The Cook County Democratic electorates’ repudiation of Anita Alvarez was the first time that an incumbent state’s attorney was defeated in a primary election in at least 120 years and probably ever; I have researched the question back to only 1896. The closest it came to happening in the 120 years was 1972, under circumstances in some ways analogous to, but in more significant ways different from, this year’s.
Both years, incumbent Democratic state’s attorneys were embroiled in scandals involving police killings of black men: In 1972, Edward V. Hanrahan was under indictment for obstruction of justice in the aftermath of a police raid, which he orchestrated, in which Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death in their beds. In 2016, Alvarez was under fire for a 13-month delay in charging Officer Jason Van Dyke with murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in the back.
Also both years, the Cook County Democratic Central Committee forsook the embattled incumbents, endorsing challengers. There the similarities largely ended, however. The endorsed challenger in 1972 was a lackluster — not to mention crooked — judge named Raymond K. Berg. The 2016 endorsee was Kim Foxx, a politically attractive African American who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing project and overcame hardship to become an assistant state’s attorney and chief of staff to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
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Another difference is more salient: In 1972, Hanrahan vanquished his challengers in a three-way primary race — capturing just under 40 percent of the vote, compared with slightly more than 35 percent for Berg and slightly less than 25 percent for a progressive third candidate, Donald Page Moore. This year, Foxx slew the dragon that was Alvarez — securing the Democratic nomination with nearly 60 percent of the vote, compared with less than 30 percent for Alvarez and 13 percent for an also-ran with the same homonymic last name — More, first name Donna — as the 1972 also-ran.
The latter not only is a mandate for Foxx to reform the Cook County criminal justice system; it also is a mandate for Alvarez to resign posthaste. Her resignation would pave the way for the County Board to immediately install Foxx without awaiting the November 8 general election, in which the Republican candidate, Christopher E.K. Pfannkuche, simply does not qualify even as token opposition.
Since the Depression, three Republicans have been elected Cook County state’s attorney — Benjamin S. Adamowski, to a single term in 1956, C. Bernard Carey, to two terms after Hanrahan won the 1972 Democratic primary, and Jack O’Malley, to two terms in the 1990s — but there is essentially zero chance that Pfannkuche will be the fourth.
If Pfannkuche is serious about his stated desire to improve the state’s attorney’s office, he could further his agenda by pulling out of the race, calling for Alvarez to resign, and urging the County Board to appoint Foxx. While Pfannkuche probably lacks the good sense to do that, the frivolity of his candidacy — or that of a higher-profile Republican who could replace him on the ballot — ought not be a serious impediment to Foxx’s ascension, given that Democrats outnumber Republicans on the County Board three to one.
The resignation of Alvarez and appointment of Foxx, of course, would be unprecedented — but so are Foxx’s two-to-one margin in the primary election and the crisis of confidence in Alvarez and the police.
Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch.
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