March 15’s Cook County election will include on the Democratic primary ballot the State’s Attorney position. Three candidates seek the nomination incumbent Anita Alverez, Kim Foxx, and Donna More.
The State’s Attorney office is responsible for prosecuting criminal cases in Cook County, and with that responsibility comes the discretion to bring charges against anyone arrested, and the opposite responsibility to determine not to bring charges for either public policy reasons or a lack of prosecutable evidence.
Donna More seeks to replace Anita Alvarez in part because of the controversy surrounding Ms. Alvarez’s 400-day delay in bringing charges against the police officer who allegedly shot and killed teenaged Laquan McDonald. Ms. More argues that her combination of experience as both a federal and state prosecutor, albeit years ago, as well as her independence from political influences, makes her the best candidate to take over the office.
Donna More grew up in Evanston. “I went to Oakton School, which is still around, then to Chute junior high, and then to Evanston Township, and played tennis on the tennis team,” she said. “I went skating when it was called Dyche Stadium and they froze the field to have skating there. [Evanston has] changed but it’s still the same.”
After Evanston, Ms. More obtained an undergraduate degree from Tufts University in Boston, before returning home to get a master’s degree from Northwestern. She then went to Georgetown law school.
After graduating from Georgetown, Ms. More “came back home and went to work in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, where I rose to be in the felony trial division over at 26th and California. I was in two different felony courtrooms, and tried hundreds of bench trials, probably 15 juries. I was a supervisor in appeals, I was a supervisor in felony review, I argued I don’t know how many cases in the appellate court, argued a case in the state supreme court. So I sort of did the whole office,” she explained.
She said she spent about five and a half years in the State’s Attorney’s office trying “everything from murders, rapes drug cases, burglaries – kind of the full gamut.
“After the State’s Attorney’s office I went to the U.S. Attorney’s office,” she said. “I probably did another 10 juries or so over there, argued in the 7th Circuit [Court of Appeals].” While working for the federal government, she was recruited to become “the first general counsel for the Illinois Gaming Board…. This was in 1991. The statute [permitting riverboat gambling] was passed in 90, I think.” She was charged with drafting the Illinois rules and regulations governing gambling.
“From a legal standpoint it was a really fun job, because it’s really creative. There’s nothing there. I didn’t know how to gamble. I didn’t know how to play – I wasn’t a card player. I understood the concepts of blackjack. You know, I had to learn to play craps, just because you’re writing rules, you are writing about how to prevent cheating, so you have to understand the game before you can understand how to cheat.”
Asked if working for the Gaming Board presented any possible conflict of interest, Ms. More said, “There’s no real intersection between gaming and being State’s Attorney other than the one boat that’s in Cook County; if they had a theft I would prosecute it.”
After the gaming board, Ms. More went into private practice, where she has worked as an attorney ever since. “I do regulatory work, I do civil litigation, I do some pro bono work and so I am managing partner of the Chicago office for Fox Rothschild; we opened their Chicago office about a year ago, and they have 18 offices and 700-plus lawyers nationwide, so I sit on the management committee of the whole firm as well,” she said.
Ms. More entered the race because she wants to reform the State’s Attorney’s office. “To me,” she said,” there are two things that you need to do in the State’s Attorney’s office. The first one is, you have to prosecute crime no matter who commits it. And the second thing is, you have to be transparent. For the last seven years, I have seen the office do neither of those things. I believe given my background and my experience [and] my independence, that I could do something about that.
“I’m a parent, I grew up here, I live in the city, and I love the city. It was very disconcerting to me to see what was going on, so I decided that I could change it. I could change the office, and I could change the criminal justice system.
“It’s just enough of a dangerous amount of idealism,” she said with a smile.
The fact that she has not been a prosecutor since the early ’90s should not be a deterrent, she said. “I follow it, I read the opinions coming down, I see where the problems are. I still have a good handle on what’s going on in the office and in the criminal justice system.”
One central focus of a More-run office would be guns and gun violence, she said, adding, “I think the stats show that 75% of the gun offenders never see the inside of a jail cell…[we] need to have more appropriate sentencing recommendations for sure… 90% of “the guns that are used in crimes are illegal,” either sales or transfers from one owner to another.
“The first thing is I would have a centralized gun court, not only in the ciy but in the suburban districts as well, so up in Skokie.” A centralized gun court would ensure that prosecutors become “educated on who the players are, and how they work. Let’s make sure the judges are educated, and in that way, you start to have a theory of who’s doing what.”
Further, she said, “you have to use the grand jury.” Through a grand jury, the office can charge low-level operatives and “start building our way up to who the gun trafficker is. We need to utilize the grand jury, and we need to start building our cases to get to the head guys…. you have a very effective tool; listen, that’s how you ultimately get the kingpin.”
Ms. More views the office in broader terms than most. The majority of people in prison are eventually released, she said. “Whoever we send to prison for punishment, at some point, whether it’s two years or five years or 10 years or 20 years, is going to get out of jail. The question is, what happens when they get out… we have to provide – and there was just an article in the Sunday paper about a program, an educational program in the jails. You have to provide these folks tools, so when they get out they don’t revert back to their old ways.”
While providing opportunities for those released from prison is not in the State’s Attorney’s job description, Ms. More said, “I take a very activist view of the State’s Attorney’s office. The bread and butter of what you do is you get cases, you get them ready for trial, you get convictions, you argue them on appeal. But I view the job as being much broader than that at both ends of the spectrum, in terms of what happens to these folks as they’re getting out of prison. What kind of programs do we have in place to try to prevent repeat offenders?” She mentioned a program in the Englewood neighborhood of south Chicago, where ex-cons meet regularly and “they all help each other, they all were gainfully employed, none of them had gone back… they look out for each other, and they mentor each other, and they make sure they have a job. That’s what we need… and that program is operating by itself, in a silo, with not a lot of people knowing about it….
“That’s where we have to do a better job,” said Ms. More. “And I think it’s incumbent upon the State’s Attorney… to help fix the entire justice system, not just the office. Those are the kinds of things I would like to be involved in.”
A holistic approach starts with our youth, she said. “How do we keep our youth from becoming career criminals if in fact they have an entanglement, when they’re young, with the justice system?” She believes in a community-centered approach, she said. “I think what you need to do is, you have to form an alliance. It’s not just the State’s Attorney, it’s everybody. The problem is people don’t talk to each other, and they don’t communicate with each other. And while it sounds simple, it’s sometimes difficult to get all the constituent groups at a table. But you need the State’s Attorney, you need the police, you need the mayor, you need state reps, you need your aldermen, you need the parents, you need the teachers, you need the clergy, and they all have to sit at a table and shine a light,” she said.
Attacking public corruption should also be an important part of the State’s Attorney’s job, she said. “I think we can do more. There are articles in the paper that I read,” she said, “and I say, ‘Wow, that’s interesting. We should investigate that.’ … But to do that requires that you be independent. In my mind, neither of my opponents are independent.”
Independence is a quality Ms. More argues the other candidates lack. Ms. Alvarez is supported by “Ed Burke and Mike Madigan,” she said. “Kim Foxx is Toni Preckwinkle’s person. Toni has raised all the money that’s in Kim Foxx’s campaign fund… my concern is that Toni Preckwinkle controls the budget, she appoints the public defender, and now she wants to have somebody who she can control as State’s Attorney. You don’t get good criminal justice decisions with one person in control of the whole system…I don’t think that the SA office ought to be beholden to the Cook County president.”
In closing, Ms. More said, “We need to have a State’s Attorney that is committed to finding solutions, that is committed to prosecuting crime no matter who commits it, and that is committed to transparency. Everybody’s calling for federal oversight. We should have federal prosecution investigations; we should have federal oversight of everything…I am a former federal prosecutor and state prosecutor. And you know I will roll up my sleeves, I will get this job done, and we will have trust and consistency and fairness in that office. And independence.”