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Eileen O’Neill Burke marks victory in primary for state’s attorney as November campaign looms

A little more than 48 hours after securing a razor-thin victory that was among the closest in recent Cook County history, Eileen O’Neill Burke emerged Monday as the fully backed Democratic Party nominee for state’s attorney and immediately caught a glimpse of what her Republican opponent’s campaign strategy will be this fall.

O’Neill Burke finds herself being embraced by the same county Democratic Party that for months championed her opponent in the primary, Clayton Harris III, until he conceded defeat on Friday.

As she now receives the backing of Cook County Board President and county Democratic Party Chair Toni Preckwinkle, O’Neill Burke’s also managing continued support from one of Preckwinkle’s biggest political foes — Chicago police union boss John Catanzara, a declared proponent of former President Donald Trump.

The political dynamic played out Monday at a belated celebration that O’Neill Burke, a retired appellate justice, joked was “Election Night 2,” following 10 days of vote counting after Election Day.

Surrounded Monday at the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130 hall by Democrats who flouted the county party and publicly supported her, O’Neill Burke thanked them for doing “the hard thing.”

“It meant so much to me to have the support of all of these elected officials who didn’t do the easy thing. They did the hard thing. And they said this is our candidate,” she said. “This is who we’re going with. It was great. And it meant that they were willing to do what was right for their constituents.”

Among those in attendance Monday were Chicago Ald. Pat Dowell, 3rd; former Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th; Ald. Silvana Tabares, 23rd; Ald. Felix Cardona, 31st; and state Sen. Laura Murphy of Maine Township. O’Neill Burke also was backed by Democratic Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza.

Preckwinkle, who has also promoted progressive criminal justice reforms as County Board president, extended her congratulations to O’Neill Burke on Friday in a statement shared on social media. Preckwinkle was among the first people to endorse Harris and was a political mentor to outgoing State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, who also backed Harris late in the campaign.

“As we move forward, I remain committed to ensuring that our criminal justice system serves every resident of Cook County with fairness, dignity and respect,” Preckwinkle said in the statement. “As is evidenced by her support of the Pretrial Fairness Act and restorative justice, I know that we share the goals of reimagining our criminal justice system into one that is truly just, equitable, enhances public safety and represents the best interests of all Cook County residents.”

In the November election, O’Neill Burke will face Libertarian Charles Kopinski and Republican Bob Fioretti, both of whom face long odds. The last non-Democrat to be elected state’s attorney was Republican Jack O’Malley, who was elected in a special election in 1990 and reelected two years later.

In a release, Fioretti gave a preview of his campaign strategy, describing O’Neill Burke as a “machine” candidate, in part because the party supported her during her 2016 campaign for appellate court. Fioretti previously ran as a Democrat for several other offices. He has not won an election since a 2011 reelection as an alderman.

“Depending on what audience she talked to in the primary, she either championed the misnamed SAFE-T Act or criticized it, praised law enforcement, or rejected their support, pretended to be a law-and-order candidate or a ‘Kim Foxx Lite’ candidate, complimenting Foxx on her coddling violent criminal policies,” Fioretti said in a release, describing O’Neill Burke’s tactics as “bait and switch.”

The Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act, known as the SAFE-T Act, will likely play a key role in the November general election campaign. Signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the SAFE-T Act addresses several criminal justice and policing issues, most notably eliminating cash bail. O’Neill Burke said numerous times during the primary that she supported the act.

While Preckwinkle formally got behind O’Neill Burke, the same couldn’t be said for Mayor Brandon Johnson, another top progressive officeholder.

The mayor on Monday dodged a question about the direction O’Neill Burke would take the top prosecutor’s office. He did not endorse in the race. His predecessor who he defeated last year, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, however, had an often-tense relationship with Foxx.

“Can we just do some on-topic questions first? And I’m happy to respond to that,” Johnson said at a Monday event marking the appointment of his homelessness czar. He never responded to the question.

Nodding to the historically close primary race she just emerged victorious from, O’Neill Burke sought to assure supporters that despite the lengthy counting of mail-in ballots the primary election was “a fair and effective Democratic process.”

O’Neill Burke saw her lead slip after election night as tens of thousands of outstanding votes were counted by the Chicago Board of Elections and the Cook County clerk. On Friday evening, citing “mathematically insurmountable” odds for Harris, O’Neill Burke declared victory with a slim lead of 1,556 votes. The Associated Press called the race shortly after and Harris conceded. On Monday, her lead was 1,558 votes.

Though many O’Neill Burke supporters on social media cried foul during the 10 days of ballot processing or fretted about interference from the Cook County Democratic Party, O’Neill Burke said her team “watched every single minute of that process to make sure that it comported with the law.”

“Democracy is messy, but it works and this election showed that. It also showed that each and every vote counts,” she said.

That was a message partially echoed by Catanzara, president of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, in a March 29 video.

“The members who took our advice and pulled a Democratic ballot, contrary to what you may have done for the last several primary elections by pulling Republican ballots: Every vote counted and your votes going Democratic this time made the difference to get Judge O’Neill Burke across the finish line to try and save this city before it is lost forever,” Catanzara said in the video.

While Catanzara’s backing was not an official endorsement from the union, he urged members to support her in the primary. O’Neill Burke rebuffed the endorsement as professionally improper. Though Catanzara said he was not accusing local election authorities of fraud, he echoed Trump-like language about the former president’s false claims the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Catanzara decried the “sniff of fraud and just something shady going on, which everybody thought for the last 10 days, ‘The steal was going to happen.’ … didn’t quite get where it needed to be, apparently,” he said.

He went on to call for the “guy who runs the Cook County Board of Elections” to be fired or resign immediately.

There is no Cook County Board of Elections. The spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, Max Bever, took personal responsibility for publicizing an incorrect number of outstanding mail-in and provisional ballots. The revelation did not amount to new ballots being found, but changed both campaigns’ calculus about the potential finish line for a clear winner.

Asked about Catanzara’s comments by reporters following the event Monday, O’Neill Burke said “victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. So there is a lot of people taking credit for this and I will tell you this: Each and every person who went out and voted, each and every person who sent a text message to people, told him to go out and vote, each and every person who informed their neighbors, their friends, their family that they had to vote in this election, they can take credit for it. Each and every union member who went out and campaigned for me on the weekends, they can take credit for it.”

Chicago Tribune’s Alice Yin contributed.