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Eileen O’Neill Burke wins Democratic primary race for Cook County state’s attorney over Clayton Harris III

Ten days after voters went to the polls in the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney, former Appellate Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke secured the nomination over opponent Clayton Harris III.

With a rapidly dwindling number of votes remaining to be tallied after tens of thousands of mail-in and provisional ballots were counted in Chicago and Cook County suburbs since Election Day, O’Neill Burke declared victory Friday evening with 50.15% of the vote. After Harris initially balked at conceding defeat, the university lecturer and former government official called O’Neill Burke to acknowledge the loss. The Associated Press also called the race for O’Neill Burke.

“It was worth the wait,” O’Neill Burke said in a campaign release. “I’d like to congratulate Clayton Harris on a hard-fought campaign. While we may have had our differences in this election, we share a love for our beautiful city and Cook County.”

At Friday’s conclusion of vote counting by Chicago and Cook County election officials, O’Neill Burke had amassed 1,556 more votes than Harris — a sum that had not budged much throughout this week. O’Neill Burke had a lead of 10,000 votes on election night, March 19, and though Harris was able to close that margin by 84%, she never lost her advantage.

Harris’ campaign had held onto hope he could overtake O’Neill Burke in the razor-thin race and he had not ruled out a recount. The campaign planned to wait to decide what to do until the deadline next Tuesday, when the last of valid mail-in returns are eligible to be counted.

Though there are close to 46,000 unreturned Democratic mail-in ballots across the city and another 23,000 estimated in the suburbs, neither the Chicago Board of Elections nor the Cook County clerk’s office expected all to be returned properly postmarked by Election Day to meet the April 2 deadline.

Returns had already been dwindling throughout this week, with daily return totals in the city numbering in the hundreds, not the thousands. Suburban judges reported just 12 Democratic ballots that arrived Thursday and Friday morning. O’Neill Burke described the math as “insurmountable” for Harris.

While the race tightened with daily vote counts after Election Day, data from the Chicago Board of Elections and the clerk’s office, which oversees vote counts in Cook County’s suburbs, showed that less than 10% of all the votes were tallied in the days after the election.

In a statement, Harris congratulated O’Neill Burke and acknowledged falling “a bit short of our goal.”

“I am incredibly proud of the broad, diverse, grassroots coalition we built countywide with the vision of a criminal justice system that focuses on safety and justice. Where we keep every resident safe — no matter what neighborhood they live in, and where we do so in a just fashion,” he said, pledging to “continue to push forward on the urgent work of criminal justice reform. That remains my commitment.”

O’Neill Burke was considered the more conservative of the two and campaigned about being tougher on crime while Harris preached of balancing safety with continuing reforms in the prosecutor’s office. The two were vying to replace two-term Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, a progressive prosecutor who had been a leader in a national movement to bring sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Foxx chose to not run for a third term.

Though some of Foxx’s reforms have become bedrocks for the party — including a de-emphasis on prosecuting low-level, nonviolent offenses and the embrace of alternatives to cash bail — the race was considered a barometer of voters’ appetite for a tougher approach to a pandemic-era increase in crimes such as carjackings and retail theft.

“If I’ve learned one thing during this process, it’s that there is so much more that unites us than what divides us. Across every neighborhood and every town in Cook County, people told me the same thing: we want a fair criminal justice system that works for everyone,” O’Neill Burke said in her statement. “We want a professional and effective State’s Attorney’s Office. We want illegal guns and assault weapons off our streets. We want less crime and safer communities, not by locking everyone up, but by turning people around. Whether you voted for me or not, I promise to work tirelessly as your State’s Attorney.”

Harris and O’Neill Burke were the only two candidates to emerge in the wide-open election following Foxx’s announcement last April that she would not seek reelection. The news came after a bruising and historic tenure, in which Foxx undertook a raft of progressive systemic reforms in the office amid a local and national reckoning over race and policing, while weathering criticisms over her prosecutorial policies and response to the Jussie Smollett scandal.

Harris, a lecturer at the University of Chicago on race and policing, jumped into the campaign with the support of Cook County Board President and Democratic Party Chair Toni Preckwinkle — a Foxx mentor. He went on to win the party’s endorsement, despite not having run for public office previously. He had explored a run for state’s attorney briefly in 2007.

For this campaign, Harris cited as key strengths his academic and policy chops, his management experience from holding various roles across government and his personal story as a Black man who feared gun violence and racial profiling while raising a family on the city’s South Side. He earned endorsements from some of the county’s most progressive unions and elected officials.

O’Neill Burke stepped down from the state’s appellate bench to run for the spot. A Chicago native, she was raised in a family of police officers and spent her entire career in and around Cook County courtrooms as a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge. She embraced many of Foxx’s reforms on the campaign trail while promising to more aggressively prosecute top-of-mind crimes like robbery and violence on public transit. She won backing from several of the county’s more moderate trade unions and a majority of the Chicago City Council’s more moderate or pro-law enforcement aldermen.

Though she did not have the party’s support, she racked up campaign dollars from business interests, out-earning Harris 3 to 1 since the beginning of 2024. That enabled her to surpass Harris on mail and television ads in the campaign’s final weeks.

Despite the high stakes of running the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the country and its nearly 800 attorneys, the primary race had relatively low turnout compared with recent history: The 2016 election had twice as many ballots cast. Even so, few expected the race to end this closely, or for a conclusive count to take this long.

O’Neill Burke has a significant tailwind in heavily Democratic Cook County heading into the November election. She will face former Ald. Bob Fioretti, a Republican who ran unopposed in the primary. Fioretti, an attorney, previously ran for top prosecutor as a Democrat. Also running is Libertarian Andrew Charles Kopinski.