Democrats vie to be party's state's attorney candidate

CHICAGO Wednesday night's debate was round one in a democratic primary fight that promises three weeks of hard-hitting political ads and bare-knuckle confrontations because six very different candidates are running for Cook County state's attorney. They include two veteran prosecutors, a former FBI agent and three elected officials, including one who is taking a lot of heat for also being a corporate lobbyist.

"I am the one candidate with the 35-year record of fighting to change things," said candidate Larry Suffredin.

County commissioner Suffredin called himself a proven reformer who can fix an office that's broken. And, he said, he resents the status quo under Bob Milan, Dick Devine's top deputy, and Anita Alvarez, Devine's number three lieutenant. But they're firing back at Suffredin for making big bucks as a corporate lobbyist.

"How can someone stand up here and say he is a reformer, say he is progressive, when he has spent the last 30 years of his career making money off special interest groups," said Milan.

"This office should not be a rung on somebody's political ladder. It is just too important," said Alvarez.

Alderman Tom Allen is suggesting city council colleague Howard Brookins is a deadbeat when it comes to paying rent and business taxes.

"I am not being dragged into court over and over like he is," said Allen.

"My integrity has never been questioned. I have never done anything illegal. I have been above board," said Brookins.

All of the candidates agreed on the need to restore public confidence in the state's attorney's office, in part, by hiring more minority attorneys, aggressively prosecuting police misconduct and public corruption and getting criminals off the streets. But they obviously disagreed on who's the best qualified.

Suffredin has the support of the party's progressive wing. Bob Milan is endorsed by his boss, Devine. Howard Brookins has a lot of African-American politicians on his side. And Allen scores the most labor endorsements. So this is the local race to watch on February 5. And the winner of the primary faces Republican Tony Peraica, a Cook County commissioner who is running unopposed.

The Background of the race thus far

This is the first time in 40 years an incumbent Cook County state's attorney is not running for re-election.

The race is wide open. Four Democrats from outside the office say it is broken and has to be fixed. And the two insiders say that while it may need a little tweaking, the office is solid, in large part, because of them.

"I am pleased to give my wholehearted support to Bob Milan," said current state's attorney Dick Devine earlier this week.

The boss endorsed his top assistant, veteran prosecutor Milan, who says the office needs an apolitical insider with a track record and reform potential, which means him.

But that description also fits another top Devine deputy, Anita Alvarez, who has an additional distinction as the first Hispanic woman to run for the office. Both of the veteran prosecutors are emphasizing experience and commitment.

"I'm the full package. I have the professional experience and also have the passion," said Alvarez.

"I'm overwhelmingly most qualified person for this job," said Milan.

But change trumps experience, according to the outsiders in the race. And they're using the issue of police misconduct, symbolized by the torture of homicide suspects by former commander Jon Burge's unit to attack Devine's administration. Chicago Alderman Tom Allen, the candidate of organized labor, called Devine's failure to prosecute Burge a cancer on the community. And county board commissioner Larry Suffredin, from the progressive wing of the party, says Devine hasn't done enough to go after corruption in general.

"I've seen that the justice system is broken. The status quo needs to be changed," said Suffredin.

"I've been a fighter for underdogs and for people that can't fight for themselves my whole public career," said Allen.

The other change candidates include a second Chicago alderman, Howard Brookins, who says the Devine administration has also failed to diversify the state's attorney's office by hiring enough minority prosecutors. And that's an allegation echoed by the other African American in the race, perennial candidate Tommy Brewer.

"I've been advocating changes in the criminal justice system for 25 years," said Brewer.

"This office suffers from a group-think mentality - too many people with the same ideas and the same backgrounds. We need a diversity of thought in this office," said Brookins.

All of the outsiders have been very critical of the Devine administration. And that has irritated the insiders, especially Devine's chosen successor, Milan.

For the next two weeks, this race will be heating up toward a February 5 showdown - the primary date.

There is one Republican running for state's attorney, Cook County commissioner Tony Peraica, the unsuccessful candidate for county board president last year. He is running unopposed and will therefore represent Republicans in the general election for the office.
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