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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Alvarez Challenger: “If I Were She, I Would Resign”

Donna More, who hopes to unseat Anita Alvarez in the March primary, says the state’s attorney has become a “lightning rod” in the community.

Donna More  Photo: Courtesy of the Donna More campaign

Until the video of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald went viral, the Cook County State’s attorney race looked to be between incumbent Anita Alvarez and new-to-politics Kim Foxx, a protege of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle—contested, sure, but it’s always hard to knock off an incumbent in Chicago.

But the video, as well as the big question for Alvarez—why did she wait 400 days to charge police office Jason Van Dyke—has made the race one of the most-watched in the city going into the March 15 primary. And with that change, the third person in that race, Donna More, 58—a former state and federal prosecutor, now a partner in the Loop law firm Fox Rothschild—went from unknown to dark horse. She made her first prime-time appearance on Chicago Tonight on December 2. The first-time candidate has money, too—her husband and mother have donated $99,000, according to the Sun-Times, and she had more than $200,000 total in September.

More grew up in Evanston, went to high school at Evanston Township, college at Tufts, law school at Georgetown. She now lives in Old Town with her husband, PR man Hud Englehart, and their 11-year-old daughter. We met Monday at her law firm and talked for 90 minutes. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.

[Note: I have also interviewed Kim Foxx regarding this race. I reached out to Anita Alvarez’s press person for an interview, but no response yet.]

Both your opponents in the Democratic primary have resonant stories. Anita Alvarez is the first woman and first Hispanic to hold the office. Kim Foxx’s story with her Cabrini-Green childhood has the makings of a TV movie. Your background, by comparison, seems so typical. How do you run against those stories?

I would wish that everybody should have my childhood. I’ve been very fortunate. … I don’t think that having a good story makes you qualified to be state’s attorney.

I’ve read that your father took you to the criminal courts at 26th and California and that the experience motivated you to become a prosecutor.

Yes. He left his law firm with one of his clients to focus on real estate work. He would occasionally help clients whose kids got in trouble. I worked for him when I was in high school and spent summers working in his office and those times in the courtroom made a big impression.

What’s wrong with Alvarez and Foxx?

Anita has 29 years prosecuting cases, but in my mind does not have leadership skills and the the trust and credibility to run the office. Kim doesn’t have experience. She was never in the felony trial division. … But for Toni Preckwinkle [until recently, Kim Foxx was Preckwinkle’s chief of staff], Kim Foxx couldn’t run. She didn’t have the legal career that would have catapulted her or made her considered for top prosecutor.

People are unhappy with the decisions Anita Alvarez has made; decisions based on politics. If Kim Foxx were to get the job, do we think if Toni doesn’t want a tape released or doesn’t want someone prosecuted for public corruption, we are going to get a good decision?

I’ll grant you that Preckwinkle seems to be trying lately to play the role of kingmaker. Why do you think that is?

I think she wants to expand her power, and I don’t think people want Toni Preckwinkle to have the power of indictment for Cook County. Maybe she’s going to run for mayor. I don’t know.

If you were elected, how would you be different from Alvarez?

Having been an assistant state’s attorney [1984-89] and an assistant U.S. Attorney [1989-91], I’d strive for two goals. One is the conviction to prosecute no matter who commits a crime. Two is to be transparent about what you’re doing so that voters trust you’re doing the right thing. [She also promised such additions as a dedicated county gun court, better use of grand juries, coordination among the 128 police agencies in Cook County, and to address the fact that 33 percent of inmates at the county jail are mentally ill.]

How would you have handled the McDonald shooting?

As state’s attorney, you are alerted to the police shooting. You view the video, which, in the McDonald case, shows 16 bullets, 13 or 14 after he was already on the ground. Based on that and talking to witnesses, you charge the murder and take the case to indictment. By promptly indicting you’re saying to the community, “This was a horrible thing. We will try the case and justice will get done.”

During your adult years, who was the best Cook County State’s Attorney?

I had a good experience when I worked for Mayor Daley. I was asked to work on a special project for the Mayor, a financial crimes investigation. I met with the First Assistant and with Daley every few weeks to update them on the investigation; what subpoenas I was going to issue. Subpoenas were going to a “Who’s-Who” of Chicago businesses. Daley would say, “You tell me why you need subpoenas. I just want notice. I don’t want to be blindsided. Go after who you need to go after.” The office was not political. I never knew when there was going to be a fundraiser. I always felt that somebody had my back.

Have you asked Rich Daley to endorse you?

I haven’t reached out yet. At some point I hope to talk to him.

You portray yourself as a Democrat who got into politics by campaigning for George McGovern, but you gave money to Republican governor Bruce Rauner. Why?

I voted for change. Hindsight has 20/20 vision.

You also gave money to Rahm and voted for him for mayor. Having watched the unfolding of the McDonald case, do you think Rahm should resign?

I think the mayor made an appropriate decision when it came to firing the police chief. If I were state’s attorney we would never have gotten to this point [of demonstrations in the street]. Anita Alvarez dropped the ball. I think the criticism belongs in her lap. Had she indicted in November 2014, [the city wouldn’t] have issues as what should the mayor and Garry McCarthy have done. This is not the mayor’s bailiwick. 

So you’re saying the mayor has no culpability here?

I don’t have enough information to comment on what the city did. I can tell you that I think the city would be in a different position had the state’s attorney done her job.

Should Alvarez resign?

If I were she, I probably would resign. She has become a lightning rod in the community. I think the community has lost faith in her and her office. In a little more than 90 days we have an election and the voters should speak as to who they want as the next state’s attorney. Certainly rather than have the Cook County board president appoint who she wants.

When you left the U.S. Attorney’s office you became general counsel to the Illinois Gaming Board and you continue to represent gaming interests in your private practice. You’re also a registered lobbyist. Do you worry that those things might give pause to some voters?

I don’t lobby Springfield in the sense of getting legislators to pass a bill. If you deal with administrative agencies at a senior level, you need to register as a lobbyist. … In my practice now, I counsel clients mostly in gaming and medical marijuana, some in banking, some credit card companies.

Are you into gambling?

I drafted the rules when I was at the gaming board. I had to learn how to play games so I could write the rules. I learned to play craps, slot machines, went to Las Vegas and Atlantic City to see the back of the house. … This firm has offices in both cities.

Did you figure out how to beat the house?

No. If I did I’d be doing something else for a living.

You must have been happy when the Cook County Democrats decided not to endorse in this race. Did Toni Preckwinkle influence that decision to help Kim Foxx?

Yes, I think so. But I think that there was enough unhappiness with the incumbent; had that not been the case, Alvarez would have been endorsed.

If you can’t be state’s attorney, would you rather see Alvarez or Foxx in the job?

I can’t choose, and that’s why I’m running.

What happens if you don’t win?  

I’m not running because I need a job. I have a good job. Both my opponents need this job. One is the incumbent who has only worked in the public sphere. The other gave up her county job to run.     

Does your daughter want to be a lawyer? What does she think of your running for office?

She wants to be a singer and dancer. She took a test in the sixth grade [at the British School] that had a questions, “If you could be anybody, who would you be?” She told me she wrote, “I would be you.” As an award she knew she’d get a puppy, and she did. We already have two dogs.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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