July 15, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
"If he's running for re-election, I will vote for him twice, if I could."
-- Adeline Bracy, 59, on Sheriff Tom Dart, as she searched for answers about loved ones buried at Burr Oak Cemetery
Tom Dart Superstar could well be the wild card of Illinois politics.
In the midst of the mayhem of Burr Oak Cemetery, amid desecrated graves and despairing families, a constant of every news report over the past week has been the calm and concerned presence of the sheriff of Cook County.
At Eisenhower High School in Blue Island on Sunday, as the sheriff's office took in more than 1,000 inquiries about the disposal of the dead, Dart's office presented itself as a well-oiled machine. Not just efficient but compassionate.
Deputies, according to observers, served as county ambassadors.
And Sheriff Dart, according to quotes collected by Sun-Times reporter Maureen O'Donnell, was the beneficiary.
Not only was Adeline Bracy wishing she could vote for the sheriff early and often, so was 76-year-old Florence Brewer and her daughter, Jennette Guillory, who told O'Donnell, "Sheriff Dart should be commended."
If Dart was already a "rising political star in Illinois politics," as his own official Web site carefully notes, he is hurtling fast into the national news stratosphere.
There aren't, after all, many county sheriffs around the country who make regular appearances on the ''Today'' show, ''Good Morning America,'' MSNBC and CNN. But Dart certainly has. And on a variety of hot topics.
Before the ghoulish scandal of Burr Oak, there was his 2008 refusal to punish tenants with eviction for their landlords' foreclosures. And there was his lawsuit against Craigslist over its permissive approach to the advertisement of prostitution. Both grabbed national headlines. As did Time magazine's declaration in its May 1 issue that Dart was one of the world's "100 most influential people."
Unlike Second City's "Rod Blagojevich, Superstar" where the title is both parody and punchline, Dart's surging profile is another story. Though Blagojevich, who served in the Illinois Legislature with Dart, was a master of seizing the cable news spotlight on sexy issues like prescription drugs and violent video games, he was a disaster as the CEO of the state. And as the progeny-in-law of old-style Chicago ward politics, Blagojevich couldn't walk a careful line between the organization that gave birth to him and the reform agenda he claimed to represent.
Dart -- like Barack Obama, with whom he also served in Springfield -- has managed to skillfully juggle it all. A member in good standing of the powerful 19th Ward populated by the Hynes, Joyce and Sheehan clans, Dart has been a Daley loyalist and Democratic Party regular. And yet he's managed to position himself as a New Age politician. He's run his office efficiently. And he has found issues that resonate beyond the boundary lines of Illinois. And sometimes, as in the Alsip cemetery story, when issues have landed like lightning in his back yard, he's seized the moment and handled it artfully.
There has been talk that Dart might want to jump into the 2010 Democratic primary for governor. Or rise in the ranks of Cook County by taking on Todd Stroger for president of the County Board.
Neither one looks likely at the moment.
Comptroller Dan Hynes, another child of the 19th Ward, is positioning himself for the gubernatorial race.
And Dart, who had earned high marks in the African-American community even before his takeover of Burr Oak Cemetery, doesn't gain a thing by antagonizing that same constituency by challenging Stroger. Especially when the job provides neither a national profile nor anything other than a monumental headache.
Tom Dart Superstar, I'm guessing, stays where he is right now. On a platform that someday soon will rocket him higher.