Top rival to Sheriff Tom Dart tossed from Democratic primary ballot over controversial new law; she vows to take matter to court

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A political rival of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was tossed off the June Democratic primary ballot Wednesday over a controversial new law that called her law enforcement qualifications into question despite her experience as a high-ranking official in the department.

The removal of Carmen Navarro Gercone from the ballot leaves Chicago police office Noland Rivera as incumbent Dart’s sole remaining primary opponent, though Navarro Gercone vows to appeal her case to the courts. The county’s electoral board voted 2-1 Wednesday to uphold an objection to her candidacy by Dart’s campaign.

Navarro Gercone rose to the rank of first assistant executive director in the sheriff’s office under Dart, overseeing 1,300 employees in courthouse security, evictions and other operations. Now a top official in the Cook County circuit court clerk’s office, she previously served as a sergeant, a lieutenant and an assistant chief at the sheriff’s office.

But she has never worked as a certified police officer, as defined in a little-known provision in Illinois’ sweeping criminal justice reform legislation that provided Dart’s campaign with room to challenge her qualifications and attempt to knock her off the ballot.

Carmen Navarro Gercone drops off her nominating petitions as she is seeking the nomination for sheriff at Cook County Administration Building in Chicago on March 7, 2022. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

Tucked into the end of the 700-page reform bill, signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in 2021, was a new requirement that all candidates for sheriff be certified law enforcement officers, starting this year. Sitting sheriffs like Dart are exempt.

Jessica Scheller, the electoral board designee for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, argued that the body must follow the rule of law in the SAFE-T Act in voting to remove Navarro Gercone. Scheller said her decision also will uphold the authority of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, which decided she did not meet the new law’s qualifications for sheriff.

“While the candidate through her counsel has argued that the act should not be applied here as it is vague, we as a board are governed by state law and must endeavor to give effect,” Scheller said.

Edmund Michalowski, designee for Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough, agreed but did not elaborate in his remarks.

But Gloria Chevere, the electoral board’s designee for Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez, voted in favor of Navarro Gercone because, she said, the police standards board “abdicated” its duty in declining to consider the candidate’s FBI National Academy certification as official law enforcement training.

”Electoral boards in Illinois courts have always favored ballot access, so that deference must be given to the candidate’s right to run for public office,” Chevere said. “… This board should not give administration deference to another board that simply did not do its job.”

Martinez has drawn criticism from Dart’s campaign for not recusing herself or her designee because she is Navarro Gercone’s current boss and has endorsed her for sheriff.

Carmen Navarro Gercone poses for a photograph at Daley Plaza on Feb. 15, 2022, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)

After the vote, Navarro Gercone castigated state legislators for “changing the law in the middle of the night.” She also criticized Cook County Democrats, who are backing Dart, for instilling a party loyalty pledge back in December.

She said she will seek to overturn the decision in court.

”In the 191(-year) history of the sheriff’s office, there has never been a woman, and all the stops have been pulled to prevent one from being on the ballot in this case as well,” she said.

Dart’s campaign manager David Feller, who filed challenges to Navarro Gercone and other would-be sheriff candidates, did not immediately comment on the case’s conclusion Wednesday.

Dart, who has held the office since 2006, previously was a prosecutor, state lawmaker and chief of staff to former Sheriff Michael Sheahan.

According to state records, it wasn’t until late last year, after the new law was signed, that Dart received a law enforcement certification, despite being grandfathered in under the new measure.

Back in February, the incumbent’s campaign brushed off apprehension from rivals over utilizing the new law to challenge their candidacies: “The General Assembly passes hundreds of laws a year and we are required to follow them. Their argument is with the General Assembly, not Sheriff Dart.”

Besides Navarro Gercone, two other Democratic sheriff contenders have been knocked off the ballot following challenges to their nominating petitions: Kirk Ortiz, a deputy sheriff, and LaTonya Ruffin, a former south suburban police officer.

The primary is June 28.

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May 4, 2022 at 04:38PM

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