Race for Chicago-area prosecutor seat features tough-on-crime judge, lawyer with Democratic backing

Eileen O'Neill Burke, a former appellate judge, talks to members of the Cliff Dwellers Club Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Chicago. An open seat to lead the nation's second-largest prosecutor's office has become one of the most spirited races in the Illinois primary. The Democratic matchup is between O'Neill Burke, a tough-on-crime judge and Clayton Harris III, an attorney with union and establishment backing. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Eileen O’Neill Burke, a former appellate judge, talks to members of the Cliff Dwellers Club Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Chicago. An open seat to lead the nation’s second-largest prosecutor’s office has become one of the most spirited races in the Illinois primary. The Democratic matchup is between O’Neill Burke, a tough-on-crime judge and Clayton Harris III, an attorney with union and establishment backing. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

CHICAGO (AP) — An open seat to lead the nation’s second-largest prosecutor’s office has become one of the most spirited races in the Illinois primary with a Democratic matchup between a tough-on-crime judge and an attorney with union and establishment backing.

The Cook County state’s attorney primary features Eileen O’Neill Burke, a former appellate judge with a large campaign war chest, versus Clayton Harris III, a professor and former prosecutor who’s held government posts.

The race is the latest example of how the legacy of progressive Democrats who swept into big city prosecutor offices over the past decade has fractured. Some, including in Los Angeles, face tough reelection bids with blame on progressive policies for perceptions that cities are less safe. Others have resigned or face possible impeachment.

In Chicago, Democrats hoping to replace outgoing State’s Attorney Kim Foxx are walking a line, saying they’ll uphold some of her progressive policies while also being critical of her tenure.

“We should be booming, and we’re not because of crime,” said O’Neill Burke, who’s more openly critical of Foxx. “This is something we can fix.”

Meanwhile, Harris says punishments must be appropriate and consider racial disparities: “We can focus on our communities being safe without sacrificing justice.”

Neither candidate has high name recognition. But the winner of Tuesday’s primary in heavily Democratic Cook County is expected to coast to victory in November.

It’s an open race because Foxx, who easily won her first two elections, declined to run a third time. Her leadership was praised by reformers but also blasted for being soft on crime and the handling of high profile cases like Jussie Smollett.

One campaign issue has been the future of Foxx’s controversial policy not to prosecute retail theft as a felony unless the value of the stolen goods is over $1,000. State law sets a $300 felony threshold.

Harris said he’d continue the practice.

“If someone came and took my cellphone, is that cellphone worth a felony on your record? I do not think so,” he said. “We look at recidivism. We charge everyone appropriately.”

O’Neill Burke said she’d scrap it.

“It doesn’t deter crime, it promotes it,” she said of Foxx’s change.

In other cities, progressive policies are also being blamed for crime and homelessness. That’s even as violent crime, including homicides and shootings, has largely fallen in Chicago and nationwide to the same level as before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón survived a nonpartisan primary this month but expects a tough November election. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner faces the possibility of an impeachment trial. In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin was recalled by voters, while St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner resigned.

In the Chicago area, both candidates say Foxx made important strides. The state’s attorney’s office has more than 700 attorneys and is the largest after Los Angeles.

O’Neill Burke said she’d continue restorative justice efforts for young people and credited Foxx with diversifying the workforce. Harris has held up Foxx’s conviction review unit, which has overturned wrongful convictions, as a national model.

Harris says the prosecutor must improve the relationship with law enforcement.

On the campaign trail, he’s talked about his personal life as a Black man raising children on Chicago’s South Side, as well as his professional experience in helping run government and lobbying elected leaders.

“Being a Black man. I’ve been pulled over before for no reason,” he said. “We can have safe communities without being racially profiled.”

Harris has scrutinized O’Neill Burke’s record as an assistant state’s attorney. He’s put a spot spotlight on a decades-old murder case where O’Neill Burke, who is white, helped prosecute a Black child on charges he murdered an older white woman when he was 10 years old.

The conviction was thrown out by a federal judge who found the boy’s confession was coerced by police and taken without a parent or attorney present.

O’Neill Burke now says she’ll advocate for stronger legal protections for children under interrogation, but she wouldn’t change her work on the 1994 case as the boy’s attorney and parents were in court when he took the stand and repeated the confession.

“No one has ever questioned my conduct in this case or any case,” she said, calling Harris’ campaign ads about the case a “distraction” for voters.

Harris disagrees.

“Instead of acknowledging that mistakes were made, there has been a doubling down,” he said. “That’s the wrong attitude to have.”

When it comes to fundraising, O’Neill Burke is ahead, with roughly double the amount of Harris, just under $2 million compared to roughly $750,000. Her sum includes money from top Republican donors.

But Harris has picked up hefty endorsements from labor unions, progressive leaders and the Cook County Democratic Party.

His Democratic ties are a top target for O’Neill Burke.

Harris was briefly a chief of staff for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, helping oversee the office after Blagojevich was arrested and ultimately convicted. Harris wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.

O’Neill Burke deems Harris a “Democratic insider” while attempting to tie his lobbyist work to Republicans who oppose abortion. Her campaign promises including creating a unit within the prosecutor’s office to protect abortion rights.

“I’ve spent every single day for the last 30 years in a courtroom from every vantage point. That’s a significant advantage,” she said in an interview. “He has spent a career answering to politicians and you cannot answer to a politician in this job.”

Also running in the primary is Republican former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti, who lost a 2020 bid for the office.

AP U.S. News

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