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For Kim Foxx, Jussie Smollett proved ‘a blip’ for primary voters

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx called the year-long obsession with the case “BS.”  And Tuesday’s results suggest a good chunk of voters agreed. 

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks to reporters
Flanked by family members, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks to reporters at the Hotel Essex Chicago after winning in the Democratic primary, Tuesday night.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times

Three challengers seeking to end Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s re-election bid made the Democratic primary race a referendum on the freshman prosecutor’s handling of the Jussie Smollett case.

But after successfully winning office four years ago when voters deserted incumbent Anita Alvarez over the Laquan McDonald case, Foxx showed Tuesday night that perhaps it does matter what case candidates focus on.

“[Jussie Smollett] was not a big obstacle, he was a blip in the scheme of things,” said John Gorman, who was press secretary for former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine.

Foxx trounced former prosecutors Bill Conway, Donna More and former 2nd Ward Ald. Bob Fioretti securing a little over 50% of the vote with about 98% of precincts reporting, according to unofficial results. Turnout was a little over 31%.

Gorman said that win was in part a testament to voters not caring as much about the Smollett case as the media may have. Smollett, he said, was “inconsequential.”

“She admitted her error and wanted to move on, and voters seemed to prefer her record over electing the son of a billionaire. … I don’t think a lot of voters want another billionaire again,” said Gorman, now an independent public relations consultant.

Bill Conway, left, and his wife, Brittany, walk to his campaign office Tuesday
Bill Conway, left, one of the candidates in the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney, and his wife, Brittany, walk to his campaign office Tuesday
Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Conway spent about three times as much money as Foxx, raising $11.9 million — $10.5 million of it from his father William Conway Jr., the billionaire co-founder of the Carlyle Group, state records show.

“[Smollett] got a lot of publicity because of who he was — he was a one-trick pony for her opponents, but you have to remember that Kim Foxx was elected on a two-to-one margin on an important case, one that had gravitas,” Gorman said. “Jussie Smollett just had pizazz to it.”

Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s 2014 fatal shooting of the 17-year-old McDonald made headlines around the nation, prompting protests over Alvarez’s and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s handling of the case. It ended in a jury finding Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.

Foxx’s handling of former “Empire” actor Smollett’s also received national media coverage, sparked outrage from many and was a major talking point throughout the primary. Her opponents claimed she undermined public trust in the office.

Accused of making a false report to police, Smollett was indicted last year on 16 counts of disorderly conduct, but the state’s attorney’s office later abruptly dropped the charges.

Foxx removed herself from the case about a month after Smollett initially alleged he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack in late January last year but that didn’t stave off further criticism.

Jussie Smollett speaks to reporters after all charges against him were dropped in 2019.
Jussie Smollett speaks to reporters after all charges against him were dropped in 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Cook County Judge Michael Toomin lambasted Foxx’s decision to recuse herself, comparing her to a captain abandoning the ship and appointed Special Prosecutor Dan Webb to look into her office’s handling of the case and whether Smollett should be charged again, which he was last month.

Beyond mentioning Smollett every time they could, Foxx’s opponents sought to tie the first-term prosecutor to indicted 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke and link her criminal justice reforms to spikes in gun violence and retail theft, painting her as someone lacking the integrity needed for the job.

Foxx called the yearlong obsession with the case “BS.”

And Tuesday’s results suggest a good chunk of voters agreed.

Delmarie Cobb, a veteran political consultant who also works with the Cook County Democratic Party, said the Smollett issue, which was “used as a weapon,” and her rivals’ other claims weren’t enough to bring down Foxx.

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks to reporters
Flanked by family members, incumbent Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx speaks to reporters at the Hotel Essex Chicago after winning in the Democratic primary, Tuesday night.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times file

“Voters are sophisticated enough to know that’s just one issue and look at her overall record, and her overall record is someone who promised to come into this office, which is a law-and-order office, and bring heart and compassion to it,” Cobb said.

That record includes reorienting how resources were used in the office, diverting efforts from retail theft and other, smaller crimes to violent crimes, her push for bail reform and expunging cannabis cases.

Cobb said the black community, which is a large part of Foxx’s base, is satisfied with the direction of the office.

“That doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with all the decisions that have been made, but overall it’s a different office than in the past,” Cobb said.

Dick Simpson, a political professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, pointed to African American voters sticking with Foxx — as well as endorsements from public officials and the county’s Democratic party — as factors in Foxx’s win that drowned out the noise of the Smollett case. Gorman also pointed to Foxx’s core supporters — the ones who “united against Alvarez” — assembling once more to ensure Foxx gets another term.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, center, and her opponents in the 2016 Democratic primary election.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, center, and her opponents in the 2016 Democratic primary election, Kim Foxx, left, and Donna More, right, debate before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Having multiple challengers also likely helped Foxx, Simpson said. If there was just one challenger “that might have been more helpful to voters” in terms of helping them decide whether or not to pick Foxx.

Simpson said Conway brought up valid charges, particularly related to how few public corruption cases the office prosecutes, and hoped Foxx would correct that trend going forward.

Foxx now moves on to face former Cook County Circuit Court Judge Pat O’Brien, who beat Christopher Pfannkuche in the Republican Primary. In 2016, Foxx ousted Alvarez and then went on to wallop Pfannkuche.

Devine, who was the county’s top prosecutor before Alvarez, said Foxx should not count her Republican rival out.

“O’Brien is a well respected prosecutor and a judge for many years,” Devine said. “ I would expect Pat O’Brien to bring a strong case, based on ‘we have to get back to the traditional role of a prosecutor’ and he will make case for that – Foxx has to say ‘I’m progressive, but I also do my job as a prosecutor.’”

But Cobb said if conventional wisdom holds, she expects Foxx to prevail, and she looks forward to what comes next.

“Now we can get to see what she really can do with the office – the second term is really building on what you’ve done so far,” Cobb said. “So I think this will be the term that solidifies her stamp on the office and from here on, if she wants to continue to hold the office, we’ll see more and more improvements for a more just criminal justice system.”