Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has found herself increasingly on the defensive this summer as Chicago reels from a historic spasm of violence and racial unrest, culminating in the widespread looting of downtown businesses early Monday morning.
Now, former Judge Pat O’Brien is hoping the backlash against is fierce enough push Cook County voters to a once-unthinkable feat: electing a Republican to countywide office for the first time in nearly three decades.
“I think there is an appetite for someone to replace her, and I hope it’s me,” O’Brien told The Daily Line Wednesday.
He said defeating Foxx in the Nov. 3 election this year is “not only possible, it’s doable” — especially considering the added heat Foxx has taken in the wake of the looting. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Supt. David Brown have implicated judges and prosecutors in the summer unrest, and downtown Alds. Brendan Reilly (42) and Brian Hopkins (2) told Crain’s Wednesday that they may not support Foxx’s reelection.
“Our Cook County Prosecutor’s Office and the Cook County Judicial system are failing us like never before,” Reilly wrote in an email to constituents on Monday. “We expect prosecutors to enforce all of our laws with equal vigor – City and State laws are not a “buffet” for prosecutors to selectively enforce – they must all be enforced.”
Foxx hit back at critics in a press conference Monday, saying people who blame her for unrest are engaged in a “dishonest blame game” and “seeking simple solutions to complex problems” made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic and mass unemployment. She said violent crime had been consistently trending downward between her 2016 election and the onset of the coronavirus.
Foxx cruised to a landslide in November 2016, claiming nearly 72 percent of the vote against Republican Christopher Pfannkuche after she defeated incumbent State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the 2016 Democratic primary.
And O’Brien’s path to unseating Foxx appears steeper than it was for naval officer and former prosecutor Bill Conway, who finished 19 points behind Foxx in the March 17 Democratic primary despite pouring more than $10 million into the race.
But while Foxx surpassed expectations in the four-way primary race, O’Brien said he gleans hope from the fact that about half of Democratic primary voters chose someone else. If he peels off enough votes from Democrats who are disillusioned with Foxx’s record of charging fewer felonies than her predecessors — a practice O’Brien called a “failed social justice experiment” — it could be enough to put him over the top, he said.
“You’ve got to combine the Republican base with those Independents and Democrats who don’t see themselves as part of the extreme wing of the Democratic Party, but are looking for someone to have a practical, common-sense notion of what it means to be the chief law enforcement officer of the county,” O’Brien said.
‘Failure’ vs ‘misinformation’ on looting
O’Brien’s 45-year legal career has brought him through every corner of the Cook County court system, starting with two stints working as a prosecutor under four separate state’s attorneys between 1975 and 1993. In 2006 he was elected as a circuit court judge after running as a Democrat — out of necessity, he said — until retiring from the bench in 2015.
He said he was living a “fairly comfortable life” practicing criminal defense law until 2019, when Foxx set off a firestorm by dropping charges against actor Jussie Smollett for filing a false police report.
“I said to myself, ‘how can this be?’” O’Brien said. “I went back and took a closer look at the cases that were charged, compared to my time in the office, and…it seems like she’s been acting more like a public defender than a prosecutor.”
A Tribune investigation published Monday found that Foxx’s office has dropped a higher proportion of charges for murder, battery and drug crimes than Alvarez did. The analysis found an especially steep spike in dropped drug charges, coinciding with Foxx’s deliberate campaign to tread more lightly for nonviolent crimes.
Foxx told Cook County commissioners during a budget hearing last month that about 40 percent of cases brought to her office are for drug offenses, of which 60 percent are for possession. She asked for a “shift of responsibility” in the county’s resources away from prosecuting “low-level drug offenses.”
But O’Brien lambasted Foxx’s decision to charge fewer drug crimes, as well as her controversial decision to raise the bar for retail theft prosecutions, saying they gave a “dog whistle to looters” suggesting that they won’t face consequences.
“The social justice agenda that Kim Foxx has put forward is based upon a false story she tries to sell that people are only in jail because they’re poor or have mental illness,” O’Brien said. “The agenda she has put forward is that by not prosecuting people, you can deter and reduce crime. I think the last couple of days have shown…that that experiment is a failure,” he said.
Foxx campaign spokesperson Alex Sims told The Daily Line in a statement Wednesday that her office approved 31 of the 33 felony charges brought by the Chicago Police Department in relation to looting that has occurred since Monday.
“While Judge O’Brien continues to spread misinformation, we will stay committed to the facts,” Sims said.
O’Brien campaign faces uphill climb
The Covid-19 pandemic has “posed restrictions” on O’Brien’s campaign, but he said he has still found ways to get his message out, even as he lags Foxx in fundraising.
O’Brien reported just over $31,000 in his campaign account at the end of June and has since posted $25,000 in large donations, including $5,000 from the Chicago Police Sergeants Association PAC and $1,000 from Riverside Investment & Development CEO John O’Donnell. He also donated $5,000 to his own campaign and recorded a $1,000 contribution from Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin.
While Foxx’s campaign has drastically wound down its spending since the March primary, her campaign maintains a fundraising edge over her Republican challengers. Foxx declared more than $43,000 on hand at the end of June and has since recorded $41,500 in large contributions. Grosvenor Capital CEO Michael Sacks and his wife Cari Sacks maxed out the legal limit by donating $5,800 each, as did State Sen. Heather Steans (D-Chicago).
O’Brien said he will “hopefully have enough money” to advertise on TV before the election. Until then, he said he is dropping into virtual campaign events, giving generous media interviews and keeping up a prolific social media presence to blast Foxx every chance he gets.
Especially after the events of this week, O’Brien said he sees a fertile political landscape for his message.
“One of the bigger things that we have going for us right now is that a lot of people have made up their minds that they do not want Kim Foxx to have a second term,” he said. “So they just need to have some information about me, to let them know that I’m not just some unknown.”