It might not be one of the most high-profile races every four years, but when Will County voters go to the polls this November, they’ll be able to weigh in on who should be the top officer for the county.
On Nov. 6, the two names on the ballot will be incumbent Sheriff Mike Kelley, a 30-year veteran of the office and the Democrat, and challenger Jim Reilly, the Republican, a deputy with the office.
Both men have said they are uncomfortable having to enter the political arena while vying for the job.
“My job is to enforce the laws of the land,” Kelley said. “I don’t care what party you’re from. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. If somebody is breaking into your house, we got to show up and try to catch the bad guy. It doesn’t matter.”
Reilly has similar feelings.
“I don’t mind the election part of it,” Reilly said. “I don’t like the partisanship of it. I wish I didn’t have to be a Republican. I wish I didn’t have to be a Democrat. Because once I take office, I’m neither one of those.”
Although both candidates say they look forward to taking on the other more as Election Day draws nearer, there have been few instances of politicizing sheriff’s office investigations. However, on Reilly’s campaign Facebook page, he’s mentioned the still unsolved case of the death of Preston Heights toddler Sema’j Crosby, he hasn’t directly called out Kelley for it.
For now, the debate remains civil, but Will County has a history of high-profile cases becoming campaign fodder.
In 2006, former Republican Will County Sheriff Paul Kaupas won re-election against Democratic challenger and former Braidwood Police Chief Rich Girot.
One campaign strategy that upset some within the office was Girot’s criticism of the office’s handling of the investigation of Wilmington 3-year-old Riley Fox’s murder, according to Herald-News archives.
Kevin Fox, Riley’s father, was charged with sexually assaulting and murdering her. Members of the Fox family had advocated for Kevin Fox, arguing he was innocent. Kevin Fox maintained his innocence, and blamed a confession he made about killing his daughter on detectives’ coercion.
Kevin Fox was released from jail after DNA on Riley’s body turned out not to be her father’s. Kevin Fox eventually filed a federal lawsuit against those who put him in jail.
So the Fox family came to support Kaupas’ opponent. Kevin Fox’s parents hosted a fundraiser for Girot at their house about a month before the election.
In 2002, the year Kaupas first was elected sheriff, he faced Democrat Darrell Sanders, chief of police in Frankfort at the time. That year, the expansion of the Will County jail was a major issue, and Sanders criticized jail staff for a pair of suicides that led to lawsuits. Kaupas came to deputies’ and corrections officers’ defense and credited them for their vigilance in stopping other attempted suicides.
In another case that year, Sanders called for an investigation into how a convicted sex offender named Gregory White was accidentally set free from jail on bond. Sanders went as far as to write a letter to the Illinois Attorney General criticizing the department, for which Kaupas was a deputy chief at the time.
Kaupas said his opponent’s interest in that case was political posturing and criticized him for never having done police work in a “large police department.”
Even with the history of political posturing, the candidates in the 2018 race say that’s the kind of campaigning that’s best left to politicians.
“I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said politics is the necessary evil,” Reilly said. “That’s my position.”
“Law enforcement is probably one place where the whole political party thing should really stay out of,” Kelley said. “Because if you’re in this business for any other reason [than] to protect and serve like you swore and took an oath to, you’re in it for the wrong reason.”