Kim Foxx maintains her ‘tough on crime’ message, avoiding more controversy

By Shirin Ali
Medill Reports

As she navigates a highly politicized reelection campaign, Kim Foxx appeared at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics Seminar in February ready to discuss her office’s work thus far and why she’s equipped to take on four more years as Cook County’s State’s Attorney.

“As a proud Chicago resident, a girl from Cabrini, who has seen more people who come from neighborhoods that look like mine not getting tangled in the system, it makes me feel like I can look them in the eye and tell them that it’s been an honor to serve them,” Foxx said.

Foxx’s reelection campaign has been plagued with scandal stemming from her office’s controversial decision to drop 16 felony counts against 36-year-old “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett in March 2019. Chicago police found Smollett paid two men $3,500 to stage a hate crime and assault against him and filed a false police report. In a highly criticized deal, Foxx’s office dropped all charges against Smollett with the agreement that Smollett would complete community service and forfeit his bond payment with no admittance of guilt.

Local and national outcry along with Chicago Police Department’s staunch disapproval of Foxx’s decision led to a special prosecutor to review Foxx’s office’s handling of the case. As of early February,  a special Cook County grand jury indicted Smollett on six counts of disorderly conduct, alleging nearly identical charges of orchestrating a racist and homophobic attack on himself as Foxx’s office. He pleaded not guilty during an arraignment hearing Feb. 24.

In a video posted to Foxx’s Twitter account announcing her reelection campaign, she acknowledged her missteps in handling Smollett’s case.

“The truth is, I didn’t handle it well, I own that,” Foxx said. “I’m making changes in my office to make sure we do better. That’s what reform is about.”

Without mentioning Smollett’s name once during her discussion to a closed audience of about 60 University of Chicago students, faculty and staff, the 47-year-old Democratic incumbent instead explained in blunt terms the reality of her office’s priorities and how some decisions have resulted in frustration.

“We can’t delineate based on how much people piss us off,” Foxx said. “Sometimes we think from a restorative justice point, the universe will take care of some folks. Maybe you don’t get to work anymore, maybe you are the subject of jokes.”

Since her first run for Cook County’s state’s attorney’s office in 2016, Foxx has been clear that fighting violent crime was top of her agenda. This approach helped her unseat incumbent Anita Alvarez and she’s hoping the same agenda will propel her to a successful reelection campaign.

“This office is the primary law enforcement office that deals with violent crime. But the other piece of that was, when we’re talking about violent crime,” Foxx said. “Our victims of violent crime, many of them also have been our defendants. And our defendants, many of them had also been victims.”

Foxx emphasized her focus on criminal justice reform was multi-pronged, reducing violent crime while uplifting Chicago’s impoverished communities. Explaining her office’s decision to hold a default stance on certain nonviolent offenses, like dropping certain types of marijuana offenses, retail theft offenses under $1,000 and no longer prosecuting people for driving on a suspended license, which disproportionately impact poor communities.

“How do I, in a city that is literally bleeding out, use our resources to go after nonviolent offenses that largely impact poor people and poor people of color,” Foxx said. “Who don’t trust our criminal justice system because they see homicides going unsolved, but they see their neighbor getting arrested for driving on a suspended license?”

She argued that establishing a default response to not charge or refer to an outside agency also frees up her office’s limited resources to focus on more urgent issues facing Chicago’s communities.

“The reason we said we wanted a default, was to be able to allow for people who do really stupid things, to be stupid outside of the justice system. So that we can deal with crime and violence, because that’s what matters to us,” Foxx said, in relation to not charging minor marijuana offenses that were under the legal limit.

During her first term as state’s attorney, Foxx established the city’s first gun crimes strategies unit. Prosecutors in this group focused exclusively on police districts with the highest rates of violence, working hand in hand with Chicago Police Department.

However, in July 2019 CPD’s union, the Fraternal Order of Police, issued a letter requesting that Foxx’s office no longer handle any cases involving CPD and that the cases be turned over to an independent special prosecutor. The letter was in response to Foxx’s office dropping its case against Smollett.

When asked about her relationship with CPD, Foxx acknowledged tension.

“I reject the notion that the relationship between our office and the department has been fraught. It’s been different. We’re not a rubber stamp,” Foxx said. “We took an oath and the reason we have such a high overturn rate is that we were prosecuting cases we shouldn’t have been prosecuting in the first place because people were afraid to disrupt the synergy that was there.”

Foxx has claimed many high-profile endorsements for her reelection. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Massachusetts), Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Senator Kamala Harris have endorsed Foxx, which she felt was due to the hard work her office has been doing.

“They know that we are now driving the national conversation. So, where Cook County was once the butt of the joke around justice reform, we are now leading the country in what is possible in prosecutors’ offices in criminal justice across the board.”

Foxx won in a landslide victory during 2016’s state’s attorney’s race, receiving 72% of the vote. At the time, Alvarez’s office was under intense, national scrutiny for its handling of one of Chicago’s most high-profile cases, the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.

Foxx is headed toward the homestretch of her reelection bid but is facing multiple challengers. Democrats Bill Conway, Bob Fioretti and Donna Moore will all on the ballot with Foxx in Illinois’ March 17 primary.

Photo at top: Kim Foxx speaks at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics to students, faculty and staff on Feb. 20. (Shirin Ali/MEDILL)