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State's Attorney: A True Outsider

He’s got plenty of experience and he’s beholden to no one. Why doesn’t anyone take Tommy Brewer seriously?



State's attorney candidate Tommy Brewer started off the week of January 14 by absorbing some bad news. "I just found out that the Sun-Times endorsed Larry Suffredin," he told me by cell phone as he drove to the Cook County courthouse at 26th and California.

The paper praised Suffredin, a county commissioner and self-declared reformer, for declaring that the status quo had to change in the state's attorney's office, which critics have slammed for its role in dozens of wrongful convictions, halfhearted response to police misconduct, inaction on political corruption, and low minority staffing levels.

But for Brewer, a criminal defense attorney who lives in Evanston, that wasn't the part that stung. "They said I don't have leadership qualities," he said. "I'm smarting a little from that."

The Tribune had yet to announce its endorsement, but Brewer wasn't expecting anything there—that paper refers to him as a "perennial candidate" when it bothers to refer to him at all. "That's not fair," he told me. "I have at least as many qualifications as the other people in this race."

And arguably more, especially in a year when independence and change are leading campaign themes. For the first time in decades, there's no incumbent in the race for state's attorney. After three terms Richard Devine is stepping down, and all six Democrats vying to replace him are talking about how they'd improve and reform an office with about 900 attorneys, a $100 million budget, and extraordinary power in deciding how to charge and prosecute crimes.

Suffredin has promised to aggressively fight public corruption and crack down on gun violence. Aldermen Howard Brookins Jr. and Tom Allen have ripped Devine's office for not making it a priority to go after bad cops. Even the two veteran prosecutors fighting for the Democratic nomination are talking about change: Robert Milan, Devine's top deputy, and Anita Alvarez, the county's third-ranking prosecutor, both say they would improve community outreach. "I recognize that changes need to be made," Alvarez said. "I don't have the last word in my position now. That's why I need this position—so I can have the last word."

Yet all of them have been blasted as insiders by the others. Milan and Alvarez are associated with Devine, who's been lambasted for not doing more to take down former police commander and serial torturer Jon Burge and accused of ignoring corruption in the administration of his ally Mayor Daley. Brookins and Allen are tarred simply by the title "alderman," which conjures a timid creature known for rubber-stamping the mayor's patronage-laden budgets and using his money and foot soldiers for reelection. Suffredin's been criticized for his work as a lobbyist for tobacco and casinos.

Brewer, who's 57, is no insider, but he does have some impressive credentials. He grew up in public housing on the south side and attended public schools before heading to elite Williams College in Massachusetts and then Northwestern University law school. "I wanted to be a defense attorney because my mother loved Perry Mason," he says.

For nearly 20 years, though, he worked in law enforcement and prosecution, first as an FBI agent, then as a prosecutor for the Cook County state's attorney's gang unit, a medical fraud investigator for the Massachusetts attorney general, and a hearing officer for the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. "Like most prosecutors, I always used to ask the judge for the maximum time. We'd get a conviction and then go out and celebrate. What were we celebrating? That someone was put away? And the victims' families were never satisfied either," he says. "What causes these things? We have to address that. I didn't get any satisfaction out of a guilty verdict."

In 1996 he went into private practice to specialize in criminal defense. While he believes most police are on the up-and-up, Brewer says he's amazed at how many of his clients have been charged on flimsy, even concocted, evidence. Even in the cases where his clients have clearly been guilty, Brewer's grown frustrated watching them go to jail and then get sent back to their old communities with little chance of finding work. He's concluded that the county should set up alternative programs to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail—perhaps with a new bond system—and that state laws should be changed to expunge their records.

Brewer ran for Cook County sheriff against incumbent Michael Sheahan in 1994, and would have run on two other occasions if challenges to his nominating petitions hadn't bumped him off the ballot. Brewer says he felt he had no choice but to take on Sheahan: "Somebody had to."

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, evidence exonerated several men on death row—most of them prosecuted by Devine's office. In 2004, Brewer decided to try for his job. Devine crushed him in the Democratic primary, taking 82 percent of the vote.

Last August, when Devine announced that he wouldn't seek reelection, candidates for the job started lining up. But Brewer says he'd already decided to run again, regardless of what Devine was doing. "The problems that originally got me to run still exist," he says. "I would like someone else to do it, but I think we need leadership."

Brewer doesn't think any of the other candidates has the political independence or will to make substantive reforms. Where were they in 2004? "None of them would have run if Devine was in the race," he says.

Brewer says he loves to campaign, but denies he's running just for the sake of it. If he really were a "perennial candidate" desperate to hold any office at all, he says, he would have worked his legal connections and won nomination for a judgeship.

Since there's no incumbent and party leaders have divided their support among the candidates, Brewer thinks he has a shot at winning. But he doesn't have countywide name recognition or anything close to the campaign operations of the other candidates. He estimates he's spent about $35,000 of his own money on the race, and he doesn't have any paid campaign staff. His volunteers, he says, are "true believers."

A few minutes after learning about the Sun-Times endorsement, Brewer was in front of the criminal courthouse, maneuvering to put flyers in the hands of people on the way in like a linebacker positioning himself to stop the run. As a volunteer held up a campaign sign nearby, Brewer ran through the highlights of his resumé in one breathless sentence that didn't end as much as it started again: "Hi, I'm Tommy Brewer, Democratic candidate for state's attorney, former Cook County prosecutor and FBI agent, grew up in public housing, I'm in favor of a new kind of justice here, punch 61 on February 5, thanks, I'm Tommy Brewer, Democratic candidate . . . "

It was below 20 degrees, but he didn't wear a hat or gloves and appeared taken aback when someone noted this. "What? Come on—this is Chicago!"

His campaigning was frequently interrupted by shouted greetings ("Mr. State's Attorney!" "You did great in the debate last night!") and hugs from friends and professional acquaintances—other defense attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors, and current and former clients. "See," he said. "The folks here would love to have me. They interface with me all the time, and they're worried about who's going to come in here next."

But Brewer was well aware that he needed to find some way to raise his profile for people outside the tight-knit legal circles of the criminal courthouse. A little before 10 AM, a cluster of TV cameras and photographers burst out of the building, followed shortly by two bodyguards flanking R & B singer R. Kelly, in court for a hearing on child pornography charges. An SUV rolled up to the sidewalk in front, and Kelly and his entourage moved hastily toward it with the pack of media scurrying alongside them.

As Kelly got near the SUV, Tyrone Tucker, Brewer's volunteer, ran to get behind him and held the sign up for the cameras. Brewer followed, but Kelly was in the car and gone before he got there.

Tucker shook his head. "Tommy, you should've slugged R. Kelly," he said. "That'd get some good coverage."

Brewer laughed. "A beatdown!" he said. "I may have even gotten some of Milan's constituency then."   v

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