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On Election Day, progressive candidates and causes are at the center of Democratic primary ballot

With the presidential nominations of Democratic incumbent Joe Biden and Republican challenger Donald Trump already assured, the focus of Tuesday’s primary election in Illinois moves to down-ballot contests that could represent a defining moment in the steady advance of the Chicago area’s progressive movement.

Slotted across the ballot are races and issues that will provide an indication of where the movement stands nearly a year after its most significant gain, the election of Brandon Johnson as Chicago’s mayor, and after one of its most prominent leaders, criminal justice reform-seeking Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, announced she would not seek reelection.

Though neither is on the ballot, Johnson’s early unsteady tenure at City Hall and the aftermath of Foxx’s embattled time as top prosecutor provide the backdrop for a Democratic primary asking voters whether progressivism has gone too far or not far enough amid continued concern about crime and the complex issue of dealing with migrants primarily sent from the Texas border.

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“It’s been kind of a tumultuous time with the migrant issue and, as we’ve seen in cities across the country, push back on some of the more progressive ideas about prosecution,” said David Axelrod, political strategist for former President Barack Obama. “It will be interesting to see where public sentiment is right now and if it has changed a little bit to the right of where it stood.”

Across the country there have been shifts in once-progressive conclaves. Dissatisfaction with rising crime in San Francisco found voters there recalling their local prosecutor, Chesa Boudin, in 2022, three years after he’d run on an aggressively progressive platform. Other conservative efforts to rein in progressive prosecutors have centered on suspensions or state legislation to weaken their authority.

Last April, Mike Johnston, who portrayed himself as a moderate, was elected mayor of Denver and Cherelle Parker defeated progressive opponents to become Philadelphia’s mayor earlier this year. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, where Pittsburgh is located, continued its streak in November of electing progressives for county executive, but Sara Innamorato’s margin of victory was a scant 2.6%.

In Chicago, concerns about crime have blended with immigration in some voters’ minds. That is creating “a tumultuous mix” that makes the Democratic primary contest for the open-seat state’s attorney’s office between Clayton Harris III and Eileen O’Neill Burke a “pretty good gauge” of voter attitudes, Axelrod said.

O’Neill Burke, a retired appellate judge, has suggested that Harris, the endorsed candidate of the Cook County Democratic Party, represents “politics as usual” and will follow Foxx’s lead by continuing policies that she says fail to stem crime that surged during the pandemic and has still not fully abated.

Foxx aggressively sought to overturn the office’s past wrongful convictions, implemented a higher threshold for prosecutors to pursue felony charges for retail theft and gave her full-throated support for statewide elimination of cash bail. She has not endorsed Harris. But her political mentor — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who also heads the county Democratic Party — has. And Foxx recently rebuked O’Neill Burke for inflating vacancy numbers and caseloads at her office.

Though Foxx’s national counterparts have been under attack from conservatives, in heavily Democratic Cook County, the fight is intraparty. O’Neill Burke has pledged to maintain Foxx’s conviction integrity unit and restorative justice initiatives for those suffering from mental illness or addiction. She also was a supporter of the SAFE-T Act eliminating cash bail.

But O’Neill Burke gives Foxx failing marks, pledging to unwind her retail theft policies and asking for detention “each and every time” someone is found with an assault weapon, threatens anyone with a weapon, or is involved in a violent crime, especially on the CTA.

“We can change criminal behavior by enforcing the law,” she told the Tribune on Thursday.

Personal story vs. tougher-on-crime message

Alongside that tough-on-crime message, O’Neill Burke is framing herself as the pro-abortion rights and pro-union candidate while blasting Harris’ time working in the corporate world and for convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Harris has reasserted his support of abortion rights and defended his time at Lyft, where he served as a lobbyist and head of a group that pushed to keep drivers classified as independent contractors. He’s pointed to endorsements from staunch champions of worker and abortion rights, such as state Reps. Will Guzzardi and Kelly Cassidy. Harris has said he was not close to Blagojevich and didn’t work on his campaigns or donate to him, and that he went public at the time with ethical complaints against Blagojevich.

Harris has leaned on his personal story — grappling as a young assistant state’s attorney with prosecuting Black men; raising a family in Washington Park, where he says they face gunfire and gang violence; and risking being the victim of profiling by Chicago police. Several of Foxx’s biggest campaign contributors are backing Harris.

His counterattacks against O’Neill Burke have centered on the issue of wrongful convictions, which has been a key Foxx initiative. Citing in part a story last year by the Tribune, Harris’ leading TV ad faults O’Neill Burke for being the lead prosecutor in the case of a Black youth charged more than 30 years ago. Accused of the brutal murder of his elderly neighbor, the boy — identified in court documents only by the initials “A.M.” because he was a juvenile — confessed under questioning but a judge later overturned the conviction after private attorneys successfully argued the boy’s confession was coerced by police.

O’Neill Burke’s decision to go forward with the case against the boy despite physical evidence that conflicted with the confession only confirms that she represents old-guard interests focused more on convictions than justice, Harris has said. What’s more, he’s said, O’Neill Burke has shown a lack of contrition for the impact the case had on the boy’s life. A.M. cycled through the criminal justice system and was later in life shot and killed.

It’s a charge O’Neill Burke denies. The defense that A.M.’s attorneys put up in the case was insufficient, a federal judge later found, and there were no legal motions alleging his confession was coerced. Had she known the confession was coerced, she would not have proceeded the same way, she’s said.

Her war chest, meanwhile, has dwarfed Harris’ — upward of $4.2 million has poured into the primary, with O’Neill Burke raking in more than $3 million, according to state campaign records.

There, too, Harris has pointed out a contrast. Several of O’Neill Burke’s biggest donors have supported conservative Republicans. On Friday, Harris and a group of faith leaders demanded O’Neill Burke return a $5,000 donation she received from Steve Patton, the city’s corporation counsel who fought against the public release of the Laquan McDonald police shooting video. McDonald’s murder at the hands of a Chicago police officer helped galvanize reformers to get behind Foxx in the 2016 election.

O’Neill Burke also has the support of John Catanzara, the Trump-supporting head of the city’s largest police union. She rejected the endorsement as professionally improper.

‘A lot is riding on these turnouts’

For the mayor, the fate of the Bring Chicago Home ballot initiative seeking to grant the City Council authority to raise the real estate transfer tax on the sale of all $1 million-plus properties represents a test of populist progressivism as well as an early referendum on Johnson and support for the former Chicago Teachers Union organizer.

Surviving late court challenges, the complicated, multiparagraph referendum question pits politically active unions against business, real estate and Republican-aligned, anti-tax interests. Bring Chicago Home supporters for years have pushed to have the question put to voters but those efforts had generally stalled until Johnson campaigned on a promise to take it up.

With the help of a City Council populated by many allies, Johnson secured the referendum question’s placement on the March primary ballot. The CTU has taken a lead in hitting the streets and phone lines to drum up voter support.

Progressive advocates say changing the structure of the tax — a one-time charge at the point of a real estate sale — will raise, on average, an additional $100 million annually. Commercial real estate interests are expected to bear a much greater share of the tax burden, while the vast majority of home sellers will get a slight reduction in their rate — from 0.75% to 0.6%. In return, Chicago will have sequestered funds to pay for housing and wraparound services for the homeless, though details of how much will be spent on what have yet to be decided.

But real estate interests warn the extra costs will threaten Chicago’s recovery from the pandemic, exacerbate office vacancies and impede fresh development.

Those opponents — which includes a trio of outside spending groups — also are tying the referendum’s credibility to trust in Johnson as a leader.

“Mayor Johnson wants you to vote for his big new tax. Now’s a good time to ask: Is Chicago on the right track? How’s the mayor doing on crime? Do you feel safe? Happy with how the mayor’s handling the migrant crisis? Now he wants a big new tax,” blared a digital ad from the group Keep Chicago Affordable. “Trust Mayor Johnson with more taxes? Just vote no.”

Keep Chicago Affordable’s largest funder, at $800,000, is Chicago Forward, a dark money group run by Greg Goldner, a longtime Chicago political operative who once had close ties to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Regardless of the pros and cons of the policy itself, its success or failure will reflect on Johnson, said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“To the degree he fails or stumbles and can’t move these things forward, it will rightly or wrongly open up a critique about efficiency and capacity,” Bruno said.

The pushback from the business community, which has traditionally wielded significant power in the city, suggests the stakes are high for them too.

“Sometimes you can measure the viability and meaningfulness of what you’re doing — particularly if you’re a progressive — on the basis of how the more commercial or centrist or establishment forces line up against it, because they know something significant can change,” Bruno said. “And, if so, that further empowers that agenda and those candidates. It seems like a lot is riding on these turnouts.”

Cook County races

For Democrats, progressive moves also are in play in several Cook County races, including a race to fill Johnson’s seat on the Cook County Board for the next two years, and a state Supreme Court contest that also shows internal divisions between the party’s important constituencies of Black and brown voters.

In Johnson’s old half-city, half-suburban County Board seat, the mayor’s onetime mentor is seeking to finish out his term. Tara Stamps was appointed in June by party officials to fill Johnson’s vacant 1st District spot on an interim basis and she’s running to hold the seat through 2026. Stamps, administrator of new teacher development at CTU, is the daughter of the late legendary affordable housing activist Marion Stamps. Preckwinkle, Johnson and the county’s major progressive unions have lined up behind her.

She is up against Zerlina Smith-Members, a perennial candidate and proponent of school choice and critic of CTU who also opposes Bring Chicago Home.

Supreme Court Justice Joy Cunningham was appointed to fill the vacancy of Justice Anne Burke, the wife of convicted longtime powerbroker former Ald. Ed Burke. She’s seeking to be elected to a full term against Jesse Reyes, an appellate court judge who finished second in the 2020 race for a seat on the state’s highest court.

Cunningham, one of three Black justices on the seven-member court, is backed by the Cook County Democrats, CTU and Personal PAC, an abortion rights political action committee. But Reyes said he’s a progressive candidate with a desire to consider the societal effects of judgments. He has the backing of several Latino groups who argue that Democrats for years have neglected to recognize the growing Latino population in slating candidates for the state’s high court.

The lone countywide-elected Latina in Cook County, first-term Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez, did not get slated for reelection by the Cook County Democrats, a reflection of her supporting candidates in 2022 who weren’t party-endorsed.

Martinez is being challenged by Mariyana Spyropoulos, a commissioner on the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago. Spyropoulos was slated by county Democrats and also has the support of progressive public employees unions as well as the Teamsters, who represent most of the office’s employees.

Martinez had pledged to clean up and modernize the office she took over from embattled Clerk Dorothy Brown, but progress has been slow in an office renowned for its antiquated operations. And Martinez has faced ethical questions over her acceptance of political help and campaign contributions from employees.

Reflecting the political infighting, Martinez earlier this month contended Preckwinkle had for a second consecutive year disrespected the circuit clerk’s accomplishments and heritage by omitting her from a lobby exhibit on International Women’s Day.

“This act disregards not only my legacy as the first Hispanic / Latina female in the Illinois Senate and currently the only Hispanic Constitutional Officer in Cook County but also diminishes the contributions of Latina women and women of color at large,” Martinez said in a statement. A Preckwinkle spokesman said Martinez’s omission was an unintended oversight by a former employee. New banners have been created, he said.

Longtime congressmen targeted

Progressives also are seeking to make inroads through insurgent challenges to Democratic U.S. Reps. Danny Davis of Chicago and Bill Foster of Naperville.

For the third consecutive primary election, Davis is facing opposition from progressive activist Kina Collins. But unlike two years ago, when Collins lost by 6 percentage points in what was largely a two-person race, the dynamics have changed.

Davis, seeking his 15th term, now faces Collins as well as Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin along with two others, Kouri Marshall and Nikhil Batia. But Collins has not received the same level of progressive support and Conyears-Ervin’s entry into the race risks splitting votes to Davis’ benefit, even though the treasurer has faced ethical issues involving her employees that led to a taxpayer-paid settlement.

Collins’ outspoken pro-Palestinian stance has drawn attention and some negative feedback, including a pro-Israel PAC spending nearly $482,000 against her, federal campaign records show.

At a Friday candidate forum, Collins, wearing a black and white kaffiyeh scarf as a sign of solidarity with Palestinians, likened tactics used by the Israel Defense Forces to those used by the Chicago Police Department and faulted Davis for not standing up against continued U.S. aid to its Middle East ally.

Davis noted he has called for “an immediate cease-fire.”

In the suburbs, Foster, who has served 14 years in the U.S. House, faces progressive challenger Qasim Rashid in the 11th Congressional District, which runs from McHenry through western Kane County and southern portions of DuPage County.

Rashid, who has made two unsuccessful bids for public office in Virginia, has sought to make the Israeli battles against Hamas a focal point of his campaign. He’s called for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza, as well as the release of all hostages taken in the Oct. 7 attack and an end to Israel occupation and settlements. Foster has said Israel has a right to defend itself but must follow “international humanitarian law.” Three Republicans also are vying for the right to challenge the winner.

In the heavily Latino 4th Congressional District, it is the progressive incumbent facing a challenge. U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García is seeking a fourth term in the House against Chicago Ald. Ray Lopez, 15th. Garcia is a leading House progressive while Lopez has contended the district isn’t as extreme as its congressman.

An icon of the progressive movement has even dipped into a state legislative race, where U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont backed CTU organizer Graciela Guzmán over appointed incumbent state Sen. Natalie Toro in a four-way Democratic contest on the city’s North and Northwest sides.

Guzmán has the backing of liberal Democratic and Democratic socialists in the legislature and City Council, while Toro is backed by Illinois Senate President Don Harmon and more moderate Democrats in the chamber. But Toro’s appointment to the Senate was engineered in part by Martinez, the court clerk, and the senator’s reelection has become enmeshed in the enmity between Preckwinkle and Martinez. Also seeking the Democratic nomination in the 20th Senate District are Dave Nayak, a doctor, and community organizer Geary Yonker.

Tribune reporter Dan Petrella contributed.