About a week before the election, Pat O’Brien, the Republican candidate running for Cook County state’s attorney, ran a TV ad called “Too Many Children Murdered.”
“The criminals have a friend in Kim Foxx, we don’t,” a female narrator intoned near the end of the ad, ominous music behind her.
The criminal justice reformers who supported Foxx saw the ad as indicative of O’Brien’s campaign overall — an attempt to paint the Democratic incumbent as too “soft” on criminals and in doing so drag the county’s justice system back toward the mentality that the more people behind bars, the better.
“[O’Brien ran] a fear-based campaign which really relies on a very flat worldview that Black folks are dangerous, especially young Black folks are dangerous, and that if prosecutors aren’t tough on crime, anarchy will rule,” said Sharone Mitchell, director at the Illinois Justice Project. “I don’t think that Pat O’Brien should be singled out, I think for a very long time, you know, state’s attorneys all across the country really valued their self-worth on how hard or how tough they could be on criminals.”
The contest had echoes of Chicago’s 1983 mayoral race when the unknown, but white, Republican candidate Bernard Epton skyrocketed to popularity after a Black man, Harold Washington, won the Democratic primary. O’Brien, who is white, was a lifelong Democrat but switched to the Republican Party and mounted a very serious challenge to Foxx, who is Black, in a county where Democrats who win the primary often walk to the finish line.
Foxx defeated O’Brien by 14 points on Tuesday. It wasn’t a landslide, but it was a decisive victory.
“Cook County voters decided to keep on going forward”
Mitchell and his fellow reformers are celebrating Foxx’s reelection as an even more important victory than her initial election in 2016 because she was able to beat back a tough-on-crime challenge when voters were understandably focused on gun violence.
In Chicago, shootings and murders are up about 50% compared to last year, and a backlash against looting and other mayhem during protests had Republicans believing they had a shot to take over the county’s top prosecutor seat for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Advocates say the fact that Foxx was able to win in those circumstances makes them hopeful that voters have moved past the politics of fear and racism when it comes to the criminal justice system — and they believe it will send a message nationally.
Mitchell said the race between O’Brien and Foxx was a “referendum” on the direction of Cook County’s justice system.
“We can look back to the past and go back to the prosecutors that [relied] on throwing the book at everyone they could see. Or we could go forward toward a system which … is more thoughtful about incarceration, more thoughtful about the role of the criminal justice system. And it seems as if Cook County voters decided to keep on going forward,” Mitchell said.
In her victory speech Tuesday night, Foxx said her reelection was “a reminder that we cannot go back to the days of old.”
Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst at the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, said there was a noticeable decrease in incarceration and an increase in the use of diversion programs for low-level offenders during Foxx’s first term. And she said there was no evidence to claims that Foxx’s policies contributed to an increase in crime.
“She’s made a lot of really common sense changes to … decisions that her office is making, particularly about low-level nonviolent cases — retail theft, drugs — that have started to mitigate the effects of the war on drugs. And we can see it in the data,” Staudt said.
Staudt said she’d like to see Foxx go further in changing the state’s attorney’s office and reducing incarceration even more. But she acknowledged that Foxx has faced a lot of opposition to reforms so far.
“She’s faced a constant stream of, you know, sort of cherry-picked attacks about one case here or one case there,” Staudt said. “And for the most part, her response has been to continue to focus on the big picture.”
“An example to prosecutors around the country”
Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for the national progressive group Color Of Change, said Foxx’s 2016 election was the start of a national wave of more reform-minded prosecutors being elected. He said Foxx handily winning reelection could have an even bigger effect nationwide.
Color Of Change works to elect so-called progressive prosecutors nationally and supported Foxx.
“We were watching closely to make sure that she was able to bring it home … and really serve as an example to prosecutors around the country,” Roberts said. “That we can even survive vicious attacks by everyone from the Department of Justice to local police unions. And even in the face of, frankly, heightened violence in Chicago this summer, that people will still choose a reform agenda, that this agenda is popular, that it’s a winner. And we’re hoping that that will, you know, stiffen the backbone of these prosecutors around the country.”
Roberts said the opposition Foxx faced in Cook County followed a “playbook” they’ve seen throughout the country against prosecutors who support criminal justice reform. He said the opposition has been “particularly pronounced against Black women.”
“The things that we don’t talk about publicly”
Race was clearly a factor in the election. Foxx spoke frankly about the challenges of being a Black woman operating in traditionally white spaces in her victory speech Tuesday.
“As an African American woman leading this job, it is one thing to celebrate that I am the first. But it also comes with the recognition that when you do this work in this skin, in this body, that sometimes you see the things that we don’t talk about publicly,” Foxx said.
Laura Washington, an ABC-7 political analyst and Chicago Sun-Times columnist wrote back in March that she was watching to see if the state’s attorney’s race would “turn into Bernard Epton redux.”
Epton’s racially-motivated attacks on Washington won the support of a lot of white Democrats who were more opposed to electing a Black man than they were to electing a Republican. Nonetheless, Washington won the race, becoming the city’s first Black mayor.
Following Foxx’s reelection, Washington said O’Brien’s attempt to win by picking up “more conservative, suburban votes” failed.
“The people who are not as comfortable with Kim Foxx’s agenda tend to be further removed from the African American and Latino community. They tend to be white. They tend to be in the suburbs. They tend to be law enforcement folks,” Washington said. “And I think he was reaching out to those folks that I think he saw that as his base.”
O’Brien did in fact carry the Cook County suburbs — beating Foxx there by almost seven points. Foxx’s 34-point win in the city of Chicago carried her to victory.
The day after the election, Foxx told WBEZ she believed the difference could be attributed to how crime, and the appropriate response to crime, is perceived in and out of the city.
“The concentration of violence is in our cities. Those are the people who are most directly impacted. And so as the users of the system more frequently, their vision for what, you know, works may be different from those who are more distant from it,” Foxx said. “But certainly we need everyone on board to be able to see the vision.”