State's attorney race makes its best case
By Mickey Ciokajlo and Robert Becker | Tribune staff reporters
January 11, 2008
But with the primary election less than four weeks away, the six Democrats vying for the right to try to succeed retiring State's Atty. Richard Devine are gearing up for a final push to break through the clutter.
"This primary is sneaking up on people," said candidate Larry Suffredin. "You're going to see a flurry of television ads. I think you're going to see a flurry of endorsements."
At stake is the party's nomination to seek a $100 million office with more than 900 lawyers and the power to launch investigations, issue subpoenas and convene grand juries. Its size and stature makes it one of the highest-profile political jobs in Illinois.
With the county Democratic Party not making an endorsement and a large field that headlines with Devine's top two aides, two Chicago aldermen and a County Board member, the state's attorney tilt arguably is the hottest primary not featuring the names Clinton, Obama, McCain and Giuliani.
It's the first time in 40 years that the incumbent state's attorney isn't seeking re-election and the contest so far is stacking up as a battle of prosecutorial experience versus political pedigree.
Robert Milan, Devine's first assistant state's attorney, has increased his public profile by speaking for the office on a few recent attention-grabbing cases.
At a Thursday debate sponsored by the Chicago Bar Association, however, Milan, 46, found himself on the defensive on the issues of Chicago police torture and police shootings. Milan lashed out at tough questioning, saying the overwhelming majority of police shootings are justified and pointing out that he was in college when the alleged police torture under former Cmdr. Jon Burge was taking place.
In his closing remarks, Milan said: "We've been painted tonight as racists, the men and women of the Cook County state's attorney's office. Let me tell you something, we're not. ... We've been painted as people that turn a blind eye to police corruption, which is just completely untrue."
Anita Alvarez, 47, is third in Devine's pecking order and stresses the need to have a trained prosecutor rather than a politician running the office. She's also billing herself as the only woman and only Hispanic in the contest. Her campaign has shown few signs of momentum thus far, however.
On Thursday, she hammered home her experience message in a veiled dig at Suffredin, who has come under fire for his longtime career as a lobbyist of casino, tobacco and pharmaceutical interests. "The only lobbying I've done is for victims [of crime]," Alvarez said.
Suffredin, 60, a County Board member from Evanston, points to his endorsement by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who called Suffredin the "purest" candidate in the race.
With six candidates in the Democratic field, campaign insiders say the winner could very easily claim the nomination with less than 40 percent of the vote. Nailing down support from ward and township organizations is proving key after the county party deadlocked among Alds. Tom Allen (38th), Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) and Suffredin.
Brookins long has made clear he expects to benefit from a large turnout of African-American voters who will be heading to the polls to cast ballots for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. As the only major black candidate in a primary where black voters could account for 40 percent or more of the ballots cast, Brookins, 44, is widely viewed as a front-runner. He's also been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and U.S. Rep. Danny Davis.
The other black candidate is Evanston defense lawyer Tommy Brewer, 56, a perennial candidate. Among organized labor, Allen, 55, won the nod from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Chicago Federation of Labor while Suffredin is backed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union. Milan has struggled to gain traction, losing to Allen both the FOP endorsement and support of the politically powerful 19th Ward, his native territory.
Devine, thus far, has remained on the sidelines, happy to share supportive words about Milan and Alvarezbut refusing to make an endorsement.
As the contest heats up, Brookins might face increased scrutiny over a civil case in which the landlord for his law firm and campaign office sued after Brookins fell behind on his rent payments. Brookins also had several tax liens filed against his law firm a few years ago by the Internal Revenue Service.
Brookins said his firm was struggling financially at the time but the taxes have since been paid. "I don't owe the IRS any money," he said.
The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to face Republican Tony Peraica of Riverside, who lost the 2006 election for county board president to Todd Stroger.
The Democratic debate will air at 6:30 p.m. Sunday on WYCC-Ch. 20.