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Could the Cook County state’s attorney’s race turn into Bernard Epton redux?

It’s a reminder of Bernard Epton vs. Harold Washington. The Cook County GOP is talking up nominee Patrick O’Brien to defeat incumbent state’s attorney Kim Foxx.

Flanked by family members, incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks at the Hotel Essex Chicago after winning in the Democratic primary, March 17, 2020. Foxx’s election night speech was closed to the public and attended exclusively by family, staff and press amid fears of the coronavirus. Foxx won the Democratic nomination against three challengers who zeroed in on her handling of the Jussie Smollett criminal case. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP) ORG XMIT: ILCHS211
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks to reporters at the Hotel Essex Chicago after winning in the Democratic primary.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia | Sun-Times

Bernard Epton should have been a minor footnote in Chicago’s storied political history. Thanks to the racial animus that infused Chicago’s 1983 mayoral election, Epton, the Republican nominee, is best known for a racially charged campaign that nearly derailed Harold Washington’s crusading bid to become Chicago’s first black mayor.

Then and now, it is unthinkable that a Republican could be elected to high office in this legendary Democratic bastion once ruled by Mayor Richard J. “Boss” Daley.

Chicago and Cook County have been hostile territory to Republicans forever. Any Democratic nominee for high office is considered a shoo-in for election.

On Tuesday, incumbent Kim Foxx won the Democratic nomination for Cook County state’s attorney, with 50.5 percent of the vote against three opponents.

The GOP is declaring their nominee, former Cook County Judge Pat O’Brien, has “a really decent chance” to defeat Foxx in November.

In 1983, when Epton, an obscure state representative, won the GOP primary, Washington won the Democratic contest, conquering the incumbent, Mayor Jane Byrne, and then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard M. Daley.

The Democratic Party bosses came face to face with the unthinkable. An African American mayor.

Epton was a decent guy, a liberal Republican based in Hyde Park. He was also naïve, inexperienced and no match for the Democratic Party bosses who were terrified of losing power, particularly to a black man.

The bosses — and hundreds of thousands of white voters — rushed to embrace Epton, virtually taking over the Republican’s campaign. Their motto: “Epton for Mayor — before it’s too late.”

Epton lost the race by a sliver, but that overtly racist campaign ushered in a shameful period in Chicago political history.

Today’s racial divisions may seem less stark, but they have not vanished.

So, I am watching as the Cook County GOP talks up O’Brien’s bid.

He is a qualified contender, bringing two tours in the Cook County state’s attorney office, including serving as chief deputy of its criminal division. O’Brien is also a former assistant Illinois attorney general, served on the bench for eight years and is now in private practice.

Cook County Republican Chairman Sean Morrison told the Chicago Sun-Times that O’Brien has “a really decent chance.”

O’Brien will target and build on the tens of thousands of voters who backed Foxx’s opponents.

Foxx won her most robust support from African Americans, sweeping the 18 predominantly black wards. The good news is that white and Latino voters also “helped put her over the top,” shows an analysis by the Chicago Crusader. Foxx won 35 of the city’s 50 wards, including eight predominantly white wards and seven Latino wards, the numbers show.

Her criminal justice reform agenda focuses on shifting resources away from low-level offenses and toward fighting violent crimes and going after the guns.

O’Brien will argue Foxx is incompetent and soft on crime.

“We really have to clean up the mess that she’s made,” O’Brien told the media Thursday. “I think we have to restore justice to the community. We have to make it safer for people in all of the kinds of activities that they do, and we have to remember that the state’s attorney’s duty is to protect the victims of crime.”

Let’s have that debate. But let’s not exploit voters’ fears about everything from street violence to the coronavirus in these perilous times. Political campaigns of all stripes can easily descend into “us” vs. “them.”

I’ll be watching.

Follow Laura Washington on Twitter @mediadervish

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