On February 17, current Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez addressed a full house at the UofC’s Institute of Politics, which has recently hosted all three State’s Attorney Democratic primary candidates for discussions with students and community members. Alvarez began by introducing herself and the work she has done as State’s Attorney, but her explanation of anti-child trafficking measures and surveillance procedures was overtaken by protestors who had arrived in the back of the room. Around eight people began chants that referenced the Black Lives Matter movement and denounced Alvarez’s handling of cases of police misconduct. As the protesters moved to the center of the room, Alvarez was escorted out of the building. Students sitting in the audience held up signs that read “Fire Alvarez” and “#Bye Anita.” After the chants, speeches, and a brief rap, about one third of the audience walked out of the building.
The passion and anger of the protestors are an indicator of the high tensions surrounding the March 15 primary, an election that has taken on added significance in light of the State’s Attorney’s role in police accountability. The State’s Attorney’s office houses state prosecutors while also serving as legal counsel for the government. As State’s Attorney, Alvarez is responsible for representing the county’s interests in court.
At the end of last year, Alvarez faced public criticism for her handling of the case of Laquan McDonald, a teenager who was shot sixteen times by police officer Jason Van Dyke on October 20, 2014. The police officers’s accounts of the shooting were contested by activist groups and journalists. In response to a judge’s order, the City of Chicago released the video of the shooting on November 24, 2015. Hours before the video’s release, Alvarez brought first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke, but critics have demanded that Alvarez resign for not having brought those charges until after the video’s release was confirmed. In light of these criticisms, the other two candidates in the primary, Kim Foxx and Donna More, have both focused on the need to turn a new leaf in the State’s Attorney’s office.
Protesters allege that the long delay in Alvarez’s decision to charge Van Dyke for the shooting was politically motivated. Alvarez has responded that the decision was made prior to the judge’s announcement, but that the charges were not made because the U.S. attorney had not completed their investigation. Regarding the decision to charge Van Dyke for murder, Alvarez stated, “I knew a while ago, prior to finding out the video was going to be released. I knew what my office was going to do.” Alvarez told the Weekly, “The public reaction to the McDonald case has also made it clear that my office needs to do a better job of informing the public about ongoing investigations.”
The controversy comes in context of criticism that Alvarez has routinely mishandled cases due to prosecutorial bias. Criminal defense attorney Sam Adam, Jr. alleged, for instance, that Alvarez charged detective Dante Servin with manslaughter instead of first-degree murder to “curry favor with” the Fraternal Order of Police after Servin fired into a crowd and killed Rekia Boyd in 2012. Servin was acquitted by the judge presiding over the trial, who commented that Alvarez had mischarged the detective.
Alvarez’s reputation has taken a hit after these incidents. More, one of the other candidates in the primary, said in a speech at the City Club of Chicago on February 9 that “Anita Alvarez has made a powder keg out of this race and it has put our community at risk.” Still, a poll of Cook County voters released on February 2 shows Alvarez ahead in the race with the support of thirty-four percent of voters, followed by Foxx with twenty-seven percent, and More with twelve.
For each candidate, the race has become largely about personal credibility. Alvarez has pointed to her experience as State’s Attorney in the past seven years, emphasizing her campaign against violence and gangs. She has presented herself as tough, but is counterbalancing her crackdown on violence with her anti-human trafficking initiative designed to protect children. In response to allegations of giving special treatment to officers, Alvarez has pointed to her anti-corruption efforts, as well as her recent creation of a “Conviction Integrity Unit” that will specialize in reviewing cases in which the convictions have come under scrutiny. “I have more than tripled the number of alternative sentencing and diversionary programs that help prevent felony convictions for non-violent and low-level offenses,” she told the Weekly.
Kim Foxx’s claim to credibility is based on her experience working in the State’s Attorney’s office and as Chief of Staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Still, her post under Preckwinkle has led some to call her a pawn of one of Cook County’s more powerful political figures. Alvarez has certainly pressed on that point: after Foxx received the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party, Alvarez told WLS, “I owe them nothing. Ask Ms. Foxx what she owes Toni Preckwinkle.”
Foxx grew up in Cabrini-Green and spent her childhood years in unstable accommodations, including a period of time in homeless shelters while she was in high school. “Growing up in Cabrini-Green, I witnessed firsthand the effect poverty and crime have on Cook County communities,” Foxx told the Weekly. In reference to her time working with the Cook County Public Guardian handling cases of children, “many of whom had been abused, neglected, or had special needs,” she said, “it’s these experiences that made me push for successful reform measures that give judges more discretion in juvenile justice cases, instead of immediately transferring juveniles straight to adult court.”
Foxx has based her candidacy around this theme of dramatic reform, emphasizing that of the three candidates, she is the only one to call for an independent prosecutor in police shooting cases. In doing so, she presents her candidacy as a combination of radical overhaul and continuity based in experience.
More, meanwhile, has positioned herself as a fully independent candidate with no links to the State’s Attorney’s office or the tangled web of Chicagoland politics. She emphasizes that while she is the only candidate with experience as a federal prosecutor, this is her first time running for an elected office. This outsider status led Donna More to state, in reference to Foxx, that, “When Democratic Party leaders heard that an independent former federal prosecutor—yours truly—was going after public corruption, suddenly the hand-picked candidate of Toni Preckwinkle and Joe Berrios looked a whole lot better than one voters might choose.”
More’s background, however, has also attracted some scrutiny, primarily due to the personal wealth she has on hand from her work in private law. Foxx contends that More “is currently a gaming lobbyist and has been in the gaming industry for the last twenty-five years.”
Remarkably, all the candidates in the primary are women. In fact, Alvarez was the first woman and the first Hispanic to hold the office of Cook County State’s Attorney. Some of the criticism of Alvarez stems from dashed hopes that having a female minority figure in office was going to create more sensitive ties to the community. In an interview with Chicago magazine in October 2015, Foxx said that during Alvarez’s tenure as deputy chief of the narcotics bureau, Alvarez “was someone that a lot of us looked up to, particularly because she was a woman [and] a woman of color.” Foxx’s hopes for increased cultural sensitivity, however, were “sorely disappointed, because it was none of those things when she took over.”
Each candidate presents her own combination of reform and experience, sympathy and tough-on-crime, personal inspiration and purely professional inclination. And it’s worth noting that all of the candidates recognize the State’s Attorney’s handling of police shootings and building community trust as key issues in the primary.
Among certain groups, though, the message often resembles the signs held up at the IOP: anyone but Alvarez. Mariame Kaba, the founder and director of Project NIA, an advocacy group against youth incarceration, says, “I think it’s important either way for people to understand that the problems with Anita Alvarez did not begin with her handling of the Laquan McDonald case. Her job is to represent victims, but she actually ends up being the persecutor for those people. She’s been terrible for the last two terms, and she can’t be gone soon enough.”