DECATUR — Former Lt. Jim Root — and now Macon County Sheriff Jim Root — is the poster child for the idea that persistence pays off.
Getting sworn into the top job Monday in a Decatur Law Enforcement Center ceremony packed with 70 well-wishers and friends marked the finish line of the longest sheriff’s race in Macon County history.
It brought a final end to the contested election battle of 2018 in which Republican Root had lost to his Democrat rival, Tony Brown, by one vote. After the long legal struggle, a judge recently ruled that Root was in fact the winner by 16 votes after various contested and disputed ballots had been adjudicated.
Agreeing that he was both a persistent and patient man, Root added: “I would say that is shown in my perseverance for this long-drawn out process.”
A department veteran of some 25 years, the 53-year-old lawman first set his sights on being sheriff back in 2017 when former sheriff Tom Schneider announced he was stepping down. “That is when I first made the decision to step up to the leadership and run for sheriff,” Root said.
Schneider was there Monday to applaud his former subordinate’s drawn-out ascension to the top job, as was former sheriff and full-time philanthropist Howard Buffett, the man Schneider initially appointed as interim sheriff. That appointment had been made, Schneider said, in a bid to head off division within the department.
Buffett had initially thrown everybody for a loop when he announced he was going to step back into the 2022 sheriff’s race. But, in another of the endless twists and turns following the disputed 2018 election, Buffett announced earlier this month that he is dropping out of the race.
And so now all the obstacles clouding the new administration are swept away. But that administration could be also be short and sweet, as Root only has 14 months to go before facing the next sheriff’s election.
He has said previously he will run on the Republican ticket, but he emphasized Monday he had other priorities on his mind right now. “This is the conclusion of the 2018 race and I don’t want to get ahead and look at 2022 yet,” he said. “I don’t want to announce or do anything (concerning the election) I just want to make sure we have a smooth transition.”
He got no argument from Brown, who remains in office as part of a transition administration before he retires June 28. Brown, who dropped initial plans to appeal the judge’s decision, said it was time to look forward, not backward, as he pledged his support for Root.
“It’s kind of like driving a car,” he explained. “If you keep looking in the rearview mirror, you are going to crash yourself.” He said the 2018 election was history and he was ready to help the new administration in any way he could.
He said both he and Root were graduates of Eisenhower High School (class of ‘86) and proud of their Decatur upbringing. Looking at Root, Brown added: “I am always here; I love you, and that will never change, no matter what, OK? All right.”
Asked if there was any lingering bitterness on his part, Root was equally magnanimous. “I am truly a Christian and he is a Christian and we will forgive each other on any of the things we have said towards each other…” Root said.
“And he (Brown) said anything that I need, he will be there for me, and I will take him at his word and plan on using him for a lot of the things I cannot do within the community; he will get me in that door.”
Other, more practical questions remain, such as whether Root is entitled to back pay and benefits for all those months he should have been sheriff. Root said he is no strong views on that one, and said that is a decision for the Macon County Board.
“I didn’t get in this for the money,” Root said. “I don’t even know what the sheriff makes.” He believed that it's probably not that much more than he is making now as a lieutenant, and the top pay grade won’t add up to much anyway “considering what the legal fees for this process were,” he added with a grin, referring to the cost of contesting the election.
As for immediate priorities, Root said he is concentrating on dealing with the implications of the new Illinois Police Reform legislation. He said that will mean equipping officers with body cameras and trying to come to terms with sweeping new changes that gut the current cash bail rules.
And while Root is off grappling with all that, his supporters are just glad to see him taking on the challenges of the office he has struggled so long and so hard to reach.
“It's been a lot, it’s been a heck of a battle,” said Root’s father-in-law, David Barr, 68, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message 'Jim Root is My Sheriff'. “And it does my heart good to know that my vote does count in Macon County.”
Root’s mother-in-law, Gale Barr, was equally upbeat, even though her son-in-law only has 14 months of his term left to make his mark. “It’s long enough,” added Barr, 70. “And he’s going to win the next one.”
Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid