Incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is running for a second term against two opponents in one of the most contentious local races this election cycle.
Foxx is favored to win reelection, running as a Democrat in a Democratic county in what, by many accounts, looks to be a Democratic year.
But what will be interesting to see is how the embattled prosecutor fares compared to other Democrats on the ballot in Cook County – and what that might spell for both a potential second term and the next primary election. She’s running against Republican Pat O’Brien, who has seized on criticisms of her to mount his challenge, and Libertarian Brian Dennehy.
Foxx was first elected in 2016, when she defeated embattled incumbent Anita Alvarez, who was under fire for her handling of the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014. Foxx previously served as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney for 12 years, then as chief of staff for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle after that.
In her first campaign, Foxx ran on a platform centered on criminal justice reform as part of a wave of progressive prosecutors running for office nationwide. She cruised to victory in the 2016 general election with 72% of the vote over her Republican opponent.
Shortly after taking office, Foxx began making changes, first raising the bar for charging shoplifting suspects with a felony. The policy now keeps retail theft charges as misdemeanors unless the value of the items stolen exceeds $1,000, well above the previous $300 to $500 threshold at which felony charges were allowed, or if the suspect has 10 prior felony convictions.
In 2017, she announced that prosecutors would no longer oppose the release of pre-trial detainees charged with nonviolent offenses just because they cannot afford to pay their cash bond of up to $1,000. Later that year, Foxx instituted a new policy for prosecutors to recommend in bond court that defendants who are charged with misdemeanors or low-level felonies and “don’t present a risk of violence or flight” be released pending trial.
Also in 2017, Foxx threw her support behind Illinois’ Bail Reform Act to move away from cash bail for minor crimes and shifted away from prosecuting people accused of driving on licenses that have been suspended or provoked for solely financial reasons, like failing to pay parking tickets. In 2020, the governor signed into statewide law a related bill to stop suspending licenses for unpaid tickets and non-moving violations.
Foxx has drawn praise for her efforts from activists and advocacy groups, many of which helped propel her campaign to oust Alvarez, as well as criticism on multiple fronts – over both policy and politics.
Some members of law enforcement, particularly leaders of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, have been outspoken in their opposition to Foxx and her policies, publicly pushing her to take a more “tough on crime” approach and even calling on her to step down. Their criticism has come at a time when both Chicago and the nation continue to experience a sort of reckoning on police reform and racial justice, accelerated by high-profile police killings in recent years, including McDonald.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Police Supt. David Brown have also implied, albeit more subtly, that Foxx’s policies have contributed to crime. The city’s top cop has on multiple occasions pointed to prosecutorial decisions in general terms, rarely identifying Foxx by name, when looking to place blame for shootings and violence across the city.
Lightfoot and Brown both heightened their critiques of Foxx after a round of looting erupted in downtown Chicago overnight on Aug. 10 for the second time this year, with widespread theft and property damage at countless businesses, as well as shots fired by and at police and more than 100 arrests. Lightfoot warned Foxx that “these people need to be held accountable and not cycled through the system,” while Brown claimed “criminals took to the streets with confidence that there will be no consequences for their actions” following the first round of looting in May amid unrest over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Foxx pushed back on the insinuation, warning her critics not to conflate peaceful protesters with looters and those causing damage or inciting violence, noting that charges were pending in 90% of the more than 300 felony cases brought by Chicago police related to that unrest in the spring.
Also intensifying criticism and casting the most high-profile shadow over both Foxx's campaign and office for the last year-and-a-half has been the controversy surrounding her handling of the case against actor Jussie Smollett, which made national headlines.
Accused of staging a racist and anti-gay attack on himself in Chicago in January 2019, Smollett - who starred in “Empire” at the time - was indicted on 16 felony counts of disorderly conduct that March. All charges against him were dropped later that month with little explanation - a move critics claimed was special treatment by Foxx's office. Five months later, a judge appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the case and in early February, a grand jury indicted Smollett once again on six felony counts of disorderly conduct.
In August, the special prosecutor said after completing his investigation that there was “evidence that establishes substantial abuses of discretion and operational failures” in Foxx’s office’s handling of the Smollett case, though he concluded that it did not support criminal charges against her or anyone in the office.
Foxx’s opponents in both the primary and general elections have seized on the story to raise questions about the transparency of her office and allegations of preferential treatment.
Despite the controversy, she won the Democratic primary with 50% of the vote against three opponents, one of whom was the well-funded son of a private equity billionaire who ran television ads early and often highlighting the Smollett case.
While she may have staved off her primary challengers, Foxx did win in March with 8 points less than she did in 2016. She lost a greater proportion of support in suburban Cook County, earning 43% of that vote this year, compared to 52% in 2016. Her share of the vote in Chicago dropped from 62% in her first primary, to 55% this past March – though in 2020 she faced three primary challengers versus running against just two other candidates in 2016.
Now, she faces Libertarian Dennehy and Republican O’Brien, the more formidable of the two opponents.
O’Brien is an attorney, now in private practice, who has previously served as an assistant Cook County state’s attorney, an assistant Illinois attorney general and a Cook County Circuit Court judge. He was endorsed by the aforementioned Chicago FOP, which also gave him the maximum legally allowed campaign contribution of $57,800.
The last time Cook County elected a Republican state’s attorney was in 1992, so it’s not impossible for the GOP to win the office – but it does remain unlikely.
However, if Foxx wins the November general election by a slimmer margin than other Democrats on the ballot, that could provide cover for other elected officials to either begin or continue to lay blame on her, at a lower risk for political fallout if they feel she doesn’t have as strong of a base of support as in years past.
A weaker electoral finish may also diminish her political capital in both pushing for further policy changes and governing over the next four years. It would also likely open the door a little wider to any potential Democratic challengers eyeing a run against her in the 2024 primary, where the more difficult battle for state’s attorney often takes place, rather than in the general election.