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Kim Foxx Wants to Tell You a Story

In her mission to reform a tarnished office, the high-wattage Cook County state’s attorney is reaching deep into her past.

Most politicians have learned to hide what makes them genuinely interesting. Rahm tries to repress his killer instincts, for instance, and J.B. Pritzker declines to talk about the possibility that his mother took her own life. Kim Foxx is different. What makes her such a compelling person is often on the tip of her tongue.

The 46-year-old Cook County state’s attorney has a bottomless barrel of anecdotes, many extremely personal — the kind most people would share only with their spouse or best friend. In a series of conversations in her 32nd-floor Loop office, conducted at a conference table in the presence of Foxx’s chief communications officer, Tandra Simonton — who chimed in so seldom it seems she’d long ago given up on keeping her boss from saying what she pleases — Foxx held forth. Sometimes fighting through tears, she talked about, among other things, hiding in the bathtub from stray gunfire when she was growing up in Cabrini-Green, being sexually assaulted at age 5 by a relative, having to move to a Salvation Army homeless shelter after her mother was suspended from her job, buying an Amtrak ticket to Carbondale to talk her way into a spot at Southern Illinois University, traveling with a bodyguard these days because of death threats, and, not least of all, suddenly having a place at tables where she never expected to sit.

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At those tables, she’s getting noticed. Certainly, this is partly because she is the first black woman to lead the vast bureaucracy of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office and its 700-plus prosecutors. It’s also undeniably because of what she’s done to that office since taking over from her controversy-plagued predecessor, Anita Alvarez, in December 2016. Namely, turning it into a vehicle for criminal justice reform as much as wielding it as an arm of law enforcement. Or, as Foxx puts it, going from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime.” If that means emotionally apologizing in front of TV cameras to exonerees at the Criminal Court Building, or brushing off accusations that she’s putting felons on the street, or pushing back at social justice activists who say she’s not reforming fast enough, then so be it.

But more than any of that, it is arguably Foxx’s zest for storytelling — or more particularly, for telling her story — that has captured the attention of both her constituents and celebrities. She now counts the rapper Common and singer John Legend as friends, and a while back, when she saw the superstar U.S. senator Kamala Harris across the room at an Emily’s List event and went over to introduce herself, Foxx had barely gotten a word out before Harris interrupted and said, “You’re Kim Foxx! I’ve been watching you.”

So have a lot of us.

 
Kim Foxx with exonerees
Foxx in September, with exonerees whose convictions had been tied to disgraced former police sergeant Ronald Watts. “No one has apologized for what happened to us,” said one of them. Foxx apologized to her on the spot. Photo: José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Kim Foxx is a hand-talker. As she delivered the closing remarks at the annual El Humanitario Awards at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen in October, her unusually long fingers, unadorned except for a wedding ring, carved the air emphatically, her flawlessly manicured nails catching the light. “Honor the legacies of those who come before us,” she urged the audience, speaking with an emotional intensity that suggested she might be talking about her own past as much as our collective one. “There were generations before us that had to overcome far more turbulent times than what we see and feel right now.”

Wearing bright red lipstick, a tailored black dress, and heels, Foxx never once looked at her notes — she later told me she tends to ignore the remarks prepared by her staff because she likes to make eye contact with her audience — and yet her speech sounded as polished as if she were reading it off a teleprompter.

Overall, Foxx’s physical bearing — she stands 5-foot-11 before donning decidedly nonsensible footwear — might best be described as anti–Toni Preckwinkle. Which is fitting, given the long shadow cast by the boxy-suit-favoring Cook County Board president and mayoral candidate, for whom Foxx served as chief of staff for a year and a half. In fact, many pundits and critics, including Alvarez, credited Foxx’s victory in the race for state’s attorney to her former boss, with more than one going so far as to call Foxx Preckwinkle’s “puppet.”

When I mentioned that disparaging moniker in one of our interviews, Foxx’s voice caught in her throat. “Gennell Wilson did not raise me to be anybody’s puppet,” she said forcefully. Foxx was referring to her mother, who died in 2012 and figures prominently in many of Foxx’s anecdotes. Still, Foxx admits that Preckwinkle was key to her winning. “I think it would be incredibly difficult for me to have run for office in this town without someone with Toni’s political heft. Toni opened the door.”

In truth, if you had to give a single person credit for Foxx’s electoral win, it might be a 17-year-old named Laquan McDonald. Foxx herself describes his much-publicized 2014 death at the hands of a Chicago police officer, along with the alleged role of the state’s attorney’s office in delaying the release of a video showing the shooting, as “the single biggest factor” in her beating two-term incumbent Alvarez, who had worked in that office for 30 years and, until the Laquan scandal, had been so ensconced there that she had no opponent in the 2012 Democratic primary.

If Foxx’s style is anti-Preckwinkle, her vision for the prosecutor’s office might be called anti-Alvarez. Foxx says that her predecessor, whom Foxx served under as an assistant state’s attorney for about four years, largely toed the “back up cops no matter what” line, a stance that valued legal victories above all else. “Most attorneys will tell you that under previous administrations their value was weighed on how many convictions they got. The more convictions, the better an attorney you were deemed to be.” To further that end, Foxx says, Alvarez took “discretion away from lawyers so that they couldn’t make a decision to drop a case or offer a plea without talking to two layers of supervision.” The prosecutor’s office had assumed a perpetually defensive posture, says Foxx, who sums up her predecessor’s philosophy as “Don’t mess up” and “Don’t embarrass the office.”

What philosophy has replaced the old one? “Engagement with the community,” she says. “What we found is that convictions are not the measure of a good prosecutor. That’s not how we want to hold ourselves accountable to the public.” Foxx expects her attorneys to spend time volunteering — at homeless shelters such as A Safe Haven, for example, or at domestic violence shelters. She’s also emphasizing “diversion programs” that can offer alternatives to jail — outpatient drug treatment, for example — and she has urged her lawyers to speak up if they think a case shouldn’t be prosecuted. Under her predecessor, she says, “that was a scary proposition.”

Alvarez disputes Foxx’s characterizations, especially the suggestion that the office was too cozy with the police department, calling it “extremely insulting” and countering that she charged scores of officers. “Do I have a lot of respect for law enforcement? Yes. But I have never looked the other way if cops crossed the line,” she says. As to the claim that she overvalued convictions, she says, “I have no clue what conviction rate my attorneys had. I’ve never asked an attorney that question.”

Changing prosecutorial tactics is one thing, but upending a culture is another. Foxx seems determined to do that by, among other things, eradicating an age-old unwritten rule of Chicago politics: “Don’t hire nobody nobody sent.” That tradition of cronyism is something Foxx takes personally. She says she got her ethics professor at SIU to write her a letter of recommendation for a job in the state’s attorney’s office, but she never bothered to use it because, as she paraphrases the prevailing wisdom of the day, “If you aren’t anybody, you’re not going to get in.”

Accordingly, Foxx has overhauled the office’s hiring process. “We diversified people who get interviews, standardized the questions that we ask, and people go through multiple layers to get through. It’s very difficult to hire someone just on someone’s name.” Numbers supplied by Foxx’s office suggest her policies have yielded modest changes: The representation of nonwhites on staff has increased from 24 percent to 28 percent since the end of Alvarez’s tenure, while the share of female staffers climbed from 58 percent to 61 percent. Foxx seemed to nod to the new process during her speech at the museum in Pilsen, when she urged young people in the audience to go to law school and then “come to my office” to apply for a job. (Alvarez, for her part, insists her hiring process was rigorous and fair.)

Foxx has received accolades from some unexpected corners. “I’m walking juveniles and adults out of police stations uncharged,” says Cook County’s chief public defender, Amy Campanelli, a Preckwinkle nominee. She describes Foxx as “extremely approachable,” adding, “My lawyers fight her lawyers in court every day, but my first assistant calls her first assistant and we work it out.” Craig Futterman, the director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School, says the public defenders he talks to regularly at the Criminal Courts Building “have noticed a palpable difference in prosecutors being given discretion to do what they think is right … to dismiss charges that shouldn’t be brought in the first place or to reduce charges.”

During our conversations, Foxx returned repeatedly to another priority that has climbed to the top of her agenda: transparency. “We are the only prosecutor’s office in the country that has released our case-level data going back seven years,” she told me. “The public can go to that and see who we’ve charged, how we’ve charged them. It’s not me telling our story; people can go look at our data. People lie; numbers don’t.” Futterman describes the move as a “truly important step toward building trust,” and Sharone Mitchell Jr., the deputy director of the Illinois Justice Project, calls it “amazing — it really opened her office to the public.”

Kim Foxx
Styling: Kimmi Ade/Distinct Artists; Makeup: Andrea Samuels; Clothing: Maria Pinto

Bail reform is also on the table, says Foxx, who agrees with the growing consensus among social justice advocates that the current cash bail system unfairly punishes poor people. “We were out on that early and we pushed it,” says Foxx. “You get Willie Horton and then everybody is afraid to let someone out. So what happens is you have one Willie Horton of 100 people who may do something. The other 99 suffer. And that’s not justice.”

The ghost of Willie Horton — the convicted murderer who raped a woman while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison, torpedoing Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential bid — is a hard one to banish, though. Donna More, a private attorney who ran against Foxx and Alvarez in the Democratic primary for state’s attorney, predicts a surge in complaints about the consequences of what she describes as “catch and release” policies. And one alderman, Gilbert Villegas of the 36th Ward, went public in September with his concern that potentially dangerous people might menace his constituents as a result. Foxx called Villegas and arranged to meet and discuss the issue, but the “soft on crime” specter keeps cropping up.

During my last talk with Foxx, she had just pushed back at Politico’s Shia Kapos, who had mentioned in her daily news update Foxx’s directive not to pursue felony theft charges in most cases unless the value of the stolen goods exceeds $1,000. “Retailers say they’re feeling the effects of that decision as shoplifting is on the rise,” Kapos reported, going on to suggest a link between increased theft and the closing of two Target stores on the South Side. Foxx called Kapos demanding a clarification, and effectively got one. “Foxx says there’s data to prove that the charging changes aren’t the issue,” Kapos wrote the next day, adding that “underperforming stores on the South Side have no greater incidents of retail theft than the downtown stores.”

Of all the issues Foxx is trying to address head-on, though, none comes with a more fraught history than the scourge of wrongful convictions that have beset the prosecutor’s office in recent years. Prior to stepping in front of the TV cameras at the Criminal Court Building in September to announce the exoneration of 18 people whose convictions had been linked to corrupt former Chicago cop Ronald Watts, Foxx had a private conversation with one of them. Clarissa Glenn, who, with her husband, was set up by Watts (she got probation; her husband went to prison), told Foxx before the press conference, “You know what no one has ever done? No one has apologized for what happened to us.” Foxx recalls the moment: “Her eyes were wide open, my eyes were welling up, and she said, ‘They took my husband from my children. Everyone’s here clapping and patting backs. Who’s ever going to apologize for what happened to us?’ Which is why I apologized that day.”

Joshua Tepfer, an attorney for the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School who represented many of Watts’s victims, remembers the encounter with similar clarity: “Kim Foxx showed up in court, shook my clients’ hands, apologized privately and publicly. I’ve been doing this work for 10 years, and that is really a special moment for me and my clients. She didn’t have to personally apologize. She wasn’t involved.” (The Watts-related convictions all occurred before Foxx took office.) To Tepfer, it’s a sea change. “She referred to the exonerated as ‘victims,’ and wished them healing and justice. … That was a deliberate and important choice of language.”

Still, many advocates are eager for even deeper reforms. The U. of C.’s Futterman, for one, still sees too much emphasis on winning at all costs and not enough on holding cops accountable for misconduct. “I think Foxx has made progress,” he says, “but it’s unfinished. It’s a tough job, and even tougher when you inherited an office with a culture of lack of police accountability and police abuse and wrongful arrest. That’s a lot to take on.”

 
Old photos of Kim Foxx and relatives
Clockwise from top left: Foxx with her brother, Stephen, and their mother, Gennell Wilson, in a 1975 photo that appeared in a Tribune article about the effect of proposed food stamp changes on poor families; with her mother at Foxx’s eighth-grade graduation from LaSalle Language Academy in 1986; outside Cabrini-Green with Stephen (foreground) and a cousin on Easter Sunday, 1975. Photos: (Wilson) Lynette Miller/Chicago Tribune; (all others) courtesy of Kim Foxx

Something was bugging Kim Foxx. During one of our interviews, she started reading from an email she’d been forwarded. It had been written by a suburban elected official, whom she declined to name, and was addressed to other elected officials and local members of law enforcement. This man was upset about another of Foxx’s guideline changes: easing the penalties for driving on a suspended license. She quoted a line from the email: “I called the cunt to complain.”

The insult cut deep, a particularly overt example of the kind of bigotry and misogyny that Foxx says she has faced since long before she became a prosecutor. One example she cites goes all the way back to when she was in eighth grade at LaSalle Language Academy in Old Town. That year, she ran her first political campaign, for student council president. Her opponent was a white student. She says she has never forgotten a question put to her by a school faculty member: “Why are you doing this?” Says Foxx: “The undertone was that someone like me wasn’t supposed to run for this office.”

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She and her running mate, a boy named DeAlan Mann, also black, ended up winning. Mann recalls the reaction when the results were announced. “There was actually some pushback from some teachers. One in particular refused to believe that we won and wanted a new election.”

For Foxx, the sting hasn’t gone away. “Imagine what it feels like as a 14-year-old having someone tell you that you don’t belong just because you want to lead, give voice,” she says. “Imagine being 46 and feeling the exact same way.”

Foxx has felt the tension during meetings of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association — the 100-plus-member group of which she is the only black member and one of fewer than a dozen women — every time she speaks about issues of discrimination, or when she vocally disagrees with other members. “When I talk about the history of racism in our country and in the justice system, it’s discomforting, but it won’t come up unless I bring it up.”

Foxx’s underlying frustration often comes down to this: her belief that too many elected officials are profoundly disconnected from the people their decisions and policies affect. “I hear things that are rooted in race and classism,” she says, “conversations about the criminal justice system [among those] who have no real understanding about what people are going through.”

Say what you will about Foxx’s approach to crime, but no one would accuse her of lacking understanding. Growing up in Chicago’s most notorious housing project, where she lived until third grade, she had a cousin who was shot eight times. Her father was absent from her life until she was in high school. Her mother, who worked for the city for 29 years, fought to get her children into good schools, but her bipolar disorder went untreated, and she endured long spells of depression and anxiety, convulsed by worries about having enough money to feed, dress, and house her children. Foxx describes her mother as fiercely intelligent but stubbornly unconcerned about what others thought, on some occasions lying around the apartment naked and smoking cigarettes.

“There hasn’t been anyone like me who has done this job,” Foxx says. “And not just as a black woman, but as someone who comes from a neighborhood that had been written off.”

Sometimes it seems like you can look at almost any of Foxx’s childhood experiences and see an origin story. According to her brother, Stephen Anderson, a 47-year-old stage and TV actor who lives in Hyde Park, when he and Foxx were preteens, their mother dragged them downtown to the building where their father was working. Each was given a sign that read “Pay Your Support!” and then, with their mother, they marched around the building’s perimeter. (Foxx’s father disputes the suggestion that he failed to pay child support.) The experience was humiliating, but when their mother took her kids with her to court to extract those payments, Foxx remembers watching the lawyers whose job it was to argue on their behalf. It was a watershed moment. Not long after, when asked by her grade school Spanish teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up, Foxx replied: “Quiero ser abogada para luchar por la justicia” — “I want to be a lawyer to fight for justice.”

It’s similarly tempting to draw a direct line from the two episodes of sexual assault in Foxx’s childhood — one at the hands of an 18-year-old relative when Foxx was 5, the other committed by a pair of teenagers when she was 7 — to her escalating activism against sexual harassment in government workplaces.

At the end of one of our conversations, as I reached to turn off my recorder, Foxx stopped me: “I’ve got one more thing I want to say. … The chief judge’s office for the first time in the history of the Circuit Court of Cook County is doing sexual harassment training for all of their judges and all of their staff. And this was based on an incident involving a judge and one of my attorneys, in which I wrote a letter to the chief judge saying, ‘This is what our protocols are. What are yours?’ ”

She described this as one of her proudest moments on the job so far, one that seemed to redeem a frustrating episode from a few years ago. During her time as an assistant state’s attorney, she says, she repeatedly complained to Alvarez’s top staffers about a division chief who she says had engaged in serial misconduct, including looking up women’s skirts and openly discussing oral sex with young female employees. When the man retired in 2012, he got a tearful farewell from Alvarez, Foxx says. (Alvarez says she took claims of sexual harassment seriously and adds that a formal complaint was never filed against the man by Foxx or anyone else.)

Whatever the connection between past and present, Foxx has never shown herself to be ashamed of where she came from. “This job has made me more and more proud of the people I knew from there,” she told the crowd in Pilsen in October, referring to Cabrini-Green. She also told them, “You will never, ever, ever, ever, ever hear me apologize for being unapologetically African American.”

 
Kim Foxx with her family with Sydney and Savannah Abajian
Kim and Kelley Foxx at home in Flossmoor with their daughters, Kai (far left) and Kendall (far right), and the two girls the couple are coparenting, Sydney (next to Kim) and Savannah Abajian.

Foxx starts most weekdays at 5:30 a.m., reading the news on her phone — she doesn’t like to be surprised by anything that happened overnight — at her four-bedroom house in south suburban Flossmoor. Most mornings, she factors in time to play for a few minutes with her two Boston terriers and take her children to school before her security detail drives her into the city.

In addition to their two daughters, ages 12 and 15, Foxx and her husband, Kelley, a nonprofit manager whom Kim met at SIU in 1996, recently assumed guardianship of two sisters, one of whom is a close friend of their younger daughter. This means the household now contains four teenage (or soon-to-be teenage) girls, a circumstance that makes Foxx grateful for her home’s four and a half baths.

The arrangement dates to December 2017, a few months after one of the sisters came to the house for a sleepover. “Going into the second night, I noticed that no one had come looking for her,” Foxx says. She made some calls and discovered that the mother had moved to Arizona and left them with their stepfather. She also learned that the girls were at risk of being evicted from their home. “I was heartbroken.”

She says the girls’ predicament instantly evoked painful memories of her own bout with homelessness when she was a junior at Lincoln Park High School. Her mother had gotten into an argument with a coworker and was suspended without pay for a month. She couldn’t make the rent, so she put the family’s belongings in storage and moved, with Kim, to a shelter in Uptown. (Her brother moved in with a friend.) After an argument with her mother, Foxx left the shelter to live with an aunt in Englewood. It was the same night that Gennell Wilson, sitting on a park bench in Lincoln Park, tried to kill herself by swallowing pills.

Now Foxx had a chance to help two girls in similar straits, so she and her husband made a decision. “We made an offer that the kids could stay with us temporarily, and then temporary turned into a couple months.” Eventually, Kelley and the girls’ biological father went to court together to get a coparenting agreement. “It is for the foreseeable future,” says Foxx.

The state’s attorney is quick to admit that her new job has taken its toll on her family and her personal life. She says she has gained 30 pounds and more than a few strands of gray hair since her election, and she often has trouble falling asleep. She’s curtailed her social life drastically, mostly staying at home when she’s not working. “There aren’t many places I can go where people don’t know me.” Close friend Carmita Semaan has felt the change: “I wish I could just meet my friend out for a drink and not have to have the place scoped out beforehand and have a security person sit in the corner.”

When Foxx is stressed, she listens to Stevie Wonder. “ ‘Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing’ is my go-to song every single day,” she says. “When I need to be motivated, I listen to Jay-Z. When I’m feeling saucy, I listen to Beyoncé.”

Threats to her safety notwithstanding, Foxx says most of the strangers she encounters in public — and there seem to be more every day — have positive messages for her. “It’s a running joke with my security detail,” Foxx tells me, “the number of people who want to come give me a hug.”

Foxx’s increasingly prominent public profile has caused some to wonder whether she’ll stick around the state’s attorney’s office long enough to make a lasting difference. She says that she was approached by “a number of people” — she wouldn’t specify who — about putting her hat in the ring for the Illinois attorney general job when Lisa Madigan announced she wasn’t running for reelection. But Foxx decided against it after talking it over with her husband. When I asked if she’ll run again for her current position in 2020, she demurred, preferring instead to talk about all the unfinished business she wants to address in the remainder of her first term, including reforming the way drug offenses are prosecuted and changing the laws for charging and prosecuting juveniles.

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This much seems certain: Getting elected a second time won’t be as easy. Many Cook County voters are unlikely to be impressed by her newfound celebrity, and she’ll be running without the boost from a controversy-tainted opponent.

One thing she will have, once again, is the power of her past — that deep well of stories. One she will likely tell voters concerns her grandmother Myrtle Wilson, a daughter of sharecroppers who moved to Chicago from Arkansas during the Great Migration. She regularly took Foxx to services at a Primitive Baptist church in Lawndale, where, every fourth Sunday, congregants were asked to wash the feet of the person next to them. “You have no idea,” Foxx says, “what service is until you wash some old lady’s feet.”

That’s the kind of anecdotal wisdom that not even the most seasoned spin artist could conjure up.

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