Harris leans on personal story in state’s attorney stump speech

Cook County state’s attorney candidate Clayton Harris III made a personal pitch in his bid for the Democratic nomination in the upcoming primary to a sparse City Club crowd Thursday afternoon.

As a former assistant state’s attorney, Harris said he saw the “churn” of Black men “in and out of the system”; as a resident of Washington Park, he said his family has “to worry about bullets flying” and being profiled by the police; and as a father raising young boys, he said he was heartbroken to read about a case prosecuted by his opponent that has become central to his campaign for both safety and justice in the office.

Harris’ opponent in the March 19 primary is retired Appellate Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke, the better-funded candidate in the contest to succeed outgoing top prosecutor Kim Foxx. At stake is who will run the second largest prosecutor’s office in the country while a pandemic-fueled surge in crime has not fully subsided.

Harris reiterated his call for a “balanced” approach to safety and justice, pledging to run the office on behalf of “businesses that feel like they need to close up or just shut down because of smash-and-grabs or the crime that’s going on downtown” as well as drivers “who’ve been pulled over through pretextual traffic stops.”

Both candidates have said they would “reset” relationships with local police departments, applauded adoption of SAFE-T Act reforms, and pledged to continue many of Foxx’s restorative justice measures. But the campaign has largely devolved into negative attacks in recent weeks as fundraising and attention have picked up.

O’Neill Burke will make her case at the City Club on Monday.

In Harris’ City Club speech and in a conversation that followed with attorney Duane Deskins, a former federal prosecutor, Harris defended his time away from the courtroom as an asset. O’Neill Burke has spent her entire career in and around courtrooms — as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and judge.

“You have rock solid experience in the legal world in terms of government affairs and legislative affairs — 20 years of doing that — but it would be also equally true that if you are elected you would have the least Cook County prosecutor criminal court experience of any prosecutor in the last 30 years,” Deskins said. “Do you think you’re up to leading this kind of task?”

Harris said “absolutely,” adding that “no one should sleep on” his experience in criminal courts — including in criminal appeals and special prosecutions focused on narcotics.

“But if someone is reliant on strictly the legal experience — the time in the office — as the bona fide on whether they should be the next Cook County state’s attorney, then they grossly misunderstand the role of the state’s attorney,” Harris said.

The job is not to argue cases directly in court, he said, but to make sure prosecutors have “the resources they need, have the training necessary, have the background and backup that they need. You need someone who can lead the office, as well as manage the office.”

Harris throughout the campaign has pointed to his management experience running government offices in the city and state and lobbying elected officials — he worked in government affairs at both Lyft and C2HM Hill — as sign of his management strength and ability to work across offices to accomplish change.

O’Neill Burke has said his time helming a Lyft-funded statewide nonprofit pushing against classifying drivers as employees was an indication of an anti-union streak, which Harris has swatted down by pointing at several endorsements from progressive labor groups.

Meanwhile, Harris has pointed to O’Neill Burke’s 1994 prosecution of A.M. — who was 11 when he was convicted of the violent murder of his elderly neighbor — as disqualifying.

Then a young prosecutor in the office, O’Neill Burke has said she presented the best case based on the evidence in defense of the victim, and that the boy’s confession was “compelling evidence.”

The boy’s conviction was later overturned. A federal judge found the officer who secured that confession coerced it. O’Neill Burke was not accused of wrongdoing and noted the judge said the boy’s attorney provided insufficient defense.

In an interview on WGN-TV this week, she said if she knew that officer “was conducting investigations that did not comport with the Constitution and the law, of course I would not have proceeded on that.”

Even so, Harris blasted O’Neill Burke Thursday for not acknowledging now “that something was wrong” with the case’s prosecution, including ignoring “a lot of exculpatory evidence.”

He said he had “been in situations where I had to dismiss cases because I wasn’t comfortable with what was going forward,” and O’Neill Burke should have done the same.

“We all make mistakes and we can own up to it,” Harris said. “We need to expect more from our elected officials and you all need to expect more from me as your state’s attorney.”

He also took issue with what O’Neill Burke said when A.M. was sentenced, when she suggested sentencing options were not harsh enough to respond to the violent crime. “Our juvenile criminal act was written at a time when kids were knocking over outhouses, not killing people,” she said, according to the Sun-Times. “We’re looking at a whole new breed here.”

“I have two sons. They are 11 and 9,” Harris said. “This 10-year-old could have been my son. It is extremely personal to me, I thought of them when I read the facts of the case … this could have been my son. A whole new breed. A whole new breed?”

Critics have said that phrase contributed to racist “superpredator” narratives at the time. O’Neill Burke told WGN that “whole new breed” is “a terrible phrase and I shouldn’t have used that phrase.”

Both candidates support state legislation to require anyone under 18 who is questioned by police to have an attorney present as well as additional supports for youth to prevent crime and repeat offenses.