Dart looks to withstand challengers in primary


Cook County has had nine sheriffs since 1946, all of them ostensibly devoid of moral turpitude, reasonably competent, generally resistant to temptation to indulge in graft and favoritism, able to sublimate the duress and stress of sitting on a time bomb — and almost all eminently forgettable.

That’s Sheriff Tom Dart’s problem. He’s forgotten. The 51-year-old lawyer from Chicago’s clout-heavy 19th Ward craves a promotion — to Chicago mayor, U.S. attorney, Cook County Board president, state’s attorney, or even a high-level job in the Obama Administration’s Department of Justice.

"I love my job," Dart said. "I work 10 to 12 hours a day seven days a week. I get calls at 3 a.m. I’m making a difference."

Get me out of here, he really means. Dart sits atop a time bomb. The sheriff’s responsibilities include courthouse and courtroom security, operation of the County Jail and the House of Corrections, and patrol of the county’s unincorporated areas. A possible courtroom shooting, a jail break, a drug dealing or gun-toting deputy, a Juvenile Court incident — all have political repercussions.

Dart said that there have been no jail breaks during his 8-year term, only several "walk-aways" due to tangled paperwork. The jail houses 12,500 inmates, of whom half are accused felons awaiting trial and the remainder are convicted felons serving their sentence. More than 3,000 are housed in four segregated buildings and in Cermak Hospital, while being given medication and therapeutic and psychological treatment for mental health problems. Another 3,000 convicts or detainees are on electronic monitoring.

Welcome to "New Age" law enforcement. In the days of yore, the criminal justice system was intended to be punitive. Jail was a place of misery and suffering, to deter ex-cons from crime and re-incarceration. That philosophy "is not working," Dart said. Now the focus is curative: criminals are not predators, they’re victims. Instead of spending their life shuttling in and out of prison, they get a lifetime of Medicaid-paid meds and therapy, a Link card, Section 8 housing subsidies and public aid. It used to be: Don’t commit a crime if you can’t do the time. Now it’s: If you don’t commit another crime, the taxpayers will make sure you live real fine.

I asked Dart, a Democrat first elected in 2006, if the sheriff’s office is now a social service agency, a veritable halfway house. "If I can prevent one in 20 from coming back, I’m satisfied," Dart said. "We need a thoughtful strategy to fight crime."

According to Dart, his two-term accomplishments include Shakman decree compliance, a crackdown on sex trafficking, inmate mental health programs and screening, banning evictions on apartment tenants in foreclosure, monitoring gang activity, requiring rape kits and employing social workers to intervene in inmate, evictee and child matters.

Here’s a tricky multiple choice question: Who will be the next county sheriff? (a) Tom Dart. (b) Ted Palka. (c) Sylvester Baker. (d) Bill Evans. (e) Ed Burke Jr. (f) Chuck Norris.

If you answered (a), then you didn’t read the question. Dart is the sheriff, and he will easily beat Palka, Baker and Evans in the March 18 Democratic primary. If you answered (f), then you’ve been watching too many "Walker, Texas Ranger" reruns. If you picked (e), then you have phenomenal insight into the way Chicago and Cook County politics operates. Family and geography control. The South Side 19th Ward, which has controlled the sheriff’s office since 1990, will be superseded by the South Side 14th Ward.

Ed Burke Jr. will be sheriff some time soon. The son of 48-year Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, the City Council Finance Committee chairman, and Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, the younger Burke is one of the sheriff’s 210 "exempt" hires out of 6,640 employees.

on-exempts are hired through civil service exams, not political clout. Burke is an assistant chief deputy sheriff in charge of child support enforcement, earning $85,667. His father has $8.2 million in his campaign account — more than enough to spend (or is it buy?) his way into the sheriff’s job.

As for 19th Ward Alderman Matt O’Shea, who covets Dart’s job, forget about it.

Palka, a deputy sheriff and an inspector who has worked for the sheriff’s office for 30 years, said that the "culture of corruption and favoritism has not changed" under Dart. What also has not changed is the office’s reputation as a political career capstone, not a steppingstone.

Under the 1871 Illinois Constitution, a sheriff was limited to one 4-year term. The 1969 Constitutional Convention removed that term limit, the rationale being that graft was less endemic.

In the past 17 sheriff’s elections, the luckiest guy was Richard J. Daley, who lost the 1946 election to Republican Elmer Walsh by 1,044,294-978,011. Had Daley won, he would have been termed out in 1950, might not have been slated for county clerk in 1950, and would not have been on the mayoral track. Surprisingly, a Republican won five times, in 1946, 1950, 1962, 1966 and 1986. Not surprisingly, the job is usually a dead end. Only a few have advanced.

Democrat Joseph Lohman, who was elected sheriff in 1954, won the state treasurer’s post in 1958 but lost the 1960 primary for governor. Republican Dick Ogilvie, a former assistant U.S. attorney, was elected sheriff in an upset in 1962 by a vote of 951,647-921,605, won the county board presidency in 1966 and was elected governor in 1968. Ogilvie had designs on the presidency in 1976, but lost re-election in 1972. Republican Joe Woods, a former FBI agent whose sister was President Richard Nixon’s secretary, won the job in 1966 in another upset by 961,848-945,728, crafted a "law and order" image, but was trounced by Democrat George Dunne for county board president in 1970. Woods spent the next 18 years as an obscure and irrelevant county commissioner.

The year 1970 produced a sea change. The legendary Shakman decision precluded hiring or firing on a political basis. Prior to that, the 3,000-plus court bailiffs, process servers and jail officers were just a bunch of grunts. They worked precincts, donated to their party and committeeman, and were on the street if their party lost. Shakman "professionalized" local government. Once on the job, no coercion or compulsion could be exerted.

Dick Elrod, now a Circuit Court judge, was an obscure Chicago corporation counsel when he was assigned to monitor a 1969 "Days of Rage" anti-war protest. He was injured trying to tackle a protester and was partially paralyzed. In a stroke of genius, Daley ran the "heroic" Elrod for sheriff in 1970, against Republican Bernie Carey, another ex-FBI agent. Elrod won by a narrow 887,026-876,549. Carey became state’s attorney in 1972.

Able to seek re-election, Elrod won with ever-increasing majorities: He got 53.7 percent of the vote in 1974, 56.3 percent in 1978 and 69.5 percent in 1982.

Then, after 16 years, "Elrod fatigue," including a string of mini-time bombs, proved insurmountable. Former Chicago police superintendent Jim O’Grady switched parties to run as an Ed Vrdolyak Republican, whipped Elrod 706,659-673,233, and proceeded to a swift political demise. Harold Washington died in 1987, eliminating the "race factor," and Undersheriff Jim Dvorak became enmeshed in controversy.

In 1990 Alderman Mike Sheahan (19th) ran for sheriff, aided by the clout of Assessor Tom Hynes, the 19th Ward Democratic committeeman. In a humiliating meltdown, O’Grady got just 369,631 votes (28.5 percent of the total), to 719,489 (55.4 percent) for Sheahan and 191,101 (14.7 percent) for independent Tommy Brewer. Thereafter, the Republicans imploded. Sheahan won with 65.2 percent of the vote in 1994, with 71.1 percent against the son of a former Chicago police superintendent in 1998, and with 76.9 percent in 2002. In 2006 Sheahan pulled a "switcheroo," announcing for re-election and getting slated, but then withdrawing on the last day of filing, with the 19th Ward and Hynes’ allies submitting petitions for Dart, a 10-year state representative and a 2002 loser for state treasurer.

Dart won the 2006 election with 74.9 percent of the vote, and he was re-elected in 2010 with 77.2 percent. No Republican is on the 2014 ballot.

The primary is dispositive. Palka is appealing to ethnic voters, particularly Poles. "I am campaigning at all the Catholic churches," he said. "People want change. I will hire more deputies and police. I will stop the endless stream of civil rights and harassment lawsuits." Baker, a 22-year retired sheriff’s police sergeant, lost to Dart twice. Evans is a 23-year sheriff’s police lieutenant.

Dart got 331,318 votes (61.9 percent of the total cast) in 2006, beating Baker (133,944 votes) and Rich Remus (69,899 votes), in a turnout of 535,161. Baker, who is African American, carried four predominantly black wards, and Dart got more than 80 percent of the vote in his Southwest Side base. Dart trounced Baker in 2010 with 76.3 percent of the vote, getting 397,844 votes to Baker’s 123,096, in a turnout of 520,940. Baker won one ward, while Dart got more than 80 percent of the vote in the Northwest Side 33rd, 36th, 39th and 47th wards and more than 90 percent in the 11th Ward.

Turnout in 2014 will barely exceed 500,000. Palka projects Baker near 150,000 votes and Evans at 50,000. That leaves 300,000 for Dart and Palka to split.

No polls have been taken, but the "money race" is an accurate gauge. Dart had $310,211 on hand as of Jan. 1, and he raised $127,430 after April 1, 2013. Palka’s numbers were $44,279 and $52,390, respectively, Baker’s were $22,639 and $27,113, and Evans’ were $2,595 and $31,366.

Dart may be forgettable or forgotten, but he still has enough juice to get renominated. He’ll win with 55 percent of the vote.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.