Progressive State’s Attorney Kim Foxx Fends Off Law-And-Order Candidate Pat O’Brien

Kim Foxx win
Friends for Foxx campaign, Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Kim Foxx win
Friends for Foxx campaign, Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Progressive State’s Attorney Kim Foxx Fends Off Law-And-Order Candidate Pat O’Brien

Cook County voters have given State’s Attorney Kim Foxx four more years as the county’s top prosecutor, rejecting an effort to pin Chicago’s startling spike in violent crime on the Democratic incumbent’s progressive politics and signing on for another term of her reform agenda.

Foxx was swept into office four years ago during a national uprising over police shootings, with protests here focused on the Chicago police killing of Laquan McDonald.

Foxx, an African American, presented herself as an alternative in a criminal justice system that covered-up the killing of Black citizens by police. She sought re-election amid another, similar movement, but Chicago’s startling spike in gun violence and a backlash against looting and other mayhem during protests muddied the picture.

In her victory speech, Foxx said her win represented a rejection of the old way of thinking that “justice and law and order should be accomplished by any means necessary.”

“This campaign is a reminder that we cannot go back to the days of old,” said Foxx, who was criticized for not being tough enough on violent criminals.

Her defeated Republican challenger, former prosecutor and judge Pat O’Brien, was hoping to take advantage of the current moment with a pledge to return the office to a more aggressive, tough-on-crime stance.

But with 95% of precincts reporting, Foxx had 53% to O’Brien’s 40%, while the Libertarian candidate, Brian Dennehy, was a distant third, with less than 7%.

“We did what we could and maybe some good will come of this,” O’Brien told reporters in Niles after conceding the race. He declined to take questions.

O’Brien was a lifelong Democrat, but he said he ran as a Republican this year because it gave him the best chance to challenge Foxx. The incumbent had the backing of the Cook County Democratic Party and is a protégé of the party leader, county Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

O’Brien had the support of the police union for the majority of Chicago’s officers. But Foxx said that endorsement was proof O’Brien would shy away from holding cops accountable. O’Brien said the support from the Chicago chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police was a sign that Foxx was “at war with the police.”

O’Brien also attracted big dollars in the race, raising $924,144 to Foxx’s $592,565 in between the March 17 primary and last Thursday. It was a stunning fundraising haul given the twin advantages Foxx should have enjoyed as an incumbent running as a Democrat in the overwhelming Democratic Cook County.

Beyond the historic spike in violence, Foxx also was dogged for half her term by how she fumbled the high-profile case of actor Jussie Smollett. The case, which was relatively insignificant on its own, became a symbol for many that Foxx was not up to the job.

O’Brien contended that Foxx failed “to understand what the job is about” by focusing on reforms like overturning wrongful convictions and changing the county’s bail system, instead of prosecuting violent crimes.

“In terms of violent crime, instead of stopping it, she was fueling it with her failed policies,” O’Brien said.

One of O’Brien’s main contentions was that under Foxx, the state’s attorney’s office had refused to take on challenging cases involving violent crime, and was only interested in “slam-dunk” cases.

A WBEZ review of state’s attorney data in 2019 did not find a significant difference between Foxx and her predecessor when it came to rejecting murder cases brought by Chicago police.

But O’Brien said there are many cases Foxx’s office had declined to pursue that he would have tried.

“The bottom line is: You’ve got to be able, at times, to take calculated risks in murder cases,” O’Brien said.

For her part, Foxx said “people should be appalled” to hear O’Brien talk about taking risks on violent crime prosecutions “by ignoring evidence and facts and the law.”

The state’s attorney said O’Brien’s approach was the reason Cook County had so many wrongful convictions in the ’80s and ’90s when O’Brien was a prosecutor, and eventually a supervisor, in the criminal division.

In 1988, O’Brien won the conviction of four teenagers for the murder of medical student Lori Roscetti. Thirteen years after the convictions, DNA evidence proved their innocence.

Foxx pointed to those wrongful convictions, and more than 20 others that took place when O’Brien was in charge of the criminal bureau, as proof that O’Brien’s approach ends with innocent people behind bars.

“He speaks without apology for his role in the corruption of our criminal justice system,” Foxx said.

Foxx said voters should give her another term because she kept her campaign promises from four years ago and balanced public safety with needed reforms.

“We’ve made a lot of inroads in the last four years to keep our community safe and reform what has been in Cook County,” Foxx said.

She pointed to her establishment of the Gun Crimes Strategies Unit as one initiative that has improved public safety. The gun crimes unit places specially-trained prosecutors inside police districts.

And Foxx said this year’s spike in violence in Chicago, where shootings and murders are up 50% compared to 2019, is not the result of her reform policies.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.