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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Why Kim Foxx is Challenging Anita Alvarez for State’s Attorney

Toni Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff faces off against the incumbent in the March primary.

Kim Foxx makes the case for her candidacy to Cook County Democrats in August.  Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Kim Foxx, 43, has one of those life stories that is made for politics: She started out in Cabrini-Green with a father who wasn’t around much and a mother who suffered from depression. After being homeless for a time in high school, Foxx managed to escape Chicago and earn her undergraduate and law degrees and to work her way up in the state’s attorney’s office, eventually working under Anita Alvarez, the two-term incumbent whom Foxx is trying to defeat in the Democratic primary next March.

She most recently served as chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is doing all she can to help Foxx oust Alvarez.

Foxx lives in suburban Flossmoor with her husband and her two daughters, ages 9 and 12. She and I talked by telephone for well over an hour about her reasons for running and her personal history. Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

When you arrived at the state’s attorney’s office in 2001, Richard Devine was in charge, but you stayed long enough [12 years] that you were working for Alvarez after she was elected state’s attorney. Was she somebody you admired, or somebody you were frustrated with? What drives you to run against her?

When she was in management at the state’s attorney’s office [Alvarez served as deputy chief of the narcotics bureau from 2001 to 2008], she was someone that a lot of us looked up to, particularly because she was a woman [and] a woman of color. That office was very male-dominated with very little diversity. Seeing women, and women of color, gave you hope that there was an opportunity to advance. When she was elected, I think there was a hope for some cultural sensitivity, and competence, and recognition of the women in the workplace having value, and promoting that.

How did that work out?

I was sorely disappointed, because it was none of those things when she took over. She’d come to the office in 1986, when there were even fewer women in positions there, and she had an opportunity to really change the narrative. Mr. Devine, in his waning days, promoted me to a supervisory position, but I was one of only a handful of people of color in a management position. We never really increased those numbers.

One of the most disturbing things to me was—we have the gangs unit at 26th and California, and when you’d walk into that unit there’d be mug shots of the various people who were convicted. It was almost like a trophy wall of humans. And for a lot of people there, it was quite crass. And there was the belief that [Alvarez], too, thought it was crass, and that when she came on board they would take that down. And it never came down.

She took away discretion; she was very much needing to prove that she would be tough on crime, as opposed to thoughtful or smart on crime, and was very much concerned about her image as a atate’s attorney, as opposed to what justice looked like. 

Did you ever talk to her about your concerns, about wanting to have a different kind of ethic in the office?

Not at all. She isolated herself from staff. I will say she was more accessible before she had become state’s attorney, which makes sense because she wasn’t the boss of bosses. The sense was, because she was the first woman in that office, that it was very important that she not look like she could not handle the work

You left there to go to work for Toni Preckwinkle in 2013 as a deputy chief of staff and later became her chief of staff. Why?

As a prosecutor, I had to follow the mandates of the state’s attorney, policies that I did not feel were aligned with my principles on what I felt prosecution should be. I’d never met Toni, but I’d seen her talking about juvenile justice reforms, and I was very much, I don’t know if the word is enamored, but her views aligned with what I’m talking about.

Toni had a lot of academics and a lot of defense lawyers advising her criminal justice agenda. I was the first prosecutor who was at the table and bringing that balance to the conversation. She was going out and talking about the jails, for example, or juvenile detention centers saying, “I don’t think there are any kids who should be locked up ever.” And I took pause and said, “Well, Toni, there are some kids with some really deep, troubling issues that cannot be cared for in the community.”

Why is Preckwinkle so adamant about getting Anita Alvarez out of that job, and getting you into it? She seems to be a very major force in this story.

I think she’s a force, [but] I don’t know about major. I think the work that we were able to do around criminal justice reform in the two years that I was there demonstrated that if there was a will, there was a way. I think Toni had been extremely frustrated, prior to my time, talking about the Cook County jail; that on any given day we had 10,000 people there, most of them there for nonviolent offenses because they couldn’t pay their bail, and nothing was happening. In two short years, we were able to drop the jail population at 26th and California by almost 20 percent.

And so from her vantage point, the question was, “How much further could we have gone if we had willing participants who were looking beyond their role.” The criminal justice system in Cook County is very silo-ed. Everyone’s protecting their corner of the world. If we had everyone working in concert, how much further could we be? And in terms of [Preckwinkle being] a major force, two years earlier [in 2011] someone had asked me if I was interested in running for the state’s attorney’s office.

And you would have run in 2012 but for your mother, is that correct?

Yes. My mom was still alive at the time, working for the city. She had been promoted to supervisor, but she lied on her application and said that she had an associate’s degree when really she dropped out of high school. She thought when they did opposition research [on Kim Foxx], they would find out and she would get fired, and so she was adamant that I not do that. My mother passed away in 2012 at age 58.

Toni Preckwinkle, then, is not the impetus for you deciding to run?

That is correct.

You got a boost when Cook County Democrats didn’t endorse any candidate in your race, so the March primary is open. Did you urge them to not endorse anyone?

I drove around most of Cook County and met them at their offices or for coffee and said, “We need an open primary.” I’m going up against a two-term incumbent. And in Cook County, typically, the incumbent holds the position for as long as they want. So to ask the party to not endorse one of their own, who they’d endorsed in the previous election, was a heavy lift, because that’s not how it’s done in Cook County. 

Did Toni Preckwinkle do some lobbying on your behalf?

She introduced me to people, but the case was mine to make. I think I met with almost 60 of the 80 committeemen, or called to make the case.

Will Preckwinkle hit the campaign trail with you?

I hope so. Toni has been a true advocate on these issues around criminal justice reform in a way that no president of the county has been. And she can testify to my leadership abilities in managing that organization for her for two years.

What are your top three goals if you were to attain this office?

To bring back integrity to our criminal justice system. Whether it’s torture reparations, or prosecutors being fired for perjury… I want people to believe they can get a fair shake in Cook County.

Two, to be thoughtful about how we look at juvenile justice. Having represented kids who’ve come up in circumstances not of their own doing, and having watched them matriculate through the criminal justice system—they start off as twelve-year-olds doing graffiti on buildings, to fifteen-year-olds stealing from someone, to eighteen-year-olds in our jails. We have the ability and the resources to intervene earlier and we don’t.

Third, having worked for President Preckwinkle and managed that really large budget, there’s a fiscal component to how we administer justice. We are keeping people in jail for $143 a day, for three weeks at a time, because they have drug problems. From a fiscal standpoint, we can reallocate dollars in a more responsible manner that will get us better outcomes than what we’re doing right now.

You grew up at Cabrini-Green?

Yes, the corner of Division and Larrabee. I lived there until third grade. My mother was 18 when she had me. I was her second child. [Foxx’s brother is 13 months older.]

I read that you were sexually abused as a child.

Yes. The first [time] was a relative, and that happened while I was in Cabrini. I was five, I think he was 18. My mother beat the [daylights out] of him. And then there was an incident when I was seven, in which I was sexually assaulted by two boys on my way home from school. I told my mother some time later [because] I was concerned that I had done something wrong.

What led you to law school?

My mother was big on education, and I said very early on I wanted to be a lawyer, and she said, “Okay, you’re going to be a lawyer.” She would reinforce that whenever she talked to her friends about me: “This is Kim, she wants to be a lawyer.” 

Growing up, we had to go to court for child support and paternity and all of that, and it was a really painful experience for my mother, for my brother and me. My first introduction to lawyers and the whole court system was my mother saying, “We’re gonna go in here, this is our lawyer. Our lawyer’s going to ask the judge to do what’s right on our behalf.” And I was like, “I want to do that. I want to make it right for people.”

After you left law school, did you ever consider taking the Michelle Obama route and working for a law firm, making lots of money?

For nine months, right after law school, I worked doing insurance defense for Cigna. I really thought I was making it big with my $32,000 salary. But I hated it. I absolutely found no fulfillment in the work. I went to work for the Cook County Public Guardian’s office. I was working with kids who were in our foster care system: kids who were sexually abused, physically abused, kids whose parents were in jail or had mental illness. Kids who were very much similar to me, but I was fortunate to have never been in the foster care system.

Why did you decide to become a prosecutor?

I was partially recruited, and partially wanted to go. In the guardian’s office, the state’s attorneys prosecuted the cases of child abuse; the public defenders defended the parents; and the guardian was the representative of the children. The guardian would stay with the case for its entirety, but the state’s attorneys would cycle in and out of the cases, depending on where they were in their rotation in the office. It was very frustrating to have cases that would take a long time, and you’d see two or three different state’s attorneys on the case. The state’s attorney’s office [eventually] decided to create a unit that would have people choose to do child abuse and neglect cases and would stay on those cases for the life of the case. I was recruited [in 2001] to come and do that work.

As a high school junior, you were homeless. Tell me about that.

We moved around a lot after we left Cabrini. My mother moved us deeper into Lincoln Park, Old Town, so that we could go to LaSalle Language Academy [she eventually graduated from Lincoln Park High School]. My mother was very much aware of the cycle of poverty and wanted us to have a different reality. She worked for the City of Chicago [in the health department]. She got into an argument with a coworker. The coworker was yelling and some spittle may have gotten on my mother, and it sent her into a rage. She ended up getting into an altercation and was suspended for 29 days from work without pay. We were already behind on our rent. We put our things in storage. My brother stayed with a good friend of his, and my mother and I spent some time in the shelters throughout the North Side.

And then that triggered depression and your mother’s suicide attempt?

Yeah, there was a breaking point when we were staying at the Salvation Army near Lawrence Avenue, and I wanted to go to a party. My mother said I couldn’t go because we had to be home by a certain hour for dinner. The rules of the shelter were you had to be home at certain hours so that you could participate in the routine. I flew off in kind of a teenage fit about how unfair it all was and that I didn’t want to be there anymore, that I’d done everything I was supposed to do, and I wanted to go live with my grandmother. It was late that night that we got a call from my grandmother saying that my mother had been found unresponsive on a park bench in Lincoln Park. And she had taken a quantity of pills in an attempt to end her life.

Wow. That must have been a huge burden for you.

Part of the reason that I always knew that I was going to stay in the Chicago area was that I worried about my mother until the very end. Because I carried the guilt of, “What if I had just stayed? Would she have done that?” I found, some years later, her suicide note. The stress for her, as a mom, not being able to provide for my brother and me was very real for her. I don’t think I appreciated then what depression looked like, compounded by the mental illness, compounded by the poverty, and the work issues, but it impacts me to this day.

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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