Chicago Pivots in Democratic Primary for State's Attorney

April 18, 2024

Clayton Harris only offered more nonsense

Ahead of March 19, Chicago’s political observers framed the Democratic primary for State’s Attorney as a referendum on Kim Foxx’s tenure as Cook County prosecutor. After what seemed an eternity, 10 days after the polls closed, Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke had advanced to the November general election by voters whose nerves had been frazzled by Kim Foxx’s two terms.

A political outsider, Judge O’Neill Burke had spent a decade as an Assistant State’s Attorney, and another 15 years as a judge on both the Cook County Circuit and Appellate Courts. O’Neill Burke’s vision attracted endorsements from the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Herald, over a dozen Chicago aldermen, labor unions, members of the Illinois General Assembly (IGA), and suburban mayors.

O’Neill Burke barely outlasted Clayton Harris III, a university lecturer, former aide to disgraced ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich, and corporate lobbyist. Comparable to Judge Burke, Harris drew endorsements from members of the IGA, more than two dozen Chicago aldermen, organized labor — specifically the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) — and a legion of local activist groups. Most important, Harris had the backing of the almighty Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board.

Despite the unambiguous support of Chicago’s Democratic organization, endorsements from an entire brigade of Democratic lawmakers, sufficient funding, and both media and the Harris campaign performing acts of divination to racialize Burke’s campaign, Burke eventually vanquished Harris.

For all the political muscle behind Harris, and Chicago a city which has incubated a political culture well to the Left, why, then, did Toni Preckwinkle’s handpicked successor to Foxx lose to an outsider with center-Left positions? There are ample reasons why Harris lost: poor campaign strategy, funding, and the Kim Foxx factor.

First, the Harris campaign settled on a flawed and misleading campaign strategy, which they were never able to pull off. Faced with a primary opponent with 25 years as a prosecutor and as a jurist, Harris’ campaign launched a deep dive into Burke’s past with the full confidence their rummaging would uncover a sordid history.

Hoping to achieve a knockout blow from which Burke would be either thrown off balance or never recover, Harris’ campaign learned of and absorbed itself with a decades-old case in which an 11-year-old youth was convicted in the death of an elderly woman. Burke led the 1994 prosecution of the boy, whose conviction was thrown out in 2002 after a federal judge ruled his confession had been coerced.

Seizing on the matter with an unholy glee, the Harris campaign weaponized the wrongful conviction to portray Burke as heartless and suffering from an acute deficit of integrity, ethics, and courage for failing to ensure justice was served in the case. In each and every occasion in which Harris repeated the charge, his allegation was awash with implication, and just vague enough to allow voters who were hostile toward Burke to assume the worst and distrust her. Moreover, Harris routinely expressed in stark terms Burke had never expressed regret or sorrow for her role in the prosecution, but rather, she was at peace with herself.

A woman too decent and too dignified to grovel, the courtly Burke disregarded Harris’ racial antagonism and spelled out the circumstances of the case — principally the youth twice confessing — which led to the conviction. In every successive public appearance or interview addressing the matter, Burke’s answers were crisp, direct, and articulate, and fully explained the legal grounds for the original conviction.

Attacks which fell with a thud, Harris’ defective strategy — resorting to using a tragedy and attempting to pin a wrongful conviction on Burke — was utterly deplorable and it neither produced a “viral moment” nor delivered a mortal injury to Burke’s campaign for which Harris had hoped.

Another reason for Harris’ downfall was a shortage in campaign funds. Though Harris was able to raise $1.3 million, his campaign haul was considerably less than the $3.4 million Burke raked in from donors. Though campaigns for the State’s Attorney’s office prior to 2016 were low-budget affairs, Kim Foxx shattered precedent when Left-wing philanthropist George Soros entered the race and divided $2 million among several outside groups supporting her campaign.

In 2024, however, Soros’ dirty money played no factor in the Democratic primary for State’s Attorney. Just as Soros sat on the sidelines, so, too, did the CORE caucus at the CTU. Though CORE had been profligate with its purse in support of Kim Foxx’s campaigns for State’s Attorney in 2016 and 2020, it handed over a mere $35,000 to Harris’ bid to replace the comically incompetent Foxx.

Though Harris’ supporters relentlessly bellyached about the supposedly evil influence of Burke’s donors, there was not a bleat of protest when Democratic power broker Fred Eychaner, Preckwinkle, or the SEIU filled Harris’ campaign treasury. Still, though, CORE’s attention concentrated on securing the passage of Bring Chicago Home (BCH) and dislodging Natalie Toro from the Illinois Senate proved costly for Harris. To help pass BCH and replace Toro with CTU organizer Graciela Guzman, the unruly CORE caucus committed over $600,000. While CORE cash helped successfully place Guzman in office, the $400,000 it threw at Bring Chicago Home dried up and blew away when the tax measure went down in defeat.  

While Clayton Harris did have sufficient funds, he trailed Burke substantially. Nevertheless, CORE’s disinterest in Harris' bid crippled his campaign in two ways. First, it allowed Burke to spend freely and gave her an immeasurable advantage in campaign advertising. Second, deprived of CORE cash, Harris was left in a lurch and without necessary funds to cover the estimated $300,000 cost for a recount after Burke’s slim primary victory.

Despite a poor campaign strategy and being outraised by Burke, what doomed the Harris campaign was his Borgia-like blind loyalty to Kim Foxx’s disastrous reform measures. Though Foxx failed as a prosecutor about as badly as one can fail, Harris’ consistent message to Chicago was to complete the criminal-justice reform mission Foxx established with Preckwinkle's full support in 2016. Though Foxx succeeded in laying the foundation for reform, she did irreparable damage to Chicago. Harris promised no change and never disguised his craving for Foxx’s endorsement. While running away from an unpopular incumbent is an age-old problem for politicians, Harris adopted the peculiar strategy of running toward an unpopular officeholder with whom many voters held enormous misgivings.

Presiding over the least energetic and most idea-free campaign in recent history, Harris left voters with the inescapable impression his highest priority was not to correct or roll back any of Foxx’s reform measures, but rather a dogged determination to stick to Foxx’s deeply misguided reform. The greenlighting of crime, Foxx’s reform measures — shrugging at minor offenses, support for bail reform, and granting freedom to convicted killers — contributed mightily to Chicago’s current crime crisis.

In sharp contrast to Harris’ promise he would not swerve out of Foxx’s reform lane, Judge Burke pledged returning Chicago to applying the law as written in criminal prosecutions. A cunning strategy, Burke’s word she would follow the law instead of following Kim Foxx’s model of selective prosecution worked like a charm on voters who felt trapped in a justice system Foxx rendered inoperative and had tilted in favor of violent criminals.

Candidates for office can overcome flawed strategy or flawed tactics, but not both. When Clayton Harris declared his candidacy to replace Kim Foxx, his most conspicuous weakness was his inexperience. A first-time candidate, Harris was a questionable political talent with little experience, few achievements, and virtually no coherent vision for a safer Chicago.

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