Anita Alvarez may have launched her first run for office without any political experience or Democratic Party support, but just a year later she looks like she’s figured a few things out.

Two weeks before Election Day, the Democratic nominee for Cook County state’s attorney was at her alma mater, Chicago-Kent College of Law, fielding detailed questions about her plans for the office and her positions on a host of legal and social issues. Sounding confident and well-informed, Alvarez answered most of them head on—since launching her campaign in the fall of 2007, she’d been asked dozens of similar questions about gun control (she favors tougher restrictions on sales), drug sentencing (she supports counseling instead of incarceration for users), and racial disparities in sentencing (she acknowledged that African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately charged and convicted of crimes, but said her bigger concern is that that they’re also more likely to be victims)). Though the responses were carefully crafted, and Alvarez offered them in a serious, almost stern tone, she still managed to sound unrehearsed—like she was leveling with this particular audience, telling them that, truth be told, some people need an ass-kicking and she’s willing and able to administer one.

In several instances, though, Alvarez pulled the old political trick of changing the subject—without breaking her rhythm—to something she’d rather talk about. Like when she was asked what she thought of that morning’s federal indictment of accused serial torturer Jon Burge and why the state’s attorney’s office didn’t go after the former police commander during her 22 years there.

“We cooperated with the special prosecutors when they were, in fact, assigned to this—we gave them everything they wanted,” she said, referring to the ineffective investigation completed in 2006. Then she moved away from Burge to talk about about her intolerance for police misconduct.

“I don’t think there’s room to have officers who are abusive on the force,” she said. “I’ve worked with some very good police officers and outstanding police officers, but I’ve also prosecuted and convicted three members of the now infamous SOS unit. So I know there are officers who do abuse that badge and it makes our life and our job that much harder to do.... We will continue to be vigilant from this day on....“

No one on the panel followed up on the question.

Alvarez has become such an high-profile candidate so quickly that some local Democrats have compared her potential star power to Barack Obama’s. Her Republican opponent, Cook County commissioner Tony Peraica, would clearly prefer to campaign against somebody else—he’s insisting she’s part of the “corrupt Democratic Machine of Todd Stroger and Mayor Daley.”

Few people outside the county’s legal community had heard of Alvarez when she announced last fall that she was running to succeed Richard Devine, who’d decided not to shoot for a fourth term as state’s attorney. And fewer figured she’d have a chance to win.

Alvarez, 48, grew up in Pilsen and graduated from Loyola before going to law school. She joined the state’s attorney’s office when it was headed by Richard M. Daley and over the next two decades rose through the ranks to the number three spot there, including stints leading its public corruption and narcotics bureaus. But she wasn’t part of the Cook County political machinery. She hadn’t spent time cozying up to Democratic regulars by doing campaign work, and except for $225 she’d given to Devine six years earlier, she hadn’t spread cash around. One well-placed political activist actually told me she’s made so little effort to reach out to important party leaders that she’s destined to be undercut and limited to a single term.

Before the primary, Alvarez appeared to have the baggage of an insider without the advantages. She was vulnerable to attacks from critics of Devine—and there were many—who accused her of being part of an office with a paltry record of prosecuting police abuse and political corruption, while her opponents—two Chicago aldermen, a county commissioner, a respected defense lawyer, and Devine’s top lieutenant—had superior name recognition, stronger political networks, higher-profile endorsements, and more favors to cash in for fund-raising.

But Alvarez says she wasn’t impressed. “I saw who else was running and thought, ‘I think I can do this.'”

She took a leave from the state’s attorney’s office and began delivering a seemingly paradoxical message, emphasizing her years of experience in the office but promising to part ways with Devine, who’d endorsed his second-in-command, Robert Milan. “It’s time for a change,” she said during the campaign. “It’s time to have someone in there who’s honest and has integrity.”

Borrowing $640,000 from her husband, OB/GYN James Gomez, Alvarez put ads on TV showing her with the couple’s four kids. On the stump and in a series of debates, she coolly stuck to her script while the men in the race accused each other of lies, sleaze, back-room politicking, and, in one instance, failing to pay child support. As they brawled, she often looked ready to blow a whistle and announce that recess was over. Alvarez won both the city and the suburbs, slipping past her closest challenger, 38th Ward alderman Tom Allen, by 10,000 votes.

“I won wards when I wasn’t on anybody’s palm cards,” Alvarez says. “In fact, a different candidate was on those palm cards.”

That won’t be the case this time around. Since the primary, she’s made the rounds of Democratic ward organizations and black churches. The Service Employees International Union has paid for robocalls promising that she’ll work to keep the streets safe from gangs, guns, and drugs. Alvarez says she doesn’t like fund-raising, but she’s not so bad at it: she’s raised more than $1.3 million since the primary, including thousands of dollars from Cook County Democratic Party insiders and thousands more from employees of the office she would be supervising if elected. Alvarez says people in the office are just excited about the possibility she’ll be running it; Peraica says she should return the donations from them to avoid a conflict of interest.

“We have corruption on steroids in this county, and that corruption has been tolerated by Mrs. Alvarez and her former boss, Mayor Daley,” Peraica says. Alvarez says that’s nonsense—the office has prosecuted all kinds of public corruption and would step up those efforts under her lead.

After finishing the Q and A at Kent, Alvarez shook hands with some of the legal scholars who’d been grilling her. One of them asked how she was holding up. “I just want to get it over with,” Alvarez said. Another said Alvarez had done a great job of discussing her plans and avoiding mention of her opponent. Alvarez thanked her, and as she was walking out the door muttered, “Tony Peraica—can I stop talking about him yet?”

Accompanied by Sally Daly, Alvarez discussed the campaign as she walked east to grab lunch at the Franklin Tap at Franklin and Jackson. Only one person she passed, a woman waving through the window of a Starbucks, appeared to recognize her.

“I’ve learned a lot about politics,” Alvarez said. “There are lots of egos. I don’t like people who seem to act like I have to, um... “

Here her spokeswoman Sally Daly let loose a fake cough that sounded a lot like kiss ass.

“Exactly!” Alvarez said. “I don’t like to have to kiss the ring. Everybody thinks their ward event is the biggest one in the world. Everyone thinks their township meeting is the most important.... I feel like, ‘I want to get back to work now.'”

Alvarez ordered a salad and recounted her horror at seeing herself on the side of a moving billboard downtown. “I was standing there watching my huge face go down Randolph and saying, ‘Oh, God!’ My kids were like, ‘Mom, look!'”

I asked her about a moment I remembered from one of the debates before the primaries. Alvarez had proposed opening satellite offices around the county, and Peraica said they’d be a waste of money. When the moderator invited her to respond, she looked surprised, then irritated, then disgusted. “To Tony Peraica?” she said.

Alvarez covered her face with her hands. “Oh my God, did I?” she said. “Well, sometimes you get a little frustrated up there.”

The state’s attorney’s office should be as free of politics as possible, she said, which is why “Mr. Peraica, I don’t think, is suitable for this position.” Yet Alvarez praised Devine—whom she criticized during the primary—as a model of professionalism. “He didn’t do a lot of political things. I guess when he was running he did, but there were a lot of events he didn’t go to.” As for critics who’ve charged that Devine protected Daley and other local pols—”I know that’s what Tony says, but I don’t think I saw that in him. He really does care about the office. When I supervised the public integrity unit, he said, ‘Wherever it goes.’ I know the critics wouldn’t believe me, but it’s the honest-to-God truth.”

The failure to prosecute Burge, however, remains a stain on the office. I asked Alvarez if she thought Devine, in his 12 years as state’s attorney, looked the other way instead of going after Burge. “I don’t think he was part of any internal cover-up or anything,” she said, “but when the allegations first surfaced, more could have been done—not just on our part but on the part of the Chicago Police Department.”

Daley was state’s attorney then and almost certainly was aware of the allegations against Burge; Devine was one of his top assistants. But Alvarez wouldn’t name names. Instead, she steered the conversation to crucial reforms she’s helped implement since rising through the ranks.

“When the allegations first surfaced, I was still in undergrad. I don’t think I can be criticized for that,” she said. “What’s important is that as we went along with the process and a special prosecutor was assigned, we cooperated fully. Whatever Egan and Boyle needed, we gave them. We created a new unit for special standards—even if it should have been created 30 years earlier. Videotaping of interrogations—I’ve been part of those things. That’s important to note. I’ve been part of these changes and they’re not going away.”v

For more on the election, see our blog Clout City.

Aside from the presidential contest, which is competitive, and the one for U.S. senator, which isn’t, this is the most important race Chicagoans will be voting in. The state’s attorney supervises 900 lawyers responsible for prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes from white-collar fraud to first-degree murder. He or she can dedicate the office to keeping city and county government honest—or look the other way. If a series of state’s attorneys starting with Richard M. Daley in the 1980s had understood their duty differently, Jon Burge wouldn’t be in today’s headlines—he’d have been prosecuted years ago for abusing his police powers. Instead, it’s taken a U.S. attorney to finally bring him into court.

Here the Reader profiles the leading candidates, Democrat Anita Alvarez and Republican Tony Peraica. (Read a little about the role of Green Party candidate Thomas O’Brien here and here.)

Republican Tony Peraica, who lost a close and bitter race to Todd Stroger for Cook County board president two years ago, is running for a new office against a new candidate—but it’s easy to forget that sometimes.

A couple weeks ago he showed up—alone, with no adviser or spokesperson—to tape an interview at Channel Seven about his candidacy for Cook County state’s attorney. In the hallway a camera technician approached to shake his hand. “You know, you’re a brave man and you’re doing the public a real service,” said the technician, a gray-haired man wearing a rumpled shirt. “John McCain ran an ad about Obama’s connection to Chicago politicians, and you’re another kind of example. You’re a shining light.”

Peraica grinned. “Thank you!”

The tech nodded. “And I remember when you led that march on the County Building! We were here working late.”

Peraica thanked him again, but his smile now looked a little forced. He still defends his infamous decision to storm the County Building with a pack of rowdy followers on election night two years ago—he says he wanted to “protect the integrity” of uncounted ballots. But he acknowledges it didn’t look like a noble defense of voting rights. Sort of. “I’d been up for two days,” he explained recently. “None of my people did anything except try to protect the sanctity of the [voting] equipment. Todd Stroger had all kinds of people out—he had a posse over there. Was I convinced that they were going to tamper with the process? Absolutely. I think we lost the election, but at the time I thought they were attempting to steal it.”

Obviously it’s not all bad for Peraica when people to remember him as the guy who ran against Stroger, who’s since become one of the most unpopular figures in local politics. Peraica has campaigned since the February primaries against his management of county government and has insisted that his Democratic opponent in the state’s attorney’s race, Anita Alvarez, is part of the “corrupt Democratic machine” and the “political elite who endorsed Todd Stroger.”

If Peraica were facing Stroger, the strategy might work.

The tech led Peraica into a TV studio, where he was greeted by a producer: “I was thinking of that debate you had with Stroger, when he accused you of wanting to close the health clinics—and then he closed the clinics!”

Peraica nodded gravely. “We had 28—now we have 12. I wanted to add some, up to 35 or so.”

“I think a lot of people wish they could do that vote again.”

“I know, I know,” Peraica said. “I hear that a lot.”

Interviewer Alan Krashesky came over and said hello, and as they sat down to get hooked up with microphones, Peraica leaned toward him. “May I suggest some themes?” he said. “Experience—broad verses narrow. Independence—I have some.” Krashesky appeared to listen carefully.

When the tape started rolling, he asked, “What’s wrong with the state’s attorney’s office?”

Peraica pounced. “Everything’s wrong,” he said, starting with the fact that drug users are clogging the courts and jail while white-collar criminals, including thieving politicians, are free and living large.

This is Peraica’s pitch, and he’s practiced at it, since it’s only a slight variation on the message he delivered in the race for county board president. Over the last two years he’s moderated his positions on certain issues, or others’ positions on his positions—he now says his seemingly vehement opposition to gay rights was distorted—and he’s sounding less like a social conservative than a libertarian, calling the decriminalization of drug use a “third rail of politics” that only bold leaders like himself are willing to touch.

But his favorite subject hasn’t changed. He says the county’s biggest problem is corruption, which is not only bleeding taxpayers but shorting the law enforcement system of money it could use to prosecute more violent criminals. In more than two decades in office, Peraica says, Alvarez has shown little interest in investigating and prosecuting public corruption. Alvarez responds by saying that corruption may be important, but public safety is the top priority of the state’s attorney’s office. She dismisses Peraica as “a politician looking for his next gig.”

Naturally, Peraica objects. “In 2006 I had no idea this office would open up. When I ran for the county board presidency, I was sickened by the way that office was turned over”—that is, by the way Todd Stroger was handed the Democratic nomination after his father, the incumbent, became too ill to run. “And I ran for county commissioner because I wanted to help make the board into a legislative body and not just a lapdog. But on the county board you need nine votes or you can’t do anything. You don’t in the state’s attorney’s office.”

Besides, Peraica adds, “Abe Lincoln ran for office seven times. He didn’t come from the Madigan or Daley families.”

Peraica finished the interview and went outside, where Constantin Korda, a probation officer and pastor who’s Peraica’s driver, supporter, and friend, was waiting in a minivan with photos of Peraica plastered to the sides. “I need Starbucks,” Peraica said.

As Korda drove down Lake Street, Peraica said his goal was to win 25 percent of the black vote. “And it’ll be a landslide,” he said. He directed Korda to pull over at the corner of Lake and Michigan and hopped out. “I got 10 percent against Todd Stroger, who was running under the Stroger name that’s been in county politics for 50 years, so—”

“It’s state’s attorney now, huh?” an African-American woman on the sidewalk called to him.

Peraica immediately veered her way. “Yes, sir—yes, ma’am!” he said.

“Oh—you better!”

“I’m glad I caught that,” Peraica said. “Can I give you one of my cards?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Here, take a few.”

He greeted a few more people, handed out some more cards, then walked into Starbucks. “See, you’ve got the name, and people know I was wronged the last time around, because everything I said was going to happen happened,” he said. “The level of regret and remorse, even in the African-American community, is palpable.”

I asked Peraica if he worried that Democrats might be organized and unified in an election with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. “No, because some of them are supporting me clandestinely,” he said. “Some of my best friends are Democrats.”v

For more on the election, see our blog Clout City.