The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago’s prosecutor loses reelection battle in the shadow of the Laquan McDonald video

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, speaking to reporters after Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

CHICAGO — The political fallout from the Laquan McDonald case continued Tuesday when voters overwhelmingly denied Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez a third term.

Kim Foxx, a former chief of staff to the Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, won the Democratic primary by a landslide over Alvarez, 58 to 29 percent, with 82 percent of precincts reporting. She will face Republican Christopher Pfannkuche in the November general election.

In conceding, Alvarez touted her own prosecutor credentials but suggested that her failure to win reelection was due to angry voters seeking change.

We find ourselves in this country … in a great climate of change and reform of the criminal justice system. I’m extremely proud of the work that I’ve done,” Alvarez said. “I’ve been criticized that I’ve not been a very good politician and that’s probably right.”

In speaking to supporters, Foxx said the election was “about turning a page” in the county, the second largest in the United States.

“The struggles here are very real. The need to rebuild a broken criminal justice system in Cook County is not work that should be taken lightly,” she said. She acknowledged the difficulties of law enforcement in a city where gun violence is escalating, but said that “the gulf between law enforcement and our communities much be breached.”

Alvarez faced a steep challenge following criticism for her decision to wait 400 days before announcing murder charges against a Chicago police officer who fired 16 bullets into McDonald, a Chicago teenager, in October 2014, killing him in the middle of a Chicago street. The case drew national attention, created a political crisis for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, forced the resignation of officials, including Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and galvanized an activist community of primarily young people who took to the streets demanding reform for a system they perceived as protecting bad cops.

Alvarez was unapologetic for delaying charges against Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who gunned down McDonald. Despite the release of a dash-cam video of the shooting, none of the other officers who witnessed the killing have been charged despite writing contradicting reports of the incident. Alvarez blamed a corresponding investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office for the delay in bringing charges.

“I’ve done nothing wrong,” she told Chicago Magazine in January. “I will not apologize for the meticulous, thorough investigation we did.”

Even though she won reelection once before, Alvarez’s tenure as Cook County’s chief prosecutor has been pockmarked by controversy. Besides McDonald, she was perceived as unwilling to right wrongful convictions, unfairly going for harsh sentences for minor offenses, and wielding an agenda that protected city officials, particularly the police.

Another high-profile example during Alvarez’s tenure involved Tiawanda Moore, a black woman who in 2010 filed a police misconduct complaint against an officer who she said groped her. When she felt that investigators were intimidating her during questioning, Moore began taping them with her smartphone. Alvarez charged Moore with a felony, saying she violated Illinois’ anti-eavesdropping laws. A jury later acquitted Moore and accused Alvarez of overreach.

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In a rare breaking of the ranks in the Democratic majority here, Alvarez faced overwhelming opposition from her own party. It began with the endorsement of Foxx from party leader Preckwinkle who blasted Alvarez and Emanuel for their missteps in the McDonald case.

Alvarez defectors have surged from there. Former Illinois governor Pat Quinn, who supported Alvarez in 2008, is backing Foxx, telling the local ABC television outlet “it’s very important to have a person of integrity … a person who understands justice for all.” Foxx’s support includes powerful labor union SEIU Local 73, U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez, as well as the editorial boards of both the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.

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On the campaign trail Alvarez touted more than 20 years in the prosecutor’s office, experience that surpassed her opponents, which included Donna More, a former prosecutor. Voters showed that the number of years logged on the job mattered less than McDonald, an issue she could not escape in debates and from local media.

“She has, without question, the best credentials than the other two whose credentials are somewhat limited. But Alvarez was put on the defensive because she had to answer these politically charged issues,” said Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Alvarez’s defeat was applauded as “a decisive vote for transparency and the reform of [the state’s] broken criminal justice system,” Tom Balanoff, Illinois state council president of the SEIU, said in a statement late Tuesday. “Together we will continue our fight to eradicate the economic, social and racial inequality that currently plagues our state.”

Mayor Emanuel says he has not considered resigning amid protests

With the ouster of Alvarez and McCarthy, Emanuel remains the sole official from the McDonald case left standing. The case sent his job approval ratings plunging. Nearly 75 percent of Chicago voters in a February Chicago Tribune poll said they do not trust him.

While he has pledged reforms of the police department and agreed to comply with an ongoing federal investigation, Emanuel has kept himself out of the spotlight. While the mayor has been quiet for months, his office and Alvarez’s have both pushed for stronger sentencing for people who break gun laws. Emanuel also appeared to stand by Alvarez during the long months before the McDonald video was released — much as he supported McCarthy, the superintendent he eventually pushed out.

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It appears certain Emanuel will not resign, but it is unlikely he will face an easy reelection should he seek a third term. Missteps in the McDonald case, among other issues affecting black voters, are seen as further enabling his opponents, particularly Preckwinkle, who once expressed interest in running for his office.

“Instead of dominating the city council, he’s now fighting for control of it,” said Green. “It all comes down to this horrendous case.”


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