Mihalopoulos: Laquan McDonald video could define state’s attorney’s race

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Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez describes the dash cam video of the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. | Ashlee Rezin/For the Sun-Times

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In the hands of a skilled political media consultant, the video released Tuesday of a police officer firing 16 bullets into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald could be more than just state’s evidence against an alleged killer cop.

It also could be transformed into a strong case against the re-election hopes of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, who’s finally prosecuting the officer.

Alvarez is familiar with what ads can do for a political career. You might remember the 2008 campaign commercials for Alvarez, then a rookie candidate.

“Anita Alvarez’s brilliant TV commercial showing her getting her kids ready for school — with one calling out, ‘Come on, Mom!’ — was one reason she won the state’s attorney primary,” the Chicago Reader wrote at the time.

It seems like it’s been a long time since Alvarez scored what the Reader called a victory for “moms running as law-and-order candidates.”


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The mother who now can cut a much more compelling figure is Laquan’s. The young African-American’s troubled family got a $5 million settlement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration about seven months before Tuesday, when Alvarez announced charges against the white officer who shot Laquan in the middle of Pulaski one night in October 2014.

As Alvarez said, maybe her office’s new murder case against the officer can provide another measure of solace to Laquan’s family and avert the sort of unrest we’ve seen in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.

But have the charges come too late for Alvarez’s political future?

It doesn’t take any of her many persistent critics to note she’s bringing the case 13 months after Laquan’s death — and the day before the deadline for the Emanuel administration to publicly release the police video of Laquan’s death. Emanuel wound up releasing it Tuesday, just hours after Alvarez’ news conference.

Those who have seen it, including Alvarez, suggest it’s damning for defendant Jason Van Dyke, who swiftly fired 16 bullets into Laquan from a pistol with 16-round capacity.

At her news conference to announce the charges, Alvarez tried to explain why she did not act sooner than Tuesday. Charging a cop with using unnecessary, fatal force is “not the same as when you’re investigating one gang member shooting another,” she said.

Alvarez said she could not simply “make a split-second decision by watching the video one time” — though it seems likely that’s just what many in the public will do once we all can see the sound-less recording from a squad car’s dash cam.

Alvarez acknowledged the impending release of the video, ordered by a Cook County judge last week, hastened the filing of charges but said she had made her decision to prosecute Van Dyke some weeks ago.

“I was not pressured into anything,” she said, insisting she had been poised to file the charges soon anyway.

On the broader issue of police brutality, it probably didn’t help Alvarez to say there are a “few bad apples” who break the law despite being sworn to uphold it.

Fortunately for Alvarez, the local political operative who might be best able to exploit this situation for her re-election foes has rebuffed offers to work for the most prominent challenger in the race for state’s attorney.

Ken Snyder — the Chicago-based Democratic operative whose ads propelled Alvarez to a razor-thin win in a wide-open 2008 primary — is sticking with Alvarez.

Snyder worked for Toni Preckwinkle in her 2010 run for County Board president, again with brilliant results. But he rebuffed Preckwinkle’s request to work for Kimberly Foxx, her former top aide in county government who’s challenging Alvarez in the March primary.

As Alvarez’s news conference was going on, Foxx’s campaign tweeted, “Justice delayed has been justice denied for #Laquan McDonald’s family for too long. #400 days.”

Preckwinkle also was critical of the decision to charge Van Dyke only after the judge had ordered the video’s release.

On Twitter, Preckwinkle aide Scott Cisek called the McDonald case “Alvarez’s Hanrahan moment,” referring to the former state’s attorney whose political career fizzled after Chicago police killed two Black Panthers in 1969.

Once, it was Alvarez who was portrayed as a different kind of prosecutor. She benefitted from the personal “narrative” of rising from working-class, immigrant-family roots and from the motherhood highlighted in her TV ads.

Now, her challengers will have plenty of fodder for attack ads.

Yet, it’s Alvarez who counts a master craftsman of political messaging among her backers. She should hope Snyder finds some way to blunt the damage to her from a tragic Southwest Side story that inevitably went viral.

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