Challenger Kim Foxx won the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney Tuesday night, riding a wave of discontent over incumbent Anita Alvarez’s handling of the Laquan McDonald police shooting case.
Alvarez spoke to supporters at the Palmer House hotel downtown about two hours after polls closed, saying she hoped some of her programs to combat gun violence and domestic violence would continue under her successor, and hanging her defeat at least in part on her political shortcomings.
“I have been criticized that I wasn’t a very good politician, and that’s probably right, and that’s probably why I stand before you tonight,” Alvarez said, returning to a theme she stressed during the campaign. “But I am very damn proud of the fact that I am a good prosecutor, I have been.”
Alvarez did not mention the McDonald case, and neither did Foxx, who told supporters during her victory speech that her win was about “turning the page.”
“The work is just beginning, and our struggles here are very real,” Foxx told a jubilant crowd. “The need to rebuild a broken criminal justice system here in Cook County is not work that should be taken lightly.”
Alvarez tried to position herself during the race as the tough-on-crime candidate. But the McDonald video, and allegations that the two-term incumbent was too slow to charge police Officer Jason Van Dyke with murder, made the race a referendum on her handling of high-profile prosecutions, particularly when police misconduct is alleged. Alvarez was forced to deal with groups of protesters who turned up at most of her public appearances in the final three months of the campaign to call for her resignation or defeat.
With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Foxx had 58 percent of the vote to 29 percent for Alvarez. Another challenger, Donna More, had 13 percent of the vote.
Foxx, a former prosecutor and protege of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, said the case highlighted Alvarez’s failures on several fronts. She hammered the incumbent on the need to reform the office by diverting low-level drug offenders into treatment, work harder to right wrongful convictions, hold more bad cops accountable for their actions and stop prosecuting students for fistfights in school.
Under Alvarez, “trust in our criminal justice system has been broken,” Foxx repeatedly said on the campaign trail.
Also tapping many of those same themes was More, a former prosecutor now in private practice, mostly representing casinos. She called Alvarez “a serial screw-up” when it came to big cases, and maintained that both Foxx and Alvarez were too beholden to the political powers that be in Cook County.
Alvarez spent much of the campaign defending her handling of the McDonald case, saying she was waiting to charge Van Dyke with murder until the completion of a “meticulous” joint investigation by her office and the U.S. attorney. Alvarez filed the charges hours before the court-ordered release of the video, saying she had made up her mind weeks earlier and was waiting on federal prosecutors but decided to act earlier “in the interest of public safety.”
The winner faces Republican candidate Christopher Pfannkuche in the November general election.
Although Foxx was endorsed by the county Democratic Party at Preckwinkle’s urging — after the McDonald video surfaced and some African-American and Latino politicians defected from Alvarez’s camp — Alvarez still had the backing of powerful 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke, the 11th Ward Democrats led by the Daley family and the support of the vote-rich 19th Ward Democratic organization.
Alvarez labeled Foxx “a proven liar” for at first saying she handled “hundreds” of trials and later saying it was about 100, although the numbers could not be verified because she spent the bulk of her 14 years as prosecutor in the Juvenile Justice Bureau, where cases are not public record.
The incumbent also criticized Foxx for failing to disclose $25,000 that Preckwinkle’s campaign committee spent on a poll to test the waters for Foxx before she got into the race, which led to a $19,450 state fine to her campaign fund that Foxx is appealing. And Alvarez maintained both her challengers lacked the experience to run the office that decides which cases to pursue and oversees $104 million in annual spending and about 1,150 employees.
The hard-fought campaign became acerbic as election day neared, with accusations flying. A recent televised forum on WTTW-Ch. 11’s “Chicago Tonight” descended into name-calling, Foxx labeling Alvarez “a national laughingstock,” Alvarez accusing Foxx of being a “political puppet for some political boss” and More taking shots at them both.
Meanwhile, all three candidates hit the airwaves after raising a total of about $5.4 million since July 1. About half of that money flowed into Foxx’s campaign coffers or a super political action committee set up to promote her candidacy.
Democratic donor Fred Eychaner gave $600,000 to Foxx’s campaign. Preckwinkle’s campaign chipped in more than $300,000. Service Employees Union International affiliates gave more than $200,000.
And billionaire Democratic contributor George Soros pumped $333,000 into the Illinois Safety and Justice PAC backing Foxx, a contribution matched by the Washington, D.C.-based Civic Participation Action Fund, which bills itself as a group that aims to “promote racial equality, expand civic engagement and increase economic opportunity for low income communities and communities of color throughout the United States.”
As Foxx continued to build up that war chest in the last two weeks of the campaign, Alvarez and her physician husband lent her campaign $400,000, an amount that allowed her to stay on TV in the waning days. In one ad, Alvarez donned a pink sweater and conceded “our court system does move too slow.”
It was More who allowed her two challengers to raise unlimited funds, after she lent $250,000 to her own campaign and busted the cap on contributions. In the end, she raised less money than each of her two opponents.
Chicago Tribune’s Jeff Coen and John Chase contributed.
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