Alvarez & McGinty Out, But Will Anything Change?
Mar. 21, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Bye Anita, Bye Tim.
I have never promised anything but blood, tears, toil, and sweat. Now, however, the bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts.
Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
—Winston Churchill announcing the British victory at the Battle of El Alamein, 1942.
Prosecutors Anita Alvarez of Cook County and Tim McGinty of Cuyahoga County lost their primary elections, largely because of their handling of the Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brelo cases. As both counties are overwhelmingly Democratic, their election to the top post was otherwise virtually assured.
So, what happens now? Will things actually get any better, whether in Chicago and Cleveland or nationally? Part of it depends on their replacements, Kim Foxx and Mike O’Malley. Both of them say the right things. O’Malley:
“[The public] need[s] an individual who is willing to go out and meet with individuals and restore some type of confidence in that office and I’m that individual and I will be doing that. I will be meeting with people I will be talking with people on the streets . It’s going to take a large effort to bring this system back, but I am willing to work with the common pleas judges, the public defenders, all the people who thought they were perhaps bullied in the past will have a partner, and that partner will be me and my team,” said O’Malley.
“My oath as the state’s attorney is to uphold justice on behalf of the people of Illinois, particularly in Cook County. My reassurance is that I take that oath very seriously. I ran for this office to make sure that we had a criminal justice system people can believe in. That’s my duty,” Foxx said.
Which is mostly just the usual political blather. In an interview last year, though, Foxx had some interesting comments about Alvarez, who worked at the Cook County State Attorney’s office at the same time:
When she was elected, I think there was a hope for some cultural sensitivity, and competence, and recognition of the women in the workplace having value, and promoting that.
[But] she took away discretion; she was very much needing to prove that she would be tough on crime, as opposed to thoughtful or smart on crime, and was very much concerned about her image as a state’s attorney, as opposed to what justice looked like.
In short, Alvarez was captured by the system. Foxx’s challenge will be to avoid the same thing, and strike an effective balance between the day-to-day work of prosecuting defendants and being “thoughtful and smart” on crime. Foxx’s background gives some encourgaging signs about her temperament: she grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing project and was homeless for a time in high school. Hopefully, she’ll be able to walk the walk.
For the activists who actually brought out the vote for Foxx and McGinty’s victories, the challenge is a little bit different. Their support had less to do with the challengers’ virtues as it did with the incumbent’s flaws:
“McGinty’s loss is a reflection of grassroots organizing,” Rian Brown, a lead organizer of Cleveland’s Black Lives Matter chapter, told ATTN. “We did a lot of work across the city — educational work to activate folks to show how McGinty impacted the community.”
Tess Raser, an activist in Chicago with the group Assata’s daughters, makes that explicit:
Assata’s Daughters doesn’t endorse [Foxx], and never did. ‘We weren’t working with a political candidate,” Raser said. “Our goal was getting Anita Alvarez out of office.”
She continued, “We aren’t on team Kim. We’re on team ‘for our people.’ No prosecuting attorney is ever going to be that team.”
Raser went on to describe her group as “police and prison abolitionist,” which is probably further than most people would go, but Raser has the right idea about the political process:
We’ll be holding [Foxx] accountable in the same ways as Anita Alvarez. We’re not asleep now that we got Anita Alvarez out of office.
It isn’t about one candidate, or one election. What goes for Alvarez and McGinty goes for every other elected official. Ultimately, it’s up to the voting public to make sure that public servants actually serve the public interest. And that’s true from the smallest village hall all the way up to the Capitol and the Oval Office.
The quality of our public discourse seems to get worse, year after year. Fortunately, the cure is both incredibly simple and incredibly difficult. An engaged electorate, informed on the issues and committed to staying that way, is the best quality control for our politics. After all, to paraphrase Justice Brandeis, the most important political office in America is the office of citizen.
This time, at least, the People’s representatives were held to account by the People. This is how it’s supposed to work. Hopefully other prosecutors have been reminded that the electorate’s endorsement matters more than the police union’s. It’s up to us to keep it that way.