MORRISON, Ill. — When the dust settled after the 2022 midterm elections, nearly all of Whiteside County's races ended with a Republican victory. Nearly all...except for the Sheriff race.
Democrat John Booker is now gearing up for a second term leading the Whiteside County department after defeating his Republican challenger by nearly 18 percentage points. In a county that voted loyally against his party, he said success can only come through putting the community first.
"I hate politics," Booker laughed. "Unfortunately, a little bit goes with the sheriff's office."
We sat down with him in the office, decorated with a mishmash of taxidermized animal heads (leftover from previous sheriffs), Notre Dame flags and an old 'Fighting Bees' football helmet; a motely collection reminiscent of the sheriff himself.
"Anybody can put a uniform on and write a speeding ticket," Booker said. "But it takes a special person to be able to find a solution to somebody's problem that isn't making an arrest and putting them in jail."
Booker is in charge of 90 employees, responsible for the safety of more than 55,000 county residents spread out over 295 square miles. He's been a law enforcement officer for 31 years and said he's learned to put people over politics.
"I'm in the middle. I stand in the middle. And as the sheriff, you have to be in the middle, because we serve everyone. It doesn't matter what party affiliation you are," Booker noted. "Politics don't belong behind the wheel of a patrol car. And public safety must always come before party politics."
He's been a proponent of mental health awareness and has been an advocate for prevention-based policing, rather than focusing on throwing people in jail. Now, he's also looking to increase his staff in his second term. Booker has already gotten approval to hire a new deputy for each shift, which he says is his top priority entering his second term.
Throughout his campaign, he joked that he went to every parade, pancake breakfast and prayer meeting that he could. Oftentimes, Booker found himself knocking on the doors of people that he knew typically voted straight-ticket Republican.
It was those cross-party votes that propelled him to a double-digit victory over his challenger in 2022, despite a difficult first term. Since taking over as sheriff back in 2018, Booker's life has predominantly revolved around COVID-19, mask debates and nationwide hiring challenges in law enforcement.
"What a time to be a brand new sheriff," Booker laughed. "These four years have been extremely challenging. But I've learned a lot!"
He has a hard time grappling with the role of party affiliations, saying he has ideals that fall on both Democrat and Republican lines. In fact, he considered running under a different party, or even as an independent in 2022. But ultimately, Booker decided to run as himself: a centrist Democrat that could hopefully appeal to both sides.
"My last election, I only went to certain houses. This election, I went to every house and knocked on every door - I didn't care if they were the strongest Republican person out there," Booker said. "I wanted them to know I may have a 'D' behind my name, but my beliefs still are for the people."
Booker finds a major issue with how polarized party politics, negotiations and elections have become.
"If you're a Republican, you can't get along with a Democrat. If you're a Democrat, you can't support a Republican. That's what's causing so many problems," Booker said.
Along the trail, he said he had countless Republican voters tell him they would be voting straight-ticket conservative, except for the sheriff's race.
"I don't know how many people told me that," Booker laughed. "And I always joke and say, 'Well, I'm a Democrat Republicans can vote for!'"
One of those Republican voters was Jon Eastlick. News 8 caught up with the Morrison resident a few weeks after the election. He told us he was proud to vote for Sheriff Booker.
"I normally do vote straight party," Eastlick admitted. "It says a lot about his character and the kind of person he is. When it comes to the sheriff's department, you want somebody who's going to live out good ideals. It really doesn't matter the political party."
Another Morrison resident, Pat Cassens, knew Booker from her husband's time working at the sheriff's department. She said she was also happy to vote for his re-election.
"He's just a very nice person. He does a good job and he does his duties," Cassens said.
Nearby, Kathy Polson was walking into her hair salon in downtown Morrison. The registered Republican has been through decades of elections in Whiteside County and often finds herself voting 'R,' yet she also cast a vote for Sheriff Booker.
"My opinion is, if you're going to do the job right, then you're going to get my vote," Polson said. She thought Booker was easy to talk to and genuine. "Just tell me what you're gonna do, and then you'll get my vote. He's a good guy and good for this community."
As we drove around the county with Sheriff Booker, he casually pointed out some of his favorite restaurants and places he's worked cases over the years.
"I'm just not ready to get out of this," he said. "I love coming to work every day. I love putting the uniform on. I love being involved in my community."
And after another successful campaign, he's focused on bringing his election promises to life.
"You can't just work for Republicans or Democrats, you have to work for the people. And our people in Whiteside County need strong support, no matter what party it is," Booker said. "I'm just gonna stay where I'm at: being a Democrat, a conservative Democrat in the middle, and working for the people of the county."
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