After serving two terms marked by near-constant criticism of his policies and handling of high-profile cases, Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx announced Tuesday that he would not seek re-election.
“I leave now with my head held high, with my heart full,” Foxx said as he concluded his speech at the City Club of Chicago.
Foxx said he informed Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson of his decision Monday and called him a “man of the hour” whose election reminded him of his own first victory in 2016.
“I told Mayor-elect Johnson as the black man in leadership that the role would be very difficult,” Foxx said. “You have to keep going. But know what's coming. Her responsibility is to do the job in the full knowledge that it's unfair… but she has a job to do and raises the voices of those who put her there.
The mayor-elect issued a statement saying Foxx had been instrumental “in overturning nearly 200 wrongful convictions, eliminating more than 15,000 cannabis crimes and bringing justice to a criminal justice system that has long disenfranchised people and communities of color.”
Elected twice by voters to become district attorney by a wide margin, Foxx has been criticized for his office's progressive policy choices and the impact they have had on crime in Chicago.
The attacks have come not only from conservatives and the police, but also from outgoing Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot who has faced a spike in shootings and killings during the pandemic.
Foxx said being raised by a single mother while living in the Cabrini-Green public housing development helped shape his views as a prosecutor. During high school, Foxx said he was homeless for a time and moved between homes frequently.
Foxx worked in a public trustee's office after college before being hired as an assistant state attorney. He later served as chief of staff to Cook County Council President Toni Preckwinkle before running as state attorney.
In 2016, Foxx became the first black woman to lead the office after defeating former Attorney General Anita Alvarez amid outrage over the fatal shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald by former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
Foxx promised a more strategic approach to fighting violent crime and was one of the first batch of reform-minded prosecutors to be elected in major cities, including Philadelphia and later, San Francisco.
Foxx's goal of focusing on violent crime prosecution of low-level crimes and misdemeanors led to his first major clash with police and widespread criticism of his decision-making with his handling of the Jussie Smollett case.
The young up-and-coming actor was charged with lying to police when he claimed to be the victim of a homophobic and racist attack in January 2019 near his Streeterville apartment.
Foxx withdrew from the case the following month, his office saying he had “spoken to members of the Jussie Smollett family” and “facilitated a connection to the Chicago Police Department which is investigating the incident” before the actor was charged.
His office dropped all charges against the actor in a deal that cost him a $10,000 bond to the city of Chicago (now the subject of the actor's appeal of conviction) — but did not require him to admit any wrongdoing.
The case trailed Foxx through his re-election campaign, especially after a special prosecutor was appointed to review the decision by the state attorney's office. The special prosecutor, former US Attorney Dan Webb, found no criminal wrongdoing by Foxx but said state attorneys and his office committed a “substantial abuse of discretion” in handling the case.
In his speech Tuesday, Foxx saved some of his most biting comments for critics of his handling of the case and chastised the media for its coverage.
“They ask me over and over, ‘state attorney, do you regret Class 4, non-violent crimes against D-list actors,'” Foxx says sarcastically.
“I mean, I'm not here to judge where we place our priorities,” he said. “But the fact that I've been questioned, and more ink has been shed by editorial pages, newspapers, reporters, that … my obituary will mention Jussie Smollett infuriates me.”
Foxx easily defeated his main challengers, including former attorney Bill Conway, and in the general election easily beat tough Republican challenger on crime, former Circuit Judge Pat O'Brien.
O'Brien said Tuesday he was surprised by Foxx's decision.
“Having stood by him at various forums in 2020, I have always been impressed by his political abilities,” he said. “He enjoyed the pitfalls of being a state attorney. Who knows? There may be other jobs out there that have special perks that make him want to stay out of it. But for me, on the campaign trail, it's something he seems to be passionate about.
Dan Kirk served as Alvarez's chief of staff and main assistant, who was removed by Foxx. Kirk said he anticipated Foxx would quit.
“He's having a hard time with a lot of unforced errors, to be honest,” Kirk told the Sun-Times. “Many obstacles that should not have happened. It seemed clear to me that the job had just proved to be beyond his means and not the right fit for him.”
Former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin noted Foxx served as state attorney during a tumultuous time that included the pandemic-triggered stay-at-home shutdowns, civil unrest and looting following the killing of George Floyd and the spike in violent crimes that followed. from those events.
“Today is the day to express our appreciation to Kim Foxx for her sacrifice and service as state attorney,” he said. “This job is a very difficult job. And in the current climate, a very difficult climate with all the violence. It's raging in Cook County. People feel insecure. I think he's done what he can do. He contributed what he could, and he sacrificed his family in the same way during this period because it's a big job.”
But James Murphy, a former assistant state attorney who publicly shared his scathing resignation letter last year, said the state attorney lacked leadership under his two terms in office. Murphy said Foxx regularly appeared to care more about what his supporters in the criminal justice reform movement thought than about being a voice for victims.
“I think his tenure as state attorney was not successful. I don't think he can balance the need for reform with supporting and championing victims of crime,” Murphy said. “He never put resources where they were needed, namely in the trenches.”
Attorney Josh Tepfer takes on a wrongful conviction case for the University of Chicago Law School Exemption Project. He heads to the City Club on Tuesday with Clarissa Glenn – whose conviction over a drug bust is tarnished by the involvement of a corrupt Chicago Police Sergeant. Ronald Watts is one of many people out of the Foxx office. That includes 17 cases thrown at a 2017 trial that Tepfer said was the first “mass release” in Cook County's history.
Tepfer said his lunch invitation had come from Foxx's office, the first one. “There is still a lot of work to be done,” said Tepfer as he stopped into Little Italy Maggiano for lunch Tuesday.
Attorney and activist Flint Taylor has battled the state attorney's office on wrongful convictions and civil rights cases since his days as attorney for the Black Panthers and other countergroups in the 1960s. He said on Tuesday that Foxx's tenure included much-needed reforms to how prosecutors handle allegations of police misconduct and bond and charging decisions.
“I feel he has faced tremendous and unprecedented resistance from the Fraternal Order of Police and the CPD and faced a very hostile culture within the District Attorney's Office,” Taylor said Tuesday. “He has to stand up against that culture and all the lawyers on his staff who have for so long defended practices that lead to wrongful convictions and mass incarceration. He did it in good faith and made some good moves.
That said, Taylor says he's not entirely surprised Foxx is tired of fighting that reform battle, especially when he's been consistently pummeled by critics for his handling of the Smollett case.
“(Smollett) is a distraction, an excuse used by white supremacist power structures against him, even if that does little in the grand scheme of corruption around police misconduct and mass incarceration. But it is a sword used by his enemies.”