Tom Kacich: One-time Champaign officer now in office
John Anthony made history last week when he was sworn in as Illinois' newest legislator, representing a House district that includes Kendall, LaSalle, Grundy and Will counties.
He is the first black Republican in the Legislature in 30 years.
He's also probably the first former Champaign police officer to serve there.
Anthony, now of Plainfield, was a Champaign officer in 2007, city records show. He said he left Champaign to accommodate his wife's new job in the suburbs.
He said he doesn't remember much about his time here, although he recalled that R.T. Finney was the police chief and that it "was a great time."
Neither Finney, now the interim chief in Bloomington, nor former Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart, a former Champaign cop, remembered Anthony.
"That's not unusual," said Finney, "we would get a lot of people who would come down here from the Chicago area to see what it was like but moved back to be closer to home and their family."
Anthony, 37, was chosen from among nine candidates to replace Rep. Pam Roth, who is moving to Texas. Now a deputy in the Kendall County Sheriff's Department, Anthony said he's had a longtime interest in politics, although he hasn't always been a Republican.
"It's always been a plan to run for some office. I just wanted to build my chops with helping as many campaigns as possible. I think you learn a lot by being a part of many different campaigns," Anthony said. "I've been in politics since I was 5 years old. My stepdad, actually my dad, was a precinct captain in the 21st Ward (on the south side) in Chicago. So I've been in politics since I was a little boy, passing out literature and walking in parades."
He was a Democrat in his youth.
"Bush helped switch me. When I saw how President George W. Bush was eviscerated by so many people on the other side, I wanted to know why. So I started studying both of the parties. Because growing up a Democrat you're kinda told to be a Democrat. You don't really get a choice. But George W. Bush was my hero. And then I started reading books about Ronald Reagan and he became a hero to me too."
Anthony said he likes "to look at both sides of an issue. I think that's why I became a cop too. That opened me up" to becoming a Republican.
"When you look at the Republican Party, you see that it was the party of the big tent. But I think we've forgotten that message that we're the party of the big tent," he said. "In this party I'm respected as an individual. When I'm looked at, I'm not looked at by my skin color or what victim class I may fall in. I'm looked at as individual. And right there that was enough for me.
"Don't get me wrong. There are some people who are victims. Life happens; bad things happen to real people. But that's one of the reasons my wife and I started a foundation. We don't feel the government should have a place in helping those people. It should be people like us who are willing to give of themselves to help these people."
Last August, Anthony and his wife, Deborah, opened a nonprofit organization for youth called the YARN Foundation. It is based in northern Kendall County.
"We actually started this from the grass roots. We took our own money and we built this nonprofit. We've yet to take any government money or anything like that. We're just trying to touch the lives of the kids."
YARN, he said, has mentoring and literacy programs for boys and is starting similar programs for girls.
"Community is everything to me," said Anthony, who before he was a Champaign police officer worked for the Safer Foundation in Chicago, a group focused on reducing recidivism. "One of the reasons I'm doing this is that I have four kids. And when you look across Illinois you realize that Illinois is in a lot of trouble. And that means my kids' future is in trouble.
"I feel like I'm a leader in my own right, and when I was called upon to do this, when it's your time you can't say no. Not when your leadership needs you or your state or your district needs you. So I couldn't say no."
YARN is located in a part of Kendall County called Boulder Hill where Anthony said he has done a lot of his police work.
"I got tired of arresting the same kids over and over and over again, or just seeing the same kids all the time and knowing that they just need a little guidance," he said. "We did a needs assessment of the entire county before we started this; we wanted to find out what the challenges were. For example, a lot of young people are attempting suicide, so we wanted to find ways that we could build programs around those issues to help them."
At YARN, he said, "We have what we call an 'I Am' wall. On this wall are over 50 words, and each week these guys have to choose two words from the wall like I am powerful, I am creative, I am outstanding, I am energetic, I am a leader, and they have to look at themselves in the mirror and say these words every day when they wake up and when they go to sleep. And we say it every time we meet.
"'I am a world changer,' they might say. And when we say world changer we mean right within their world. You can change the big world at a given time, but the thing is how do we change the world where they are living now, and allow them to see that they matter."
The work that Anthony is doing with young people sounds a lot like the message that Erika Harold, the former Miss America and now Republican congressional candidate, has been giving for years. It turns out these two groundbreaking young Republicans know each other.
"I have had the privilege of meeting Mr. Anthony and especially appreciate his work to empower young people and prevent bullying," said Harold, an Urbana attorney who is running for the 13th Congressional District seat held by Rep. Rodney Davis R-Taylorville. "I hope that those same qualities of empathy and advocacy for those who often lack a voice will guide his service in Springfield."
Anthony said he has no great vision for what he wants to do as a state legislator, especially in the undermanned (71-47) House Republican caucus.
"One thing I learned about being a cop is that when you first come in somewhere, you keep your eyes open, your mouth shut, your ears open and you listen and learn. I'm just at a point where I want to learn and listen," he said.
He doesn't know yet if he'll have to resign his position with the sheriff's department.
"I'm in talks with my department now to determine what is the best way to go. I'm prepared to resign should I have to resign," Anthony said. "I chose to be a state rep, so if that's the way I have to go, that's what I'll do."
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.