Eileen O’Neill Burke in Tight Race With Clayton Harris to Replace Kim Foxx as Cook County’s Top Prosecutor

Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III are running for the Democratic nomination in the race for Cook County state’s attorney. (Photos provided)Eileen O’Neill Burke and Clayton Harris III are running for the Democratic nomination in the race for Cook County state’s attorney. (Photos provided)

By Matt Masterson, Eunice Alpasan and Blair Paddock

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Retired judge Eileen O’Neill Burke holds a slight lead over former prosecutor Clayton Harris in a close race to replace Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Just under 10,000 votes separate the two candidates as O’Neill Burke has received 51% of votes, compared to Harris’ 49%, with 85% of votes counted in the Democratic primary race as of 10:40 p.m.

Foxx, who has served as state’s attorney since 2016, opted not to run for a third term.

Chicago election officials also said there were nearly 110,000 outstanding vote-by-mail ballots in the city alone, which could swing the election.

After polls closed Tuesday, supporters slowly trickled into O’Neill Burke’s campaign event at River North’s RPM Events, 317 N. Clark St. Sporting “Eileen O’Neill Burke” pins on their chests, people conversed on both ends of the room, where live news broadcast feeds were projected with updates of election results as votes were counted.

Addressing her supporters late Tuesday, O’Neill Burke said she and her team were “cautiously optimistic” as they maintained a slim lead, but she insisted “we have to make sure all the votes are counted.”

She continued: “We want a fair and effective justice system. We want a fair criminal justice system. We want illegal guns and assault weapons off of our streets.”

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who has endorsed O’Neill Burke, said the race offers an opportunity to move away from the status quo of "basically no accountability for serious violent crimes.” She also said O’Neill Burke’s level of experience is unmatched with 30 years as a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a trial judge and most recently, an appellate judge.

Asked about O’Neill Burke’s campaign receiving donations from some Republican donors and not getting the Cook County Democratic Party endorsement, Mendoza said, “I think it’s actually very reprehensible that the party establishment itself would try to besmudge, or smear the name of, a solid voting Democrat because she’s able to build coalitions with a greater group of people than just her own party.”

Mendoza had words of advice for O’Neill Burke should she win. 

“It’s important to remember that her role after the election is to govern as state’s attorney and represent all Chicagoans and all Cook County residents, whether she agrees with their beliefs or doesn't believe with their beliefs,” Mendoza said. 

Mark Shields, 76, a retired physician who lives in Old Town who attended the campaign event said he voted for O’Neill Burke because of her decades of experience in the criminal justice system and her ideas about improving the Cook County State’s Attorney Office.

“She has wonderful ideas about recruiting young attorneys into the office that is currently woefully under-supplied,” Shields said. “She has terrific ideas about having a special division that will help protect women's reproductive rights and she has terrific experience.”

Video: WTTW News reporter Nick Blumberg is live at Eileen O’Neill Burke’s campaign event as she addresses supporters on March 19, 2024. (Produced by Sean Keenehan)

Meanwhile, at Harris’ campaign event at Taste 222 in the West Loop, guests included social worker Anjanette Young, who spent much of the day on the campaign trail with Harris. In February 2019, Young was handcuffed while naked as Chicago police officers searched her apartment and ignored her dozens of statements that they were at the wrong home. She echoed Harris’ appeal to voters that he wants to keep the city safe while also ensuring people are treated fairly when arrested.

“He understands what is needed in our community as it relates to making sure that individuals are held accountable appropriately,” Young said. “Making sure that a person is sentenced or convicted based on the facts and not wrongfully convicting individuals just because we think that they might be guilty.”

Harris addressed his supporters as the increasingly tight race remained too close to call after 10 p.m. Tuesday.

“Regardless of who wins tomorrow our fight for safety and justice does not end,” Harris said, adding that the campaign will wait for all votes to be counted.

“We’ve waited a long time for this day to come and it looks like we’ll have to wait a little longer,” he said.

Former state Sen. Dan Kotowski first met Harris while in the General Assembly and said he’s long “addressed the concerns of the state.”

“I’ve worked with him very closely on matters as it relates to protecting kids impacted by poverty, violence, injustice sex trafficking, abuse — and he’s been a leader on that front,” Kotowski said.

He said Harris appeals to voters with a “thoughtful approach” for a criminal legal system that “achieves accountability.”

State Rep. Kam Buckner (D-Chicago) said he knew this was going to be a tight race, comparing it to the essay portion of a standardized test: “It really is about some very minute details.”

Buckner said Harris’ vision for the office falls in line with the representative’s legislative work on the SAFE-T Act, the criminal justice reform law that in part made Illinois the first state to abolish cash bail.

“Both candidates have their hearts in the right place,” Buckner said. “I believe Clayton’s vision aligns more with mine.”

Clayton Harris addresses supporters at his election night party on March 19, 2024. (Blair Paddock / WTTW News)Clayton Harris addresses supporters at his election night party on March 19, 2024. (Blair Paddock / WTTW News)

O’Neill Burke — a former circuit and appellate level judge, who also served as both an assistant state’s attorney and defense attorney — is running as a tough-on-crime candidate, which she believes is a necessary response to Foxx’s softer approach to low-level crimes.

For instance, she’s pledged to reduce the threshold for felony shoplifting prosecutions. Under Foxx, the value of stolen goods must be worth at least $1,000 or a defendant must have 10 prior convictions before they can be charged with a shoplifting felony. O’Neill Burke said she’d lower that total to $300, as defined by state law.

“You can clear out several aisles of a mom-and-pop grocery store before you get to $1,000,” she previously told WTTW News. “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.”

O’Neill Burke insists that not everyone charged with retail theft deserves to be in jail, but she said there must be consequences for what she called “organized gangs committing mass robberies.”

A native Chicagoan, O’Neill Burke has earned endorsements from numerous labor organizations and local elected officials. But she reportedly said she wouldn’t welcome an endorsement from Foxx, whom O’Neill Burke repeatedly criticized in the final days of the race.

“We should be booming right now, but we’re not,” she said in a March 11 speech at the City Club of Chicago. “Instead we have businesses and people leaving. And they are leaving because of crime. … Our justice system is not working right now.”

O’Neill Burke said the current state’s attorney’s office is “woefully understaffed and mismanaged.” She told WTTW News she wants to “reshape the office” by recruiting lawyers from across the country to come to Chicago, tackling violent crime and combating the root causes of crime like poverty and disinvestment in communities.

Among her supporters is also the John Catanzara, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, Chicago's largest police union.

He encouraged officers to vote for O'Neill Burke and said in a video earlier this month that she presents a “much better chance to save this city and this county and get back to what everybody seemed to remember being a (place of) law and order and accountability.”

O’Neill Burke later rejected that endorsement in a statement to WTTW News.

Harris, who lives in Washington Park, is the progressive pick in the race and has received endorsements from the Cook County Democratic Party, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the Chicago Teachers Union.

He said preventing violent crimes and aggressively prosecuting gun crimes are top priorities.

“We can be safe and just at the same time,” Harris told WTTW News. “We do not have to choose one over the other, we can do both.”

Harris said he would work with federal agencies to go after gun traffickers and would create a new division within the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to focus on organized crime in order to prosecute those responsible for widespread carjackings and retail theft.

Unlike O’Neill Burke, Harris said he would maintain the current $1,000 threshold for felony retail theft prosecutions.

The two sides ran constant attack ads against each other leading up to Tuesday’s election. O’Neill Burke has blasted Harris as being “anti-union” following his work as a Lyft lobbyist. Harris, meanwhile, has highlighted O’Neill Burke’s comments about a young Black boy she referred to as a “new breed” of criminal while prosecuting him for murder in 1993.

During Foxx’s tenure, she strongly supported the implementation of sweeping reforms under the SAFE-T Act. A provision of that bill, which took effect last year, outlawed cash bail statewide, changing the way prosecutors could seek to detain defendants pre-trial.

Despite their differences on retail theft prosecutions, the two candidates share similar views on other issues, including supporting the elimination of cash bail and sharing a belief that the state’s attorney’s office must repair its relationship with law enforcement.

Both candidates also said police officers who are members of known hate-or-extremist groups or who have faced numerous misconduct charges should be barred from testifying in criminal cases.

Tuesday’s winner will face Republican former alderperson Bob Fioretti and Libertarian Party candidate Andrew Charles Kopinski in November’s general election.

Paris Schutz contributed to this report.

A Safer City is supported, in part, by the Sue Ling Gin Foundation Initiative for Reducing Violence in Chicago. 

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