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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the New Law in Town

Cook County sheriff Tom Dart made national news last fall when he refused to carry out evictions connected to mortgage foreclosures. What kind of lawman is this?

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NBC 5’s Alex Perez interviews Dart last fall about some recent dogfight arrest.

 

An icy wind burns and scars . . . through the narrow space between these bars. Or so sang Warren Zevon on a CD playing in the office of the world’s most unlikely sheriff the day I arrived for a sit-down interview. I should have expected the serenade. Dart’s press spokesman, the former Chicago Sun-Times reporter Steve Patterson, told me that his boss almost always has music playing in his office—and indeed, while waiting for Dart, I noticed a pile of CDs scattered on a desk corner—mostly baby-boomer, white-guy stuff—Weezer, the Rolling Stones, Radiohead, the Ramones, the Clash, Bob Marley. Dart’s friend and former colleague in the Illinois General Assembly, Jack Franks, laughed when I mentioned the seeming eccentricity. “It’s true,” he said. “He’s a rock-’n’-roll sheriff.”

Aside from the tunes, the office contained a long desk, a small conference table, some framed pictures of Dart grinning with his four children, ages one to seven. A Gatorade bottle, the CD player, and stacks of reports outlining the daily drama that is the 10,000-inmate Cook County Jail, one of the country’s most famous lockups and the most demanding part of Dart’s job.

Indeed, on this morning, Dart, 46, breezed in, fresh from a meeting with the heads of the 11 jail divisions—from the ultramax Division 1, an ancient building that once housed Al Capone, to Division 11, a state-of-the-art 640,000-square-foot medium-security facility brought online in 1995.

The weekly “accountability” gathering, at which the division heads report on shanks found, fights broken up, fires started, homemade hooch confiscated, medical crises, uses of force, and attacks on staff, is something Dart implemented shortly after his election some two years ago, when he took over for his mentor and predecessor, Michael Sheahan, who stunned both Dart and the public by announcing he would not run again after 15 years as sheriff.

Despite the gravity of the reports—an inmate’s attempted suicide, a brawl involving nearly 40 gang members, a shank fashioned from a classroom ruler—Dart, noshing a bagel and sipping tea throughout, kept the tone of the meeting light. Most of the division chiefs wore dress shirts and ties, with badges glinting on their chests, and referred to Dart as “boss.” Dart, in his habitual pullover, leaned back in his chair, hands folded behind his head. He often punctuated his sentences with “bud” or “buddy,” as in “Thanks, bud,” or, “What you got, buddy?”

When one of the chiefs told Dart about a fight in the food line—“They were throwing spaghetti at each other,” the official said—Dart cracked, “I hope that’s not a comment on our food.” When another chief mentioned that a fight was over “an alternative-lifestyle issue,” Dart deadpanned, “You’ll handle that one personally—right, bud?”

* * *

Now, back in his office, Dart went right for the music, looking through the CDs, before leaving in Zevon and settling into a swivel chair at the conference table.

It would be a stretch to say that any Cook County sheriff operates in obscurity. The position is one of the highest-profile law-enforcement gigs in the state. And certainly Dart has had his share of media attention, good and bad—from his high-profile war on illegal dogfighting to a federal report last summer that blistered the jail he runs. Still, until his announcement in October that he was suspending evictions amid the foreclosure crisis, many would have been hard-pressed to pick him out of a lineup, as they say.

Sheahan, by comparison, was a veritable celebrity. From his physical appearance—the clean-shaven head, the power suits, the fierce expression—to his aggressive persona, to his name on buildings and buses, he was associated with the office in a public way. Dart? “I sometimes walk into a room and people ask, ‘Is the sheriff going to be here soon?’” he says, “and I have to say, ‘Um, it’s me.’”

All that changed, however, after his eviction moratorium. Suddenly, the rock-’n’-roll sheriff was a rock star, splashed across major newspapers from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times. CNN’s anchor John Roberts interviewed him. Time magazine ran a Q-and-A under the headline “The Sheriff Who Wouldn’t Evict.” Even the tabloids weighed in. The National Examiner, known for headlines like “Oprah’s Gay Nightmare,” gave Dart above-the-fold treatment, portraying him as a combination of Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne under the morality-play headline “Big Hearted Sheriff Takes On Greedy Banks.”

But not everyone was so smitten. The “greedy banks”—in the form of the Illinois Bankers Association—initially accused Dart of “vigilantism” from “the highest level of an elected official.” The San Diego–based company Accredited Home Lenders filed a lawsuit, then withdrew it. (Both the IBA and Accredited declined to comment when contacted by Chicago.)

Some wondered about Dart’s motives. Just two months earlier, the Lake County sheriff, Mark Curran, had grabbed national headlines by spending a week in jail to get the inmates’ perspective. Was Dart seeking a little glory of his own? Looking for some good publicity to counteract the negative attention that rained down after the scathing federal report on the jail?

“I’ve met the man many times and he’s not a schemer,” says Russ Stewart, a longtime political columnist with the Northwest Side Nadig Newspapers who has tracked Dart’s rise. “He is generally forthright, but you can combine being forthright with being calculating and crafty. I would say overall that [the eviction moratorium] was a crafty move.”

Cook County sheriffs are known for many things—sharp elbows, political savvy, a tough-guy swagger. Sheahan was lauded for his ability to get things done, but was also called a “bully” by both John Stroger Jr., the late Cook County Board president, and the Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley. A Sheahan predecessor, Richard Elrod, was known as an old-school law-and-order pol who was about as touchy-feely as a park statue. But compassion? Empathy? No. Those are qualities for softies, not sheriffs. To be effective, you had to be mean. Or did you?

Dart downplays the fuss. For starters, he says, he had no idea his actions would attract so much attention. “As God is my witness, I could not have been any more stunned,” he says. “I felt I was simply calling attention to something that was morally and ethically wrong, something I couldn’t live with. I mean, this wasn’t a close call. To sit back blindly and use the excuse, ‘I was just following orders. I did what I was supposed to do’ is at a minimum a cop-out, at worst just reprehensible.”

His supporters scoff at the notion that Dart was seeking publicity. “He was working on making evictions humane long before the mortgage crisis hit,” says Dart’s General Assembly colleague Jack Franks. Dart’s wife, Patricia, just laughs. “He’s just always done the right thing,”  she says.

Diane Limas, the head of the Northwest Side community group that called attention to the renter evictions by staging a protest at Daley Plaza, was skeptical until she met Dart. “He gave me the impression that he really did feel the injustice happening to these families and that he could actually feel their plight and their fear,” she says. “He seemed very humane. Very compassionate. I got the impression that he’s not your typical politician or sheriff who’s waiting for 20 OKs from somebody else to make a decision, especially when he feels the decision is right.”

In other words, his supporters insist, this is a sheriff with a heart. Really.

The truth is, Dart says, he has never been comfortable with the way his office has handled evictions. “I wasn’t in office more than a couple of weeks, maybe a month, and I went out with our crews,” he recalls. “Until you actually see it, you cannot fully appreciate what you’re talking about here. Think about it for a second. Think about a home you’ve lived in for ten years, maybe longer, and about the little knickknacks you have everywhere in your little kids’ rooms. Think about having someone—more often than not with a battering ram—knocking in your front door, moving you and your kids from the house, taking everything you own and putting it out by the street. Then think about the fact that in a lot of these neighborhoods, these belongings are routinely stolen.”

The numbers are staggering. As of mid-November, some 4,500 eviction requests had been made to Dart’s office. Overall, the number of foreclosures filed this year was expected to top 43,000—more than twice the number from two years ago.

Dart says his beef wasn’t with the evictions themselves. Landlords—or banks—have the right to seize their property when someone isn’t paying, no matter how sad the circumstances. At the very least, however, he felt his office should and could mitigate the trauma. Specifically, he wanted to connect the displaced tenants to social services that could help them cope. “I didn’t like how it was being done, so we started working on it,” he says. “We tried to get the landlords to go along with certain things, but they didn’t buy into it. We tried to introduce legislation in Springfield, but that didn’t go anywhere.”


The eviction notice from the sheriff’s department, posted on doors to notify residents of their rights and where they could find help

So, says Dart, his office began “winging it,” putting stickers on doors that spelled out exactly when the eviction would occur and where soon-to-be-displaced tenants could find help. “There was no rhyme or reason,” he says. “This is stuff we just created, just started throwing on the door. The problem is, things weren’t getting any better.”

Then came September, the Wall Street meltdown, the mortgage crisis, and what Dart discovered was a disturbing new phenomenon: Tenants who had faithfully paid their rent on time were winding up on eviction lists because, unbeknownst to them, their landlords had defaulted on the property.

The landlords continued to pocket the rent, says Dart. Meanwhile, “we were going out to house after house, where people had never been informed of anything. The only thing they knew was us showing up at the door in our black suits saying, Get out. Evicting these people was clearly wrong. They’d done everything right. It was outrageous.”

The issue was crystallized for Dart when Limas’s group showed up at the Daley Center after one such eviction. Often in those situations, bureaucrats will hunker down, defend their position, and promise to look into things. “My position was, We have no argument with you,” says Dart. “You people are right. They were shocked.”

“We were just glad that the sheriff had the courage to take that bold of a stance,” Limas says, “because it’s been our experience with elected officials that there aren’t many who will.” 

The problem, Dart says, was what to do. He could try to get a law passed, but that could take months or years. Meanwhile, people were still being unjustly put out. So he simply stopped all evictions connected to mortgage foreclosures. “Yes, it was radical,” he says. “But it needed to be done. Anything short of that, and things were not going to change. I knew from my tortured past exactly what would have happened. There would have been meetings and committees—meanwhile, we would be tossing more and more people on the street who had no idea what was going on.”

In the media, Dart was cast as a hero—a maverick, to borrow the word. Sheriffs from across the country began calling for advice. Some, such as Sheriff Robert Pickell, of Genesee County, Michigan, imposed moratoriums of their own. McHenry County sheriff Keith Nygren says he designated a deputy to alert renters that the property would soon be seized. “I support [Dart],” Nygren says. “I think he’s to be commended.”

The banks, assuming Dart was suspending all evictions, even those not connected to foreclosures, were initially incensed, but toned down their rhetoric after receiving clarification from him. “Tom Dart is a great sheriff,” says Richard Gottlieb, a member of the executive board of the Illinois Mortgage Bankers Association. “This is not about Tom Dart. We believe what he did [regarding the rent-paying tenants] was absolutely fair. . . . It was to the extent he was saying he was going to stop all evictions that we felt he was going too far.”

Within days of announcing the moratorium, Dart met with Judge Dorothy Kirie Kinnaird and worked with members of the Cook County Circuit Court’s chancery division to overhaul the eviction process. As a result, landlords now had to prove that they had informed tenants of an already existing 120-day grace period.

A week and a half later, Dart declared the moratorium officially over and said that foreclosure evictions would resume. But when he returned to the streets, he realized that nothing had really changed. The  120-day notice had yet to be served on the renters in the foreclosed properties. “We didn’t put out a single person,” he says. Indeed, as this story went to press, Dart had carried out only three of 110 eviction requests made since the moratorium, a number he expects to increase dramatically in the months ahead.

For Limas and rent-paying tenants, Dart’s stand was a triumph. For the public at large, it was cause for a question: Who is this guy?

* * *

Photograph by Ryan Robinson

 

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