Illinois AG brings his South Side upbringing into criminal justice

Color is hardly the only factor. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris climbed the ladder of California politics as the state’s attorney general before getting elected to the Senate. Yet while she’s aligned herself with the movement to make a less punitive criminal justice system, her past tough-on-crime positions as San Francisco district attorney dogged her presidential run among the party’s left wing. And Black AGs are in charge of studying some the most heated police killings of the year with Minnesota’s Keith Ellison investigating Floyd’s death and Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a rising star in the GOP who spoke at the Republican National Convention last month, is facing criticism for the pace of his probe into Breonna Taylor’s killing in Louisville.

Raoul has rallied other attorneys general seeking clearer authority from Congress to pursue pattern-or-practice discrimination probes into troubled police forces that the Justice Department under President Donald Trump resists doing. And he is pushing for Illinois to license its police officers, an idea that languished in the state Legislature for years, including his own attempts to resurrect the issue.

Now the state’s Legislative Black Caucus is crafting new criminal justice and victims’ rights legislation — a “Black Agenda” — to be considered in November when lawmakers briefly reconvene. Raoul, who said he also wants attention and “comprehensive, effective services” for crime victims, is on the phone or in Zoom meetings with state legislators and law enforcement officials hashing out the details.

“I’ve heard the attorney general recount a story often — about a shooting outside his home. His son was trying to get inside and officers on the scene expressed an attitude that was less than guardian or protective,” said state Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., an active member of the caucus who has worked with Raoul for years. “The frustration that you hear when he recounts that story illustrates what many Black people feel in those moments. That’s the type of experience he brings to the attorney general job.”

Raoul, who recovered from Covid-19 this summer, has pushed back at Trump, joining other Democratic attorneys general in suing the administration for greater protections for immigrants and to challenge White House efforts to limit the 2020 Census. But he’s also sought support from the U.S. attorney and local special agents with the FBI, DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to talk about tackling crime, especially gun violence and drug trafficking, which remain stubborn issues in Chicago and subject to Trump’s public ire.

The Floyd case and his own experiences facing a police officer’s gun have prompted Raoul to push the Chicago Police Department to collect data on all incidents in which an officer points a weapon at a member of the public. That work is part of a federal consent decree established in 2018. “My office held strong on including that requirement in the face of resistance from CPD, and I’m determined to ensure it’s implemented,” he said.

Raoul’s experiences growing up on Chicago’s South Side, seeing gun violence outside his front door, navigating Illinois politics and surviving cancer, fuel his ambitions and leave some nerves close to the surface — something that can be seen as a liability.

“I’m a guy who wears my emotion on my sleeve,” he said. As a state senator, he was known to tear up during committee debates.

There is a larger question at hand: In a world in which more diverse voices are starting to reshape the corporate world, media, Congress and the criminal justice system, how do those people — let’s be clear, Black and brown people — get elected to these posts? While Black candidates and officials do make successful runs for many state and federal legislative seats, short of Obama’s presidency, it’s exceedingly rare to see one build a coalition that unlocks statewide support.

“There is an opportunity to right some of the wrongs of these systems by having more diverse leaders who come from these communities, who give lived experiences about how law enforcement treats people. It’s critical,” said Quentin James, president of The Collective PAC, which promotes African Americans running for local, state and federal offices. Collective PAC’s numbers are startling: Of the 346 statewide elected offices in the U.S., 18 are held by African Americans. Five percent.