Cook County State’s Attorney Candidates Look to Highlight Sharp Differences as Election Day Approaches

It’s the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country and home to more than 3,000 employees.

It’s also one of the most hotly contested races in next week’s primary, with two Democrats vying to replace outgoing Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. The attack ads are flying and money is flowing in as the two candidates are attempting to highlight their differences.

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Foxx’s tenure has been marked by a softer approach to low-level crimes, and her controversial handling of the Jussie Smollett Case.

But the two Democratic candidates vying to replace her have hurled sharp criticisms against each other.

More: Find candidate questionnaires and bios in the WTTW 2024 Illinois Primary Voter Guide

Eileen O’Neill Burke is a former prosecutor, defense attorney and trial and appellate court judge who has outraised her opponent by more than double — with some big dollars coming from Republican donors.

Clayton Harris is a former aide to convicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, head of the Illinois International Port District and a lobbyist. He’s the choice of the Cook County Democratic Party and Chair Toni Preckwinkle, who has campaigned on his behalf. Harris received big donations from prominent Democratic donors, including the Chicago Teachers Union. 

He says the money trail paints a meaningful contrast between the two candidates.

“It’s very extreme right funds … and that’s what’s troubling,” Harris said. “It should trouble everyone. It highlights extremism in my opponent.”

But O’Neill Burke says Harris worked against unions as a government lobbyist for Lyft, and lacks the experience necessary to do the job.

“Every day I’m hearing the same thing. That people are afraid,” she said. “People are afraid to come downtown — those are the people supporting me. Some of those are business leaders. Nobody asks your political leanings before they come and carjack you.”

Both O’Neill Burke and Harris say they support the no cash bail provision of the state’s newly enacted SAFE-T Act, which only seeks pre-trial detention for the most violent offenders.

“I think we can all agree, if you’re not a danger to the public you don’t need to be detained pre trial…,” O’Neill Burke said. “When will we ask for detention in my office? Anytime someone is threatening someone with a gun. Anytime somebody is committing a violent crime on the CTA, and anytime someone is caught with an assault weapon.”

Harris also had a response to gun crimes.

“Any crime with a gun we are going to aggressively be prosecuting and making sure that people understand that there’s a certainty in the prosecution that comes with any crime committed,” he said

The two differ, however, on their approach to some of the so-called lower level crimes, like retail theft. Harris says he’d continue Foxx’s policy of only charging felonies to offenders that steal more than $1,000 in goods or those who have a long rap sheet of shoplifting.

“I want to make it clear for me and my administration $1,000 is the threshold for a felony, but below that we can still hold everyone accountable with a misdemeanor,” Harris said.

O’Neill Burke says she’d stick to state law and charge felonies to offenders that steal more than $300 in goods.

“You can clear out several aisles of a mom-and-pop grocery store before you get to $1,000,” she said. “The ramifications of that policy are that Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, mom-and-pop stores are closing because of theft, sometimes in neighborhoods that need it the most.”

A recent attack ad from Harris highlights reporting that shows that O’Neill Burke worked as a prosecutor in 1993 to convict a young Black boy for murder, referring to him as a “new breed of criminal.” In 2002, a federal judge ruled the arrest was illegal and the confession was coerced by the questioning officer, and that the case should have been thrown out.

“What I believe is she should’ve looked at the evidence before her,” Harris said. “This 10-year-old boy was supposed to have bludgeoned and stabbed this woman, no blood and evidence on his person, there was an adult footprint, the coerced confession didn’t match what was in the arrest report … at best its bad judgement, and the fact that even today she doubles down on it, there’s no acknowledgement of it, that’s scary.”

O’Neill Burke has a differing view of the situation.

“I prosecuted a juvenile 30 years ago who confessed,” she said. “His attorney made the decision to put him on the stand where he repeated the confession — nobody alleged there was coercion in that confession.”

Also running for Cook County state’s attorney are Republican Bob Fioretti, a former Chicago alderman, and Libertarian Party candidate Andrew Charles Kopinski.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz

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