The controversial Jussie Smollett case was only vaguely referenced at a subdued debate Saturday between incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and challenger Bill Conway.
Hosted by Progressive Baptist Church, 3658 S. Wentworth Ave., the two candidates went head-to-head, but largely avoided attacking each other. Foxx’s other two challengers in the March 17 election — former Ald. Bob Fioretti and former prosecutor Donna More — couldn’t make it.
The Smollett case was launched back into headlines on Feb. 11 when a special prosecutor announced new charges against the former “Empire” actor and accused him of faking a 2019 hate attack — almost a year after Foxx’s office dropped charges against Smollett, a controversial decision that has followed her re-election campaign.
“There’s been a lot of attention that’s been made about one celebrity case — I’m sure we’ll get there — but there was another one last year that I stood up and asked for people to cooperate in our investigation of someone who was alleged to be violating women for the last 30 years,” Foxx said, alluding to her office’s charges against singer R. Kelly.
“As a result of that, our hotline received numerous calls and we were finally able to indict someone who used his power and privilege to take advantage of young black women,” Foxx said.
That was the only reference to either Smollett or R. Kelly during the hour-long debate, during which the two candidates stayed cordial and Conway did little to set himself apart from Foxx, despite having hammered her on social media and in political advertising about the Smollett debacle.
Foxx made her case for reelection by highlighting her office’s accomplishments, which she said included expunging records for people convicted of minor marijuana offenses, taking on President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and reforming the county’s cash bail system.
Conway stressed his experience working as a prosecutor, serving in the U.S. Navy and teaching finance. He said he would address Chicago’s gun violence by targeting supply chains for illegal guns coming into the city.
“If we’re really going to get under the gun crime epidemic around here, we need to disrupt the supply chain that brings all these guns to Chicago,” Conway said, adding that “if somebody commits a crime with a gun, they should go to jail.”
Foxx agreed that the office should go after the illegal gun trade, but called for a “more nuanced conversation about guns.”
“Stopping the flow of guns into our communities isn’t innovative or new,” Foxx said. “What is innovative or new is our gun crimes strategies unit, where we put our prosecutors into the communities that are hardest hit by gun violence to work with law enforcement and community partners to go after the drivers of violence.”
Discussing immigration, Foxx highlighted measures her office has taken to ensure the safety of immigrants, including creating a fraud hotline for undocumented immigrants and declaring that ICE agents won’t be allowed at the courthouse.
Conway agreed that no Cook County resources should be used in ICE raids and promised not to give the federal agency access to the county’s gang database.
“We all have come from immigrants,” Conway said. “I say that because our immigrant population gets decried and picked on; hate crimes on our immigrant population because of our deplorable president have had an enormous explosion, and we have to be vigilant and prosecute them.”
Foxx nodded, but then quickly countered Conway’s statement.
“I’m not from an immigrant. I come from enslaved people,” Foxx said. “I come from people who were stolen from their land and brought here, and that language matters because I don’t want to minimize what that experience looks like in our criminal justice system.”
When it came to marijuana, which was legalized for recreational consumption in the state last month, Foxx highlighted her role to automatically expunge records for people with convictions for low-level marijuana offenses and that that Illinois is the only state with conviction relief written into its marijuana legalization bill.
Conway also commended the legislation and said he would continue with the expungements if elected.
The lack of fireworks at the debate even took the moderator, Pastor David Swanson of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville, by surprise.
“They’re doing pretty good, right?” Swanson asked the crowd at one point. “They’re sticking on time, giving thoughtful answers.”
“We’re in a church. We’re following rules,” Foxx joked.