Battle between Attorney General Kwame Raoul and Thomas DeVore shifts from courtroom to polling booth

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The race for Illinois attorney general between first-term Democratic incumbent Kwame Raoul and Republican Thomas DeVore is a rematch of sorts, though the candidates haven’t previously faced each other at the ballot box.

Instead, Raoul’s office over the past two years has repeatedly squared off in court against DeVore, a civil attorney from downstate Sorento, to defend the state against lawsuits challenging Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s school mask mandate and other executive orders aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

While DeVore did succeed in temporarily blocking some of Pritzker’s rules, there hasn’t been a final ruling in his favor in any of the more than 30 lawsuits he filed against the state.

COVID-19 has faded into the background as crime and abortion have become key issues in the race for attorney general and other offices up and down the Nov. 8 ballot. But the conflict over the state’s pandemic response remains at the heart of the contest to determine who will be the state’s chief legal officer for the next four years.

DeVore, 53, whose only experience in elected office was a two-year stint on the Bond County Board a decade ago, argues that, regardless of his win-loss record in the courtroom, his willingness to take on the governor demonstrates his devotion to protecting the people from government overreach.

A lawyer since 2011 who has the words “liberty” and “freedom” tattooed on his forearms, he’s counting on the grassroots following he’s established over the past two years through his COVID-19 lawsuits and tough-on-crime stances to carry him to victory over a better-funded opponent, as it did in the June GOP primary.

“If you actually travel the state and you talk to people, they’re frustrated with elected officials arbitrarily making decisions that don’t make any sense to them,” DeVore said at a recent online candidate forum hosted by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul greets people Oct. 6, 2022, at the Palmer House Hilton during a luncheon hosted by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul greets people Oct. 6, 2022, at the Palmer House Hilton during a luncheon hosted by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Thomas DeVore, the GOP nominee for Illinois attorney general, talks about the SAFE-T Act on Sept. 28, 2022, outside Cook County Jail and Leighton Criminal Court Building.

Thomas DeVore, the GOP nominee for Illinois attorney general, talks about the SAFE-T Act on Sept. 28, 2022, outside Cook County Jail and Leighton Criminal Court Building. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Raoul, 58, is a former Cook County prosecutor from Chicago who succeeded Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate before being elected four years ago to replace four-term Attorney General Lisa Madigan. He was admitted to the bar in 1993.

He contends his office was on the right side of both the law and public health in defending the state’s actions on the pandemic, and that DeVore’s largely unsuccessful lawsuits demonstrate his opponent’s lack of qualifications for the office.

“My greatest fear of Tom DeVore being empowered in the attorney general’s office is that he would abuse the resources of serving in that capacity the same way he has abused the courts’ resources with COVID-related litigation,” Raoul said in a recent interview.

Raoul also pointed to DeVore’s history of making statements on social media that indicate he would, if elected, investigate political adversaries, including Pritzker, establishment Republicans and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, whom DeVore has criticized as being too lenient on criminals.

“That suggests someone that would not be focused on trying to collaborate with law enforcement to fight gun violence, not be focused on trying to fight organized retail crime, not be focused on trying to protect consumers but settling personal scores,” Raoul said.

The fact that Raoul raised issues of gun violence and retail theft reflects how much crime has moved to the forefront of the campaign for an office that plays a key role in law enforcement in addition to duties such as representing the state in civil matters and protecting consumers.

Like other Republicans across the country this year, DeVore has been hammering his Democratic opponent on the issue as crime has swelled in Chicago and other Illinois cities, but also nationwide during the pandemic.

“Being tough on crime is an absolute necessity. It’s not happening,” he said during the recent candidate forum.

DeVore and Illinois Republicans have been focusing their attacks against Democrats on the SAFE-T Act, a sweeping criminal justice overhaul Pritzker signed into law last year that, among other changes, will end cash bail on Jan. 1. The law is facing a barrage of legal challenges from county state’s attorneys.

If elected, DeVore said he would file a lawsuit against the governor and General Assembly, which is likely to remain in Democratic control, alleging the law is unconstitutional. He finds issues with both the way the law was passed and its content, particularly the elimination of cash bail.

“The judge is stuck with two extremes: just let them go on their own promise or recognizance, or to detain them without any opportunity to post any bond or to otherwise bail out,” he said.

That creates “constitutional problems,” DeVore said, and could lead to people who “probably shouldn’t be let out” going free while others who deserve an opportunity for bail are detained. He expressed a willingness to work with lawmakers to find common ground.

“If we want to go back to the drawing board and talk about some of the things in that law that they want to work on, we can do that, that’s fine,” he said.

Raoul has acknowledged that there are changes that could make the law more clear — for example, spelling out that police are allowed to remove someone from private property before issuing a trespassing ticket, and clarifying a judge’s ability to detain a defendant who poses a risk to another person or the public at large.

Raoul said he agrees that access to cash should not decide whether someone’s kept in jail while awaiting trial.

“If we depart in this conversation from the standpoint that money should not be the determining factor, that a gangbanger, a high-level gangbanger who is a threat to the public, shouldn’t be able to post bond and be back out on the streets such that he or she can do harm, we can have a conversation on looking at the language that exists right now in the SAFE-T Act and tweaking it to make sure that any loopholes are cleaned up,” Raoul said.

Raoul holds up his experience as a county prosecutor and the work he’s done in his first term — including hiring veteran prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office and the state’s attorneys’ office in Cook and DuPage counties to help lead the office — as evidence that he’s better qualified to deal with crime.

He also touts his collaborations with state and federal law enforcement agencies and initiatives such as a new law targeting organized retail crime and the creation of an online platform for tracing guns used in crimes.

DeVore, Raoul notes, “has no experience dealing with law enforcement matters, engaging with law enforcement partners.”

What DeVore does have is the backing of the Illinois and Chicago chapters of the Fraternal Order of Police.

If elected, however, he could find himself in conflict with the FOP due to the attorney general’s role in overseeing the implementation of a federal consent decree aimed at reforming the Chicago Police Department. The consent decree, which the Chicago FOP opposes, followed a U.S. Department of Justice report in 2017 that found the city police engaged in a “pattern and practice” of excessive force.

Madigan, Raoul’s predecessor, sued the city to force the agreement in 2017 when it appeared then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel might strike an out-of-court settlement with the Trump administration.

Raoul inherited the case, and the city entered into the consent decree after he took office in 2019. “CPD was quite delinquent” in meeting deadlines in the early days, but momentum has picked up, he said.

“We have a real opportunity with this process if we don’t treat it as a box-checking exercise and if there’s true commitment to doing the work,” Raoul said.

DeVore gave no details when asked how he would handle the consent decree.

“It’s impossible to answer that question from the outside looking in as a candidate because I’ve not been involved in those intricate conversations,” he said.

He understands the consent decree’s initial purpose and sees “nothing wrong with what it was trying to accomplish,” he said, but added that the “interested parties” need to be brought together to see if it is still needed. He has not yet spoken with the FOP about the consent decree, he said.

While crime has dominated much of the race, Raoul, in campaign speeches and in a television ad that began airing this month, also has highlighted a pair of issues likely to resonate with a key constituency in statewide elections, female voters, particularly in the Chicago suburbs.

One is defending reproductive rights, the other is a long-shot bid to revive the Equal Rights Amendment, which Illinois ratified in 2018, decades after a deadline set by Congress.

His campaign said it plans to spend $2.8 million to run the ad online and on broadcast and cable television in the Chicago and Champaign-Springfield-Decatur markets, evidence of the wide funding gap between Raoul and DeVore, whose campaign has an active social media presence but hasn’t done any broadcast advertising.

DeVore started July with less than $16,000 in his campaign fund after winning a GOP primary in which he was vastly outspent by the second-place finisher. As of Friday, he’d reported raising more than $478,000 in additional contributions, including a $250,001 loan he made to his campaign that lifted contribution limits for both candidates.

With the limits off, Raoul received a $1 million contribution from Pritzker’s campaign fund and has reported raising more than $597,000 in other contributions since July 1. That’s on top of the $1.1 million in cash he had on hand at the end of June.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning federal abortion protections in Roe v. Wade, Raoul has highlighted his support for abortion rights, including his office’s defense of an ongoing lawsuit challenging a state law that enshrined access to the procedure as a “fundamental right” under state law.

The lawsuit, brought by the Illinois Baptist State Association and two other employers, objects to a provision of the law that requires health plans that offer pregnancy-related care to also provide coverage for abortion on the grounds of religious freedom.

Raoul also has been promoting his efforts, in conjunction with the attorney general of Nevada, to have the Equal Rights Amendment adopted into the U.S. Constitution. The attorneys general argued their case before a federal appeals court in Washington late last month.

DeVore, who has described himself as “a pro-life guy,” said he would continue to defend the state’s Reproductive Health Act because he isn’t aware of any constitutional problems with it.

He would not, however, continue Raoul’s efforts to get the ERA adopted if elected.

“To the extent that we still have additional work to do to protect women’s rights, I’m all about that,” he said, while calling Raoul’s effort to enshrine the amendment “pandering for votes,” in a recent Twitter post.

Since 1972, when Congress sent the amendment to the states for ratification, much has changed, DeVore wrote, including “biological males … trying to take over women’s sports & tampon dispensers in boys locker rooms” — references to transgender athletes competing in women’s sports and a state law requiring public middle and high schools to provide free feminine hygiene products in all bathrooms.

DeVore has a history of making critical comments about the transgender community on social media, including another recent post in which he asked rhetorically whether the “gender-fluid, all-inclusive, woke liberal agenda … simultaneously rearing its head in every nation worldwide” is “a random phenomenon” or “a concerted effort by very wealthy special interests?”

Under Raoul, the attorney general’s office has played an active role in defending the rights of transgender people and the broader LGBTQ community.

Earlier this month, Raoul joined 17 other attorneys general in opposing a North Carolina public employee insurance plan’s denial of coverage for gender-affirming health care treatment. Raoul previously joined similar coalitions in opposing an Indiana school district’s transgender bathroom ban, Florida’s so-called Parental Rights in Education or “Don’t Say Gay” law, and an Alabama law making it a crime to assist minors in accessing gender-affirming medication.

DeVore said his approach to such social issues, which he said he would not actively litigate, mark “a fundamental difference” between him and Raoul.

“It’s my role to protect laws that are passed by the people. It’s not my role to get into the policy stuff on social issues. … That’s using the attorney general’s office inappropriately,” he said.

Raoul contends that it’s DeVore who would use the office inappropriately if elected. Aside from his threats to investigate his adversaries, Raoul points to DeVore’s track record of taking critics to court.

In recent years, the Republican candidate has sued a special education teacher and two others for sharing a Facebook post in which DeVore referred to students working a school concession stand as “window lickers”; Pritzker, for calling DeVore a “grifter” during a news conference; and his girlfriend’s mother, whom he accuses of publishing a derogatory article under a pseudonym.

The case against the girlfriend’s mother is pending, but the other lawsuits have been dismissed.

“Lawyers, whether they’re attorney general or independently, can be sanctioned for abuse of filing lawsuits,” Raoul said during the candidate forum.

DeVore, who previously refused to answer questions from the Tribune about the lawsuits, responded to Raoul’s criticism by accusing the attorney general of defaming him in comments about the lawsuit involving his use of the term “window lickers,” which is generally recognized as a derogatory term for intellectually disabled individuals.

“What you just said on this camera is defamatory because you weren’t there,” DeVore said. “You don’t know anything about it.”

In response to questions from journalists on the panel about whether he would continue filing libel and defamation lawsuits if elected, DeVore lashed out.

“Whoever asked that question, I put them in the category of people that need to stick to reporting,” he said. “If someone defamed me anytime in the future, am I going to defend myself? Absolutely.

“But to suggest that means you’re going to go out and just start filing lawsuits against people at will, that’s a poor choice of words and completely irresponsible for whoever asked that question.”

He defended himself by pointing to a recent letter from a Pritzker campaign attorney warning television stations that they risked legal action by airing a political action committee ad that featured an allegedly false claim by Pritzker’s primary opponent.

Libertarian Party candidate Daniel Robin of Schaumburg also is on the ballot.

dpetrella@chicagotribune.com

jsheridan@chicagotribune.com

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October 16, 2022 at 08:27AM

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