Here's an easy prediction: Kim Foxx will be re-elected as Cook County State’s Attorney in November, but she’ll win by less than the other Democrats on the ballot.
Foxx’s internal polling has her running behind Joe Biden. Her Republican opponent — an unknown, milquetoast former judge and prosecutor named Pat O’Brien — is actually making this an interesting race.
Currently, O’Brien is seeding front yards with signs advertising his campaign website, www.firekimfoxx.org. He received a $58,000 donation from the Fraternal Order of Police. And he got under Foxx’s skin by holding a press conference outside the Wicker Park Walgreens where an 18-year-old recently released from home electronic monitoring killed a clerk. O’Brien blamed Foxx for not objecting to the release. Foxx’s spokeswoman accused O’Brien of “fear mongering straight out of the Trump playbook.”
Foxx is bothering to attack her opponent despite the fact that no Republican has won a countywide race since 1992, when Jack O’Malley was re-elected state’s attorney. That's because Foxx is the most divisive politician in Chicago, and maybe in Illinois. Her detractors say she’s soft on crime. Her supporters say she embraces a prosecutorial philosophy that emphasizes justice, not punishment.
Because she’s a progressive in an office many voters believe should be inherently conservative, Foxx was always going to have a tougher re-election than most Democrats. This year, though, she's also become central in the debate over how cities have dealt with protests over police violence, and a target for advocates of law and order.
After the second round of looting on Michigan Avenue, in early August, I talked to downtown residents who blamed Foxx, who had declined to prosecute minor offenses resulting from May’s George Floyd protest, such as disorderly conduct or curfew violations. That, the downtown dwellers believed, sent a signal to looters that they wouldn’t be punished. One woman called Foxx “the biggest loser in the world.” Said another, “people have to go to jail.”
Foxx, though, believes in decarceration — avoiding prison as punishment for minor crimes. Foxx helped change state law when she stopped prosecuting driving with a suspended license if the offense was caused by “failure to pay tickets, fees or fines.” As a result, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the License to Work Act, ending suspensions for non-moving violations. Foxx has also refused to prosecute low-level offenses, especially shoplifting, which she believes should remain a misdemeanor unless the stolen goods exceed $1,000.
A 2019 report by the People’s Lobby, Reclaim Chicago, and Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice found that prison sentences had declined 19 percent since Foxx took office. During that same period, the report noted, violent crime decreased 8 percent: “sentencing more people to incarceration doesn’t make us safer. The root cause of many crimes, including poverty and lack of mental health services or substance use treatment, go unaddressed or are made worse through prison sentences," the report read. (It’s a philosophy shared by Foxx’s political patron, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who has boasted of reducing the county jail population 25 percent.)
Needless to say, the police don’t see it that way. I once heard a Far Northwest Side alderman refer to Foxx as “a cop hater.” The Chicago FOP and several suburban police chiefs demanded Foxx’s resignation after she refused to charge actor Jussie Smollett for filing a false police report. That decision was consistent with Foxx’s policy of not prosecuting ticky-tacky crimes, but it earned her widespread condemnation because it involved a celebrity.
Sarah Staudt, senior policy analyst and staff attorney for the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, one of the groups that published the report on Foxx, acknowledges the state’s attorney has been a “lightning rod.” Plenty of people, Staudt said, “don’t agree with a policy of moving away from mass incarceration.”
Blaming Foxx for the second round of looting is unfair, though. After May’s unrest, her office prosecuted 90 percent of the 325 people arrested on felony burglary and looting charges.
“This year’s scary,” Staudt said. “People are looking for an explanation for what they can do. There are a lot of things that people can do to reduce crime, but going back to ‘tough on crime’ policies that have been discredited is not one of them.”
The last Democrat to win a close race for a countywide office was Todd Stroger, who in 2006 won 53.6 percent of the vote against his Republican opponent for Cook County Board President. Four years later, Stroger finished last in a four-way Democratic primary.
If Foxx puts up a weak showing, she could attract a stronger 2024 primary challenger than the one she beat this year, Bill Conway. But what would hurt her even more is if this year’s spike in civil unrest and homicides — the latter up 52 percent so far — continues for the next four years. Then, even liberal Cook County may turn to a tough-on-crime prosecutor.