Cook County State's Attorney: Clayton Harris v. Eileen O'Neill Burke

CHICAGO — The people will have a new representative in the nation’s second largest criminal court system later this year.

While final confirmation on who will succeed Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx will have to wait until November, the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic Party primary will head into the fall as a nearly unassailable favorite.

That means local Democratic Party primary voters will be, in all likelihood, choosing the county’s next top prosecutor from among two candidates: Clayton Harris III and Eileen O’Neill Burke. Public polling indicates the pair entered the month a neck-and-neck race, with undecideds making up the majority of the electorate.

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Though voter turnout is on track to reach its lowest level in several election cycles, the county’s next chief prosecutor will wield immense power over the direction of an office with more than 1,200 people, half of them attorneys. And with the bail reforms that took effect last year that reduced the role of judges in determining who to jail, local prosecutors are now more powerful than ever — determining not only charges people face but whether they can be held while awaiting trial for them.

On the one side is a longtime government staffer in Chicago and Springfield who went on to become the chief lobbyist in the state for a ride-hailing company and promises to move away from an overreliance on mass incarceration. On the other is a former judge with experience as a both a prosecutor and a defense attorney whose campaign has been bankrolled by big-money donors, some of whom have backed Republican causes in the past.

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Harris has the backing of the party apparatus, with endorsements from a half-dozen members of Congress, more than two dozen state legislators, a majority of the Cook County Board and nearly two dozen Chicago aldermen.

While Foxx, who announced last February she would not seek a third term in office, has not endorsed either candidate to follow in her footsteps as one of the nation’s most progressive prosecutors, her former boss, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, backed Harris even before party officials slated him summer.

Harris worked for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office for several years out of law school before moving into other public sector jobs, including as an intergovernmental affairs assistant to former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and as general counsel for the Chicago Department of Transportation and chief of staff for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

In 2008, Harris was promoted from deputy chief of staff to become Blagojevich’s final chief of staff after the FBI arrested the disgraced Democrat and his previous chief of staff. According to a letter to the judge on behalf of his predecessor, Harris said Blagojevich once ordered him to fire the entire legal department because they lacked professionalism and also told him to hire unemployed lawyer that he met in line at Starbucks to be the state’s chief legal counsel, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in 2012. Harris declined to pursue the governor’s directions, but “did allow him to believe” that he would.

After his time working for Blagojevich, Harris departed the public sector and worked as a consultant and a lecturer at the University of Chicago, later leading the Chicago area port district for 4½ years before taking a job as the Midwest chief lobbyist for Lyft, where he worked before launching his campaign for state’s attorney.

During the campaign, he has pledged to continue Foxx’s controversial practice of declining to press felony charges in shoplifting cases where less than $1,000 worth of merchandise is stolen, though state law allows for it whenever the stolen property’s value exceeds $300.

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

O’Neill Burke spent a decade as a Cook County prosecutor before becoming a criminal defense attorney and winning election as a circuit judge in 2008 and as an appellate justice in 2016. She has also served as a trustee for the Park Ridge Library Board.

O’Neill Burke has been endorsed by a handful of state lawmakers and suburban mayors and more than a dozen Chicago aldermen. She also has the support of a single congressman and the state comptroller.

O’Neill Burke has also been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald. (The Chicago Sun-Times stopped endorsing candidates in 2022 after Chicago public radio station WBEZ acquired the money-losing enterprise, assumed the newspaper’s debts and turned it into a nonprofit.)

Throughout the campaign, O’Neill Burke has sought to position herself as the more tough-on-crime candidate, advocating for a more aggressive stance when it comes to shoplifting, carjacking and robbery. She has also contrasted her hands-on courtroom experience with Harris’ background in the public and private sector.

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

O’Neill Burke has been more critical of Foxx’s prosecutorial policies, arguing they contribute to a fear of crime driving people and business out of the city, as well as her overall handling of the state’s attorney’s office. She argues that Foxx has mismanaged the office, leading to low morale and high attrition.

Last year, a Patch reporter filed a public records request with Foxx’s office under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for a list of her office’s employees, how much they get paid and how long they have worked for the state’s attorney’s office. Despite the law, that request was ignored, not for the first time, under Foxx’s office.

The reporter successfully acquired the records after filing suit against the state’s attorney’s office, alleging violations of the FOIA. Foxx’s office settled the case, providing the documents and agreeing to pay the Patch reporter’s legal fees nearly a year after the initial request.

Those records show more than half of the line prosecutors in her office — 336 of 600 assistant state’s attorneys — had started on the job after Foxx took office seven years ago.

O’Neill Burke opponents have pointed to a 1994 case where she was involved in the conviction of an 11-year-old boy for the murder of his elderly neighbor following a confession that a judge later found to have been coerced. She has defended her conduct in that case, emphasizing the lack of coercion allegations at the time of trial.

Harris’s opponents have pointed to his work for the Illinois Coalition for Independent Work — a nonprofit lobbying group backed by Lyft, Uber, Instacart and Doordash for which Harris was the registered agent. The group argued against an ordinance to mandate minimum wages, contracts and protections against assaults for people who drive for the companies. Harris has noted Lyft donated five times more money to Democrats than Republicans in Illinois.

Unions have been split between the candidates. O’Neill Burke has been endorsed by electricians, painters, roofers, plumbers and operating engineers.

Harris has endorsements from teachers, nurses, transit workers and service employees unions.

O’Neill Burke’s campaign has been financed by big-money contributions from wealthy donors who have a history of giving money to Republican candidates and causes, according to disclosures to state elections officials.

Meanwhile, Harris’s campaign committee has received more money from local union political committees than large-dollar donations from individuals.

The two candidates offer voters a clear choice for the future direction of the state’s attorney’s office.

Harris represents a continuity with the reforms spearheaded by its outgoing chief, bringing to the table years of experience navigating state and local bureaucracy, as well as corporate lobbying. O’Neill Burke, on the other hand, promises to strengthen the office by bringing more practical knowledge of the criminal law system and enforcing existing laws, such as the $300 felony shoplifting threshold, more stringently.

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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