Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx smiles as the Black Caucus endorses her on March 12. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — Kim Foxx has declared victory in the race for the Cook County state’s attorney position despite facing a stiff challenge from Patrick O’Brien.

Foxx, the incumbent and a Chicago native, was first elected to the post in 2016, her victory celebrated by activists who saw her as ushering in a new era at the State’s Attorney’s Office. But since then, she’s faced sharp criticism on a national level — while also being commended for reforms she’s enacted.

“Tonight, voters chose safety and justice instead of law and order,” Foxx said in a Tuesday night statement where she claimed victory. “They chose criminal justice reform and equity instead of wrongful convictions. They chose a way forward instead of going back.”

Foxx said O’Brien called her to congratulate her on her victory.

The race pitted Foxx, a reformer and Democrat, against O’Brien, who ran as a Republican and positioned himself as a tough-on-crime candidate. It showed divisions in how Chicagoans want the city to tackle its issues with violent crime.

It also showed a divide between the city, which overwhelmingly voted for Foxx, and suburban Cook County, which leaned toward O’Brien.

The Chicago Board of Elections reported about 62 percent of the city’s vote going to Foxx and 30.46 percent going to O’Brien, with 94.3 percent of precincts reporting. Sububran Cook County election results showed 42.5 percent of the vote going to Foxx and 51 percent going to O’Brien with 95.7 percent of precincts reporting.

Foxx has been an advocate of criminal justice reform and has said she wants to create a Chicago that is more equal.

“… We cannot talk about this city in the way that I’ve seen us talk about this city, this county, in the last several months, where there’s been a distinction of where violence is OK and where we get up in arms in places where we don’t normally accept it,” Foxx said in her victory speech. “Violence anywhere is a devastation to our country.

“And when we talk about it, we are not talking just about buildings and structures. We are talking about people who have felt as if their structures have been destroyed.”

Foxx said people have to focus on the bigger issue — which means addressing disparities in the justice system, particularly when it comes to low-level offenses.

“It means in this next term doubling down on our efforts to make sure that people with substance disorder or mental health issues” have resources they need, Foxx said. “It means dedicating our resources to attacking violent crime and the cycles of violence.

“It means continuing the work of righting the wrongs of our past,” whether that’s wrongful convictions or expunging people’s records for things that are no longer crimes.

Foxx has been lauded by some for her support of bail reform, her work to overturn wrongful convictions and her support for clearing the records of people convicted of minor marijuana crimes.

But Foxx has gained often negative attention on the national stage — and O’Brien staked his campaign on that criticism.

O’Brien, who worked as a prosecutor in the ’80s and ’90s, said the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office was “in disarray” under Foxx. He blamed Foxx for the sharp uptick in violent crime this summer in Chicago, though many major cities have seen crime spike during the pandemic.

Foxx faced criticism from other quarters, too. Her office’s handling of the Jussie Smollett scandal put her under a national spotlight, with critics maligning her role throughout the election. And she was in the headlines again this summer, when critics said her office didn’t do enough to prosecute people who had looted and vandalized during days of unrest.

But the activists voted her into office, kicking out Anita Alvarez in 2016, stood by her side and pushed for her re-election, pointing to her work on criminal justice and bail reform.

Though Cook County hasn’t had a Republican state’s attorney since 1996, O’Brien won support from some, and he and Foxx traded barbs and attack ads for months.

Rashad Shannon, a Chatham resident who was formerly incarcerated, said he voted because he’s worried about how the country treats “people like” him. He cast his ballot for Foxx.

“I don’t have any complaints,” he said. “The Smollett thing was messed up, but we probably don’t know the whole story.”

Mike Milstein, 28, and Andrew Townsend, 30, speaking outside a Lakeview polling place Tuesday, said they’d like to see more criminal justice reform, but they appreciated Foxx’s efforts to change the system in her first term. They voted for Foxx.

“Kim Foxx has done a good job of ensuring that people who are victims of crimes or have committed crimes get the help they need,” Milstein said. “We can’t keep throwing people in jail and giving them no support.”

Scott Heintzelman, 30, was among Tuesday’s early morning voters. He said the biggest issue on the ballot for him was the presidential race — but locally, his biggest concern is Chicago’s gun violence. He voted for O’Brien rather than Foxx, claiming her office has been too lenient on people charged with violent crime.

“I’ve been reading a lot about how chronic gun offenders are continually getting released back onto the street, and with gun violence so high in Chicago, somebody needs to change that,” Heintzelman said.

Block Club Chicago’s election coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. Twitter @BauerJournalism Twitter @thewayoftheid