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ELECTIONS 2024 Clayton Harris III talks state's attorney run, Kim Foxx, Blagojevich
by Andrew Davis
2024-02-16

This article shared 11628 times since Fri Feb 16, 2024
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The Democratic primary in the race to succeed outgoing Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx involves two candidates with extensive backgrounds concerning law and government.

Clayton Harris III is an experienced prosecutor and government leader who has managed offices at the city and state levels. He has also done everything from serving as the executive director of the Illinois International Port District to teaching "Policing Race in America: Black, White & Blue" at the University of Chicago (which he still does). He recently talked with Windy City Times about Foxx, LGBTQ+ issues and working under ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

NOTE: This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Windy City Times: [Former Cook County State's Attorney] Dick Devine was my first political interview. What do you remember about working with him?

Clayton Harris III: I didn't have a lot of interaction with him, but he had what I felt was an open-door policy. You didn't just walk into his office at eight o'clock but I felt like the communication he had came through his supervisors. When I told him I was going to run for state's attorney, we sat down and had a nice cup of coffee. When he was still state's attorney in '08 and decided he wasn't going to run, I actually contemplated running then. But, like, 11 or 12 jumped in after he said he wasn't going to run, so I appreciated that a lot.

WCT: Your resume is impressive, but one thing that stands out is that you were a top aide for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. What did you learn about yourself or politics from being in that position?

Harris: Well, I was deputy chief of staff but then I was his last chief of staff after he was arrested because his chief of staff was arrested with him as well. So I had to run the state, to be honest with you.

But to your question, I learned a lot. First and foremost, one of the things I learned—which we're losing in national politics today—is that when it came down to what was best for the state, people came together. I learned there is always hope in our democracy and the democratic process—at least in this state.

WCT: If you had to give Kim Foxx a grade on the job she's done, what would it be and why?

Harris: I think I would give Kim Foxx an "A" with what she's done. The "why" is probably the best question.

Let's look at what she's done, and why and how she's done it. Part of my platform is that we can do more than one thing at a time; we can be safe and just. I don't think the focus on justice was always highlighted in the office; it wasn't ignored but it wasn't highlighted. So we're bringing that back to light and being unapologetic about it. I'm touting that more than 250 people have been exonerated and I'm reminding people that the number means that there are 250 people who never should have been in jail. I have to give her an "A" on that, period.

Now where I might knock her down is safety. My issue is that they were doing it in the office but it wasn't talked about as much in the office. But I think the weight of the other side still carries on with an "A." But that's why I'm excited about coming in and being able to put my stamp on the office as well. So I want to make sure she gets her flowers—but one of the things she could've done better was really tell the stories of both sides.

[Note:After the conversation, an addendum was emailed to Windy City Times from Harris' campaign. It read, "My 'A' grade specifically relates to the state's attorney's track record on criminal justice reform. In that area, I believe that she has laid a lot of important groundwork that I'm ready to build upon—especially when it comes to overturning wrongful convictions and expunging marijuana convictions."]

WCT: This is your first full-scale electoral run. What's been the most surprising thing you've learned about running?

Harris: I believe that my platform is really resonating with folks. No one has said, "Nah, I'm not worried about justice or safety." Everybody has been saying, "Yes! This is what we want." About 98% of the people have understood that justice demands safety and that safety demands justice. So what I would say has been surprising is how quickly people have been nodding their heads [in agreement]. But then, it's how we do it; it's easy to say something but also have to have a policy to implement it. I'm trying to demonstrate that safety and justice both deserve attention, and that one doesn't have to be sacrificed for the other.

WCT: What are your thoughts on the Safe-T Act [which, among other things, eliminated the cash bail system]?

Harris: Again, here's the balance. When we're talking about no-cash bail, we're balancing justice with safety.

We remind people that bail is only to ensure that people return to court because they've only been accused of a crime. The implementation of this policy that was worked on by law enforcement, victims' advocates and legal scholars—people forget all of that, saying, "Oh, my God! It's going to be horrible!" But the data—not spin, but data—show that the people who are supposed to be in are staying in; the people who are not are still coming back to court. The data show that we're actually safer than we were without it.

These detention hearings are working the way they're supposed to. We're no longer criminalizing poverty. They keep the correct people detained until the court date.

WCT: Does this put more of an onus on prosecutors?

Harris: Absolutely! It's funny because they're, like, "Oh my gosh. It's horrible"—but look at what the state's attorney is doing already. We have a list of detainable offenses, right? These attorneys passed the bar and can all read. Should there be training? Absolutely, although there has been training already. And anyone moving into bond court or arraignments will be trained.

WCT: What is your experience regarding LGBTQ+ issues?

Harris: To be honest, it's been case by case when it comes up. I can't say that I've been involved in a case where [being LGBTQ+] was relevant. But I don't have any great stories [about LGBTQ+ cases]—but maybe that's a good thing. I'm very proud that [trans activist/politician] Precious [Brady-Davis] is supporting my candidacy but I don't just want to hold her up. If you look at my endorsers, it's clear that I'm an ally. [Note: Equality Illinois has also endorsed Harris.]

And, of course, I've been to Pride parades, but I've also been to Bud Billikin parades. Maybe I should be more political with it, but it is what it is. I've been involved but I haven't been extensively involved with LGBTQ+ organizations.

When Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor, [my son] Clayton said, "Ew—those women are kissing each other." I asked, "What's wrong with that?" He said, "It's just like when you and mommy kiss—it's gross." It opened up the opportunity to discuss—and it turned out that gender wasn't an issue, or my kids don't care if another [student] has two parents of the same gender. We don't make [being LGBTQ+] an issue, but we do discuss when the opportunity arises.

WCT: What do you think is the biggest problem for the LGBTQ+ community?

Harris: Hate crimes. They're up. There are still a lot of people with issues like transphobia or homophobia. We want to hold people accountable.

As an attorney, I understand First Amendment rights and people being able to say what they want to say. But when we cross that line, we're going to be diligent in prosecuting. One of the things I want to do is put out a hate-crimes dashboard that would show where there's a concentration of them. If this information is out there, we can navigate where resources are.

And there's discrimination in the workforce. We want to make sure there are no physical [situations] that cross the line. We can be aggressive in making sure that people are protected. People need to know that they're protected.

WCT: What's your biggest advantage and disadvantage in this race?

Harris: I think my biggest advantage is my background. I have the legal background—one that's focused on the safety aspect. But then I also have this lived experience, having come from Howard University School of Law. So we grew up in advocacy, fighting for people's rights, right? It's about advocating for community.

This is the second-largest prosecutor's office in the nation. What happens here reverberates throughout the nation—so you need someone who can manage this office. And we're dealing with cases from traffic stops and jaywalking to mass murderers and rapists. You need someone who can manage all that, with 1,300 people—not someone who can learn to manage it. I've handled agencies with more than 5,000 people. When the governor [Blagojevich] got arrested, I had to manage every state employee; that was, like, 60,000 people who were responsible for 12 million residents.

This is the office that convicted [serial killer] John Wayne Gacy as well as Hadiya Pendleton's killer—but it's also the office that exonerated 250 people who never should've been in jail. Safety and justice—we can do both on an incredible scale.

WCT: And your biggest disadvantage?

Harris: I would say it's perception. I think that, looking at me, people might think I will tip the balance of the scale more on the justice side and less on the safety side.

WCT: Why would people think that?

Harris: Well, you see a Black man on the South Side of Chicago. I never shy away from race and I teach a course at the University of Chicago on policing race. There was narrative on Twitter that because I teach about policing race and because I'm backed by Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, that I'm not focused on safety—but that's not true.

The Illinois primary election will take place Tuesday, March 19. Clayton Harris III's campaign website is www.claytonharrisforcook.com .


This article shared 11628 times since Fri Feb 16, 2024
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