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Kim Foxx interested, wary of working with Trump White House on criminal justice reform

‘The interesting thing with this is that there is bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, and for whatever people say about Trump, I think the First Step Act was a significant move on criminal justice reform, and we have to acknowledge that.’

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. | Tom Schuba / Sun-Times
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.
Tom Schuba / Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — I caught up with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx on Sunday, the day after she reconnected with a mentor, Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, at a Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference gala.

Foxx made two D.C. swings in the past days, and we discussed whether to work with the Trump White House on bipartisan criminal justice reform issues, two awards she received while here and her relationship with Harris, the California senator.

There are few African American female elected prosecutors in the U.S. — just 20 at present, according to the National Black Prosecutors Association, and Foxx said she knows most of them.

When Foxx first ran for state’s attorney in 2016, she was aware of Harris, then the California attorney general — and the first female and first African American to serve in that position — who was also an ex-San Francisco district attorney.

“She was someone that I admired from afar,” Foxx said. After Foxx won the Illinois primary in March 2016, she met Harris at an Emily’s List reception at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

A little later in 2016, but before Foxx was elected, Harris invited Foxx and members of her team to Los Angeles to meet with her staff “to give me advice and counsel on lessons learned from her time as a D.A.”

Soon, “she became a mentor. When I got sworn in, you know, she would call me, text me and vice versa, if there were issues or concerns that I had. She was one of the first calls I would take because she had lived this experience,” Foxx said.

I asked if they talked during the Jussie Smollett saga, which thrust Foxx into an enormous controversy after the black and openly gay “Empire” actor made the allegedly false claim that he’d been the victim of a racist and homophobic beating.

“No, I was not burdening her with what was happening with that given that she’s running for president of the United States,” Foxx said.

Foxx said she is not endorsing in the 2020 presidential race.

On Saturday morning, Foxx returned to Chicago for the State’s Attorney’s Annual Victim Memorial Service and then flew back here for the gala, where she was a guest of Harris and sat with her at her table.

Anticipating your question: Foxx’s campaign fund paid for the Saturday swing.

Foxx is among the small number of progressive elected prosecutors in the U.S. who make criminal justice reform a priority. Foxx said she has vacated 79 wrongful convictions, and more are in the pipeline.

In criminal justice events that coincided with the Congressional Black Caucus meetings, Foxx was among those honored Thursday by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center. On Friday, Foxx received an award from Color of Change, an online activist organization.

The one significant bipartisan achievement of President Donald Trump is signing into law the First Step Act, eliminating different sentences for crack and powdered cocaine, which ended up hitting minority offenders the hardest. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., worked behind the scenes with Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner to get the legislation passed.

Foxx was invited to a White House event on criminal justice reform in August and declined. On Thursday, at the Bipartisan 20/20 event, Foxx said, “The Trump engagement outreach person renewed a request that we sit down and discuss criminal justice reform” and what the White House “should be looking for next.”

What to do? Foxx is wary in part because Attorney General William Barr slammed progressive prosecutors in an Aug. 12 speech to the Fraternal Order of Police.

“The interesting thing with this is that there is bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, and for whatever people say about Trump, I think the First Step Act was a significant move on criminal justice reform, and we have to acknowledge that.

“I think I want to be helpful in moving this agenda as broadly as we can possibly go. I have my hesitations because of the way that the president has conducted himself and so it is a balance of the greater mission.

Said Foxx, “And so I don’t know where we’ll land.”