When the media drill you about your slow response to this city’s most infamous police shooting since the death of Fred Hampton, when hundreds of protesters amass on Michigan Avenue in part to call for you to step down, when your party has taken the unusual step of endorsing another candidate, it might seem safe to assume you’ll be toast in the next election—especially when that election is imminent.
But politics is a funny thing, and a lot can happen on the way from the protest rally to the voting booth. It’s not inconceivable that Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who has remained defiant, might survive the March 15 Democratic primary.
As is often the case, it could come down to money. Despite the backlash against Alvarez, powerful local interests—most notably Illinois House speaker Mike Madigan and Alderman Ed Burke—have stuck by her. She is still remarkably well funded, with nearly $700,000 in her coffers as of the end of 2015—almost twice the reserves of her two challengers, Kim Foxx and Donna More. Dollars, of course, translate into vital get-out-the-vote efforts and TV ads that will tout Alvarez’s record and undoubtedly raise questions about her opponents’ inexperience.
Then there’s the power of incumbency. Foxx and More entered this race as virtual unknowns: Neither has run for office. Alvarez might be under fire, but after her eight years in office, voters recognize her name. Sure, some people will pull the lever for anybody not named Alvarez, but Foxx and More could split that vote.
All of which helps explain how Alvarez, despite all that has happened, remains the frontrunner. In a February 2 Chicago Tribune poll, 34 percent of likely voters said they would back her. Foxx wasn’t far behind with 27 percent, while just 12 percent supported More. Still, that leaves 26 percent undecided.
“In this town, politics just about always beats policy,” says Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University. “So you’ve had a race in which it is not necessarily about who is the best prosecutor, but who is the best politician.” Green isn’t asserting that Alvarez fits that description, but he also won’t count her out.
Alvarez’s shortcomings as a politician could actually be her undoing. She is fighting for survival largely because of how she handled the Laquan McDonald shooting. It took her more than a year to charge Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot him. Since November, she’s battled the perception that she was forced into the indictment by the release of dashcam video. Alvarez insists she was just building a case. That very well may be, but her campaign events often lose focus once reporters start peppering her with questions about McDonald, and her public explanations have been archly defensive. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” Alvarez told Chicago’s Carol Felsenthal in early January, sounding rather Nixonian. “I have always run this office professionally, independently, and made decisions based on the facts, the evidence, and the law.”
The McDonald case hardened a view of Alvarez that was already taking shape. Long ago, she had come under fire from legal observers and activists. Most significant, she’s been accused of protecting law enforcement officers and being overzealous in her prosecutions. Last year, the left-wing blog Daily Kos ran a post titled “The Horrifying Behavior of Anita Alvarez,” outlining a litany of her perceived offenses. The Better Government Association has published several in-depth pieces that take her to task.
“Anita Alvarez has been permanently damaged,” says Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “To win, she’s needed to become a much better political candidate than she’s ever been before. It’s hard to see it.”
If Alvarez does get knocked off, it will likely be by Foxx. She has a compelling personal story, rising from a deprived childhood in Chicago and making herself into a prosecutor before going to work as chief of staff to Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle. Preckwinkle helped engineer a Cook County Democratic Party endorsement for Foxx in January. And as an African American, Foxx has a base from which to work, since roughly a third of Democratic voters in the county are black, according to Simpson. Amid the fallout of a video that showed a white cop shooting a black youth, it’s hard to underestimate the racial factor in this election.
More and Alvarez both accuse Foxx of being a puppet of Preckwinkle, who worked the levers hard to make the party endorsement happen. (Democrats had met previously without endorsing anyone.) Foxx asserts that Preckwinkle has assisted her greatly but was not the reason she entered the contest. “I want people to believe they can get a fair shake in Cook County,” Foxx told Chicago in October.
Meanwhile, Alvarez has bashed the résumés of both her opponents. “Neither one of them even knows how to open up a file and start an investigation on a police shooting,” Alvarez told reporters in mid-January. “I have, and I will, and I’m going to continue to do it.”
No matter how you view it, the race has become the most important contest on the March ballot. And with shots being fired all around, it will also likely be the ugliest.
|Current role Cook County state’s attorney||Current role None. (She was Toni Preckwinkle’s chief of staff.)||Current role Partner at Fox Rothschild|
|Lives in River Forest||Lives in Flossmoor||Lives in Old Town|
|Top backer Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters PAC||Top backer SEIU Healthcare Ill./Ind. PAC||Top backer Herself. (No. 2? Her mom, Diane More.)|
|Money raised $697,000||Money raised $367,000||Money raised $217,000|
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