Eileen O’Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8, 2024.
Eileen O'Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Eileen O’Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8, 2024.
Eileen O'Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Throughout her rise to the Illinois Appellate Court, Eileen O’Neill Burke’s husband was her most important sounding board.

The two met on O’Neill Burke’s first day at law school. She has consulted him on vexing legal questions throughout their 33-year marriage — but still stunned him when she phoned him one Saturday morning last year to float the idea of running to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who is not seeking reelection.

“His exact words were, ‘You want to do what?’ ” O’Neill Burke recalled.

The office of the top prosecutor had never been on her radar, O’Neill Burke said. But in talking it over with her husband, commercial litigator John Burke, she convinced him that stepping down from the bench was a sound idea.

Over the past several months, she has been making the same pitch to voters, touting her extensive track record as a prosecutor, attorney and judge. O’Neill Burke is also trying to convince Cook County residents her tough-on-crime approach is needed to curb persistent gun violence, carjackings and elevated armed robberies.

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.

O’Neill Burke is aiming for voters unhappy with Foxx’s leadership and convinced the county needs to pursue a more traditional approach to prosecutions in order to combat crime. It’s a message that is resonating with more conservative voters and donors.

But O’Neill Burke’s Democratic primary opponent, Clayton Harris III, and other critics have said she is seeking to move the prosecutor’s office backward to a time of soaring incarceration rates and wrongful convictions. Harris won the Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsement in the race to replace Foxx.

O’Neill Burke will face Harris in the Democratic primary on March 19. Early voting has already begun.

O’Neill Burke: “Our justice system is not working”

O’Neill Burke is a lifelong Chicagoan who grew up on the Northwest Side.

She served as an assistant state’s attorney for 10 years. After that, she worked as a criminal defense attorney before winning a seat on the Cook County Circuit Court bench in 2008 and on the appellate court in 2016.

She decided to run for state’s attorney because “our justice system is not working,” and she points to a shortage of attorneys in the state’s attorney’s office as proof.

Burke carrying nominating petitions
O’Neill Burke carries in her petitions to make official her run for Cook County state’s attorney at the Cook County Administration building on Dec. 4, 2023. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

O’Neill Burke wants to recruit more law students from Chicago-area schools into the office, adding that she will form an education unit run by retired judges. They would develop a curriculum to teach all staff the “courtroom skills necessary to be effective at their jobs.”

She also thinks she can help reduce crime by undoing some of Foxx’s progressive policies.

For example, retail theft under Foxx has only been prosecuted as a felony if the value of the stolen goods is over $1,000.

O’Neill Burke is pledging to return to the $300 felony threshold set by state law.

“I believe that enforcing the law will deter criminals,” O’Neill Burke said.

At a forum on the North Side this month, O’Neill Burke drew applause when she said she would not want Foxx’s endorsement.

O’Neill Burke is also pledging a greater focus on gun crimes than her predecessor.

She said she wants to curb mass shootings by seeking pretrial detention every time someone is caught with an assault weapon, including guns with a bump stock or extended magazine. That proposed policy would take advantage of the power prosecutors have to seek jail for people awaiting trial under the state law that eliminated cash bail. It will still be up to judges to determine whether pretrial detention is warranted in each case.

But O’Neill Burke said she is not only advocating a tough-on-crime approach. She said she believes in restorative justice, too.

To reduce crime by young people, O’Neill Burke wants to create learning enrichment and job training programs that would keep young people busy during the times they are most likely to be arrested and “get them back on track.”

Rigor and structure would help deter kids from violence, O’Neill Burke said, though she declined to say how much money these new programs might cost.

A decades-old wrongful conviction

Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said she is worried an O’Neill Burke victory in the state’s attorney race would be a setback for efforts to make the county’s court system more fair and equitable.

Cassidy worked in the state’s attorney’s office in the late 1990s and was part of a team that notified the families of those who were wrongfully convicted.

“We failed everyone in that system, time and time again,” Cassidy said. “And O’Neill Burke was part of that failure. We can’t go back to that.”

When she was a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, O’Neill Burke prosecuted a Black boy on charges he murdered an elderly white woman when he was 10 years old, but the conviction was thrown out by a federal judge who found the confession resulted from Chicago Police coercion.

O’Neill Burke has said her role in the case “has never been questioned,” and said she was just doing her job as prosecutor by using the best evidence available to secure a conviction.

But Cassidy thinks the role she played in the case is “exactly why she shouldn’t be at the helm of this office right now.”

However, State Rep. Margaret Croke, D-Chicago, believes O’Neill Burke’s direct experience with the system makes the retired judge the best choice to run the office.

Croke endorsed O’Neill Burke because she has a “great track record” and believes her plans to tackle crime will be effective in the Gold Coast and Old Town neighborhoods her district spans, where retail theft is prevalent.

“You’re talking about someone who’s been in the judicial criminal justice system for 25 years,” Croke said.

Croke is also on board with O’Neill Burke’s plan to set up a choice protection unit in the office that will be devoted to safeguarding the rights of abortion providers and those seeking abortion care in Illinois.

A fundraising lead, boosted by Republican donors

O’Neill Burke has widened her fundraising lead in the race, reporting $748,405 in donations through Tuesday afternoon, about 29% more than Harris’s $578,243, according to a WBEZ review of their Illinois filings.

Much of O’Neill Burke’s haul comes from attorneys and law firms. At least $35,400 is tied to Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, a personal-injury firm.

Burke speaking to media behind microphone
O’Neill Burke speaks to the press on Dec. 4, 2023. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

O’Neill Burke this month accepted $5,000 from Stephen Patton. As Chicago corporation counsel under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Patton led efforts to block release of video footage showing a police officer firing 16 shots into teenager Laquan McDonald.

She also accepted $1,000 from a former boss in the state’s attorney’s office linked to alleged torture of murder suspects by deceased Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

O’Neill Burke has reaped funds from conservative donors in finance. At least $20,700 is tied to executives of Citadel, a hedge fund founded by billionaire GOP donor Ken Griffin. At least $13,800 is linked to Daniel O’Keefe, another frequent Republican donor.

This month O’Neill Burke accepted $3,000 from C. Gary Gerst, a founder of LaSalle Partners, which became one of the world’s largest real estate services firms. Gerst has helped fund and lead NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration group with roots the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as white nationalist.

O’Neill Burke, meantime, has also received backing from many centrist Democrats, including $13,900 from relatives of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has not funded either candidate in the race.

Other O’Neill Burke donations have poured in from real estate developers and the restaurant industry, including at least $36,600 tied to Richard Melman, founder of the Lettuce Entertain You chain.

Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at asavchenko@wbez.org.

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

Eileen O’Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8, 2024.
Eileen O'Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Eileen O’Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8, 2024.
Eileen O'Neill Burke, candidate for Cook County state’s attorney, during a debate on ABC-7 on Feb. 8. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Throughout her rise to the Illinois Appellate Court, Eileen O’Neill Burke’s husband was her most important sounding board.

The two met on O’Neill Burke’s first day at law school. She has consulted him on vexing legal questions throughout their 33-year marriage — but still stunned him when she phoned him one Saturday morning last year to float the idea of running to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who is not seeking reelection.

“His exact words were, ‘You want to do what?’ ” O’Neill Burke recalled.

The office of the top prosecutor had never been on her radar, O’Neill Burke said. But in talking it over with her husband, commercial litigator John Burke, she convinced him that stepping down from the bench was a sound idea.

Over the past several months, she has been making the same pitch to voters, touting her extensive track record as a prosecutor, attorney and judge. O’Neill Burke is also trying to convince Cook County residents her tough-on-crime approach is needed to curb persistent gun violence, carjackings and elevated armed robberies.

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.

O’Neill Burke is aiming for voters unhappy with Foxx’s leadership and convinced the county needs to pursue a more traditional approach to prosecutions in order to combat crime. It’s a message that is resonating with more conservative voters and donors.

But O’Neill Burke’s Democratic primary opponent, Clayton Harris III, and other critics have said she is seeking to move the prosecutor’s office backward to a time of soaring incarceration rates and wrongful convictions. Harris won the Cook County Democratic Party’s endorsement in the race to replace Foxx.

O’Neill Burke will face Harris in the Democratic primary on March 19. Early voting has already begun.

O’Neill Burke: “Our justice system is not working”

O’Neill Burke is a lifelong Chicagoan who grew up on the Northwest Side.

She served as an assistant state’s attorney for 10 years. After that, she worked as a criminal defense attorney before winning a seat on the Cook County Circuit Court bench in 2008 and on the appellate court in 2016.

She decided to run for state’s attorney because “our justice system is not working,” and she points to a shortage of attorneys in the state’s attorney’s office as proof.

Burke carrying nominating petitions
O’Neill Burke carries in her petitions to make official her run for Cook County state’s attorney at the Cook County Administration building on Dec. 4, 2023. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

O’Neill Burke wants to recruit more law students from Chicago-area schools into the office, adding that she will form an education unit run by retired judges. They would develop a curriculum to teach all staff the “courtroom skills necessary to be effective at their jobs.”

She also thinks she can help reduce crime by undoing some of Foxx’s progressive policies.

For example, retail theft under Foxx has only been prosecuted as a felony if the value of the stolen goods is over $1,000.

O’Neill Burke is pledging to return to the $300 felony threshold set by state law.

“I believe that enforcing the law will deter criminals,” O’Neill Burke said.

At a forum on the North Side this month, O’Neill Burke drew applause when she said she would not want Foxx’s endorsement.

O’Neill Burke is also pledging a greater focus on gun crimes than her predecessor.

She said she wants to curb mass shootings by seeking pretrial detention every time someone is caught with an assault weapon, including guns with a bump stock or extended magazine. That proposed policy would take advantage of the power prosecutors have to seek jail for people awaiting trial under the state law that eliminated cash bail. It will still be up to judges to determine whether pretrial detention is warranted in each case.

But O’Neill Burke said she is not only advocating a tough-on-crime approach. She said she believes in restorative justice, too.

To reduce crime by young people, O’Neill Burke wants to create learning enrichment and job training programs that would keep young people busy during the times they are most likely to be arrested and “get them back on track.”

Rigor and structure would help deter kids from violence, O’Neill Burke said, though she declined to say how much money these new programs might cost.

A decades-old wrongful conviction

Illinois state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, said she is worried an O’Neill Burke victory in the state’s attorney race would be a setback for efforts to make the county’s court system more fair and equitable.

Cassidy worked in the state’s attorney’s office in the late 1990s and was part of a team that notified the families of those who were wrongfully convicted.

“We failed everyone in that system, time and time again,” Cassidy said. “And O’Neill Burke was part of that failure. We can’t go back to that.”

When she was a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, O’Neill Burke prosecuted a Black boy on charges he murdered an elderly white woman when he was 10 years old, but the conviction was thrown out by a federal judge who found the confession resulted from Chicago Police coercion.

O’Neill Burke has said her role in the case “has never been questioned,” and said she was just doing her job as prosecutor by using the best evidence available to secure a conviction.

But Cassidy thinks the role she played in the case is “exactly why she shouldn’t be at the helm of this office right now.”

However, State Rep. Margaret Croke, D-Chicago, believes O’Neill Burke’s direct experience with the system makes the retired judge the best choice to run the office.

Croke endorsed O’Neill Burke because she has a “great track record” and believes her plans to tackle crime will be effective in the Gold Coast and Old Town neighborhoods her district spans, where retail theft is prevalent.

“You’re talking about someone who’s been in the judicial criminal justice system for 25 years,” Croke said.

Croke is also on board with O’Neill Burke’s plan to set up a choice protection unit in the office that will be devoted to safeguarding the rights of abortion providers and those seeking abortion care in Illinois.

A fundraising lead, boosted by Republican donors

O’Neill Burke has widened her fundraising lead in the race, reporting $748,405 in donations through Tuesday afternoon, about 29% more than Harris’s $578,243, according to a WBEZ review of their Illinois filings.

Much of O’Neill Burke’s haul comes from attorneys and law firms. At least $35,400 is tied to Salvi, Schostok & Pritchard, a personal-injury firm.

Burke speaking to media behind microphone
O’Neill Burke speaks to the press on Dec. 4, 2023. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

O’Neill Burke this month accepted $5,000 from Stephen Patton. As Chicago corporation counsel under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Patton led efforts to block release of video footage showing a police officer firing 16 shots into teenager Laquan McDonald.

She also accepted $1,000 from a former boss in the state’s attorney’s office linked to alleged torture of murder suspects by deceased Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

O’Neill Burke has reaped funds from conservative donors in finance. At least $20,700 is tied to executives of Citadel, a hedge fund founded by billionaire GOP donor Ken Griffin. At least $13,800 is linked to Daniel O’Keefe, another frequent Republican donor.

This month O’Neill Burke accepted $3,000 from C. Gary Gerst, a founder of LaSalle Partners, which became one of the world’s largest real estate services firms. Gerst has helped fund and lead NumbersUSA, an anti-immigration group with roots the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as white nationalist.

O’Neill Burke, meantime, has also received backing from many centrist Democrats, including $13,900 from relatives of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who has not funded either candidate in the race.

Other O’Neill Burke donations have poured in from real estate developers and the restaurant industry, including at least $36,600 tied to Richard Melman, founder of the Lettuce Entertain You chain.

Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at asavchenko@wbez.org.

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