katz Muhl has donated $11,000. State Sen. Robert Peters has contributed $2,500. State Sen. Mattie Hunter and Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi have donated $2,000 each.

A total of $30,700 has come from former Illinois state Sen. Heather Steans, her political fund, her husband Leo Smith, and her sister Jennifer Steans.

Business leaders donating the $6,900 individual maximum include real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom, Democratic megadonor Fred Eychaner, Loop Capital founder Jim Reynolds, Ariel Investments founder John Rogers Jr. and Ariel co-CEO Mellody Hobson.

Last week, Harris also accepted a total of $2,500 from two companies tied to Illinois asphalt and construction magnate Michael Vondra. Both are managed from a northwest suburban Bartlett office the FBI raided in 2019 as part of a probe that led state Sen. Martin Sandoval to plead guilty to bribery and tax charges the following year.

Harris also has received significant support from civil-rights attorneys, including $7,500 this month from Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago firm that frequently sues the city for victims of police abuses.

Reporter Michael Puente is part of WBEZ’s Race Class & Communities team. Follow him on X @MikePuenteNews or reach him at mpuente@wbez.org.

Chip Mitchell reports on policing, public safety and public health. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.