Web Only / Features » March 16, 2020
In Chicago, a Billionaire-Backed Candidate and Police Are Trying To Oust a Progressive Prosecutor
Kim Foxx’s office has reduced incarceration rates by nearly 20% and taken major steps toward reform. Now, she’s under attack.
To criminal justice advocates, the Smollett controversy has been an overblown distraction.
CHICAGO—With the Illinois primary set for Tuesday, one of the most heated races of the cycle is for Cook County state’s attorney. Progressive prosecutor Kim Foxx sits in a vulnerable position as the incumbent, as she faces a challenge from Bill Conway—a billionaire-backed candidate—as well as continuing blowback from her handling of the controversial Jussie Smollett case.
The Cook County state’s attorney’s office is the second-largest of its kind in the United States, employing more than 800 prosecutors who handle upwards of 30,000 felony cases and several times more misdemeanor cases per year. Meanwhile, Chicago—which makes up much of Cook County—has the unsavory reputation of being the “false confession capital.” Between 1972 and 1991, police commander Jon Burge tortured more than 100 people, mostly African American, into giving false confessions, and it was only in 2011 that Burge was finally sentenced to prison. Chicago is also where African-American teenager Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by white police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted of murder in 2018 in a rare win for criminal justice advocates.
It was this same case that, in large part, led to the ousting of former state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, who had waited 13 months to prosecute Van Dyke. Hastened by the activist-organized campaign called #ByeAnita, Alvarez lost the 2016 election to Foxx, a former assistant state’s attorney who became the first Black woman to hold the office. Since then, Foxx’s office has reduced Cook County incarceration rates by 19%, released over six years of felony criminal case data on the Cook County Open Data Portal, and has started expunging the records of the tens of thousands of people with low-level cannabis charges.
“You cannot overstate the impact of reducing frivolous prosecutions,” says Jobi Cates, founder of Restore Justice Illinois, citing minor nonviolent crimes like shoplifting. “When you're looking at a system that's so overwhelmed it can barely function on a good day to provide fair hearings for people, [then] removing that pressure on the system is going to allow every case to get more attention.”
Foxx is not without criticism. Most of the five organizers interviewed for this piece were largely supportive of Foxx, but don’t think she’s gone as far as she could to protect Black and poor Chicagoans, citing her slow movement on some issues such as over-prosecuting some gun possession cases, not practicing restorative justice enough over punitive measures, and further criminalizing survivors of domestic violence who are up for clemency.
As a prison abolitionist, Westside Justice Center organizer Monica Cosby believes that the power of a “progressive prosecutor” is inherently limited. “I don't believe that the criminal justice system can be reformed at all. …. The most that [they] can do is harm reduction and stop sending as many people to jail, but as long as that mechanism exists to incarcerate people … that is what's going to happen.”
There’s also the issue of Jussie Smollett. In February 2019, the “Empire” actor was accused of staging a racist and homophobic hate crime against himself, and weeks later, Foxx’s office dropped the 16 counts of disorderly conduct against him. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the case a “whitewash of justice,” while Foxx maintains that it's part of her greater strategy of decarceration. “Having this type of diversion is something we offer to people who do not have his money or his fame,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
To criminal justice advocates, the Smollett controversy has been an overblown distraction. Emmanuel Andre, executive director of Northside Transformative Law Center, says, “Even if Kim Foxx had gone through the whole process of putting Jussie Smollett on trial, then we have to ask, ‘what is it that we as a society want to achieve?’”
Nonetheless, the case has become a rallying cry for opposition from Foxx’s challengers: Bill Conway, former assistant state’s attorney; Donna More, a 2016 candidate for state’s attorney who now represents casinos in private practice; and Bob Fioretti, former alderman and perennial candidate. Conway, considered the frontrunner among the challengers, says the case exemplifies “the State’s Attorney [showing] that the politically connected get better deals than other people,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
However, even as these organizers have some misgivings about Foxx, none are ready to abandon her. Cates thinks that the other candidates see this race as an opportunity to “appease law-and-order Democrats [and] the Fraternal Order of Police community,” Cates says. “They walk the line of sounding progressive while maintaining the status quo.”
Writer and organizer Kelly Hayes offered the same assessment of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which helped cover up Burge’s reign of terror. “The police saw the removal of Foxx's predecessor as a condemnation of the department, which it was,” Hayes says. “[They now] have less control over people's fates, and that's what they want back.” The local FOP has endorsed Fioretti in the race.
Though Conway has come out in support of reducing prosecutions of low-level crimes, community organizer Tanya Watkins is not convinced of his progressive bonafides. “I'm honestly offended by some of the things that he says. He has co-opted the message of organizers and activists who he has had no relationship with,” Watkins says. “He's basically saying that he is going to do all the things that Kim Foxx is already doing.”
As a result of this sentiment, local racial justice organizers have mounted a #CancelConway campaign, cut from the same cloth as #ByeAnita. Backed by a progressive electoral group called Vote Liberation, the campaign is highlighting Conway’s campaign ties to figures such as Anita Alvarez, as well as the FOP. One digital ad on the group’s website accuses the Carlyle Group—the private-equity firm run by Conway’s billionaire father, and his main campaign contributor—of war profiteering and owning part of the company that manufactured the tear gas used by police against Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri.
Mark Clements, a Burge torture survivor whose conviction was overturned after he spent 28 years in prison and who now works at the Chicago Torture Justice Center says that while he doesn’t believe the criminal justice system has significantly improved under Foxx’s tenure, she still deserves a “second opportunity.” Clements says, “I'm thankful for her being transparent in her handling of police torture cases, because most Cook County state's attorneys will not open the door to individuals that were once locked up inside of prisons.”
This has been the most expensive race for Cook County state’s attorney to date. The four candidates have raised nearly $16.3 million in the race, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Elections. Conway’s campaign war chest exceeds $11.4 million, nearly all of it from his father.
The infusion of big money into the race—a 180% increase from the 2016 election—has upended the playing field for Foxx, who has relied on donations from labor unions and special-interest groups. But organizers who back the incumbent are undeterred by this flood of cash into the race.
As Watkins says, “They are buying our criminal justice system, and it’s not for sale.”
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Taylor Moore is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for the Chicago Reader and Jacobin.
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