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O’Neill Burke rips Foxx in speech days before state’s attorney primary

In the final days of her campaign, retired Appellate Judge Eileen O’Neill Burke made her closing case for her candidacy for Cook County state’s attorney, telling a City Club audience Monday she could fix a “woefully understaffed and mismanaged” office and help rescue the city from going bust.

Without naming her, O’Neill Burke had some of her harshest assessments yet for the current top prosecutor, Kim Foxx, who O’Neill Burke said “doesn’t believe in accountability.”

She repeated criticism that Foxx is to blame for a staffing shortage and poor office morale and said the office’s working relationship with the Chicago Police Department “doesn’t exist right now.”

Foxx has so far declined to endorse in the race, but O’Neill Burke’s comments Monday prompted Foxx to tell the Tribune she believed it was important to push back on several of the candidate’s claims, including those about poor staffing.

The total vacancy rate across the state’s attorney’s office is 12%, equal to about 160 positions. For attorney positions, the vacancy rate is 4.5% — or 35 positions, Foxx said. A new class of bar takers is joining in August.

“I can no longer hold my tongue because it is incredibly frustrating that a woman seeking this office would be so flippant about the truth,” Foxx told the Tribune. In response to another O’Neill Burke statistic — that some attorneys are handling a docket of 700 cases — Foxx said that was “impossible. … That does not exist.”

While O’Neill Burke has agreed with some of Foxx’s policies, she has sought to distance herself from Foxx throughout the campaign, arguing she would be tougher on those arrested for retail theft, more aggressively pursue violent offenses on the CTA and push for detention for individuals found in possession of automatic weapons.

O’Neill Burke suggested Monday that the “backbone” of the criminal justice system “is not working” and, as a result, “we have businesses and people leaving, and they’re leaving because of crime,” fear of going out at night, heading downtown and taking the CTA.

She also pledged to attract new applicants to the office by making it into a training ground for eager trial attorneys. When she was an attorney under former State’s Attorneys Jack O’Malley and Richard Devine, “I felt respected and valued under both… I felt like they cared about the people who worked for them and they wanted to see them develop and grow as attorneys… I don’t see that happening right now.”

Though Foxx again declined to endorse Monday, O’Neill Burke’s opponent, Clayton Harris III, has the support of Foxx’s political mentor, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is also the county Democratic Party chair.

Monday’s luncheon came on the heels of O’Neill Burke receiving the backing of one of the city’s lead business groups, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, as well as John Catanzara, the head of the city’s main police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7.

The justice rejected Catanzara’s endorsement given “the working relationship between the State’s Attorney’s Office” and the Police Department, her campaign said Friday. Both candidates say — and Catanzara confirmed — that they did not seek the FOP’s endorsement, though Harris met with FOP leadership in the fall.

In a video posted to the FOP’s YouTube channel Thursday evening, Catanzara encouraged members “to pull a Democratic ballot” and vote for O’Neill Burke. The race was even more important than the 2023 mayoral election, he said. The union last year officially endorsed Paul Vallas, who lost to Brandon Johnson in the mayoral runoff.

Catanzara told the Tribune he made the recommendation in the state’s attorney race because of O’Neill Burke’s “elite” resume — she has been a prosecutor, defense attorney and judge for most of her career — and his belief that Republican Bob Fiorreti did not have a realistic chance to win in the general election. Cook County has not elected a Republican as state’s attorney since 1992.

Harris, who has trailed in fundraising, seized on Catanzara’s endorsement and some of O’Neill Burke’s business support — which includes donors who have given to Republican candidates — as proof that she is “beholden to extremists” who would reverse criminal justice efforts launched under Foxx.

O’Neill Burke has shot back that she is a lifelong Democrat committed to progressive causes, including on abortion rights. She has attacked Harris for donating in 2009 to an anti-abortion candidate, Ethan Hastert. Harris’ former employer, Lyft, also donated to candidates who opposed abortion. Harris denied directing any of those donations when he led a political committee funded by the company.

Personal PAC, the women’s rights organization that has fought for abortion rights, is neutral in the race and said it is “confident that whomever wins the Democratic Primary will work with us to ensure that abortion access is protected” locally, but it dinged O’Neill Burke for her attacks on Harris.

“It is disheartening to see one campaign try to mislead the public on her opponent’s views on choice when abortion access is under attack all across the country,” the group said.

aquig@chicagotribune.com