Dennis Deer, who was recently appointed to replace the late Robert Steele as 2nd District Cook County board commissioner. | Dennis Deer/Facebook

West Side business owner Dr. Dennis Deer was unanimously selected by a committee of aldermen and Democratic Party leaders to replace the late 2nd District Commissioner Robert Steele, who died on June 19.


According to the Cook County Code of Ordinances, the Democratic committeemen for the wards that are in the 2nd district were responsible for choosing Steele’s replacement. The committee members said that Deere’s selection came after a series of close votes.


There were 11 candidates who applied and interviewed for the position, but Deer had the backing of Bobbie Steele, Robert Steele’s mother — a former 2nd District commissioner and Cook County Board President — and Ald. Michael Scott (24th), who chaired the appointment committee. Both officials lauded Deer’s community advocacy, as well as his political work.


Deer will serve out the remainder of Steele’s term, which will end in spring 2018. The newly minted commissioner told the reporters that he intended to hit the ground running and reach out to South Side communities where he may not necessarily be as well-known as he is on the West Side.


Deer is the head of Deer Rehabilitation Services, a North Lawndale-based therapy services provider. He sits on the boards of the North Lawndale Employment Network and Strategic Human Services. He co-founded the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council and continues to serve on its executive committee.


Deer also served as the president of the Friends of Robert Steele fundraising committee. Before that, Deer ran for 24th Ward alderman in 2003 and 24th ward Democratic Committeeman in 2007. He chaired an anti-violence task force created by U.S. Representative Danny Davis (D-7th) and Steele’s 2nd County District Community Advisory Council.


Most of the Democratic ward committeemen with the 2nd District double as local aldermen. Their votes were equal to however many voters in their wards voted for Steele. Scott had 8,953 votes — the biggest number of votes in the district — but South Side aldermen had the highest share of the overall vote, collectively holding 50.43 percent of the vote share.


The committee met at Lofts on Arthington apartments, 3301 W. Arthington St., on July 13 to interview the candidates and decide which one to pick. While the interviews were open to the public, the executive session, where the decision was made, was not. Candidates weren’t allowed to be present in the room while the interviews were taking place.


Among the 11 candidates who interviewed were Keith Horton, Wall “Mickey” Johnson, Dennis Deer, Frank Bass, Didrick Rent, Rehayd Kazmi, Vetress Boyce, Kevin Bailey, Eric Stickland, Andre Smith, Trina Mangrum and Jawaharial Williams.


Illinois state representative Melissa Conyers-Ervin (10th), the wife of Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who sat on the nominating committee, showed up as a candidate, but she left shortly before the interviews began. Austin Weekly was unable to obtain a comment from her or her husband.


Deer was the second candidate to be interviewed after 20th Ward committeeman Kevin Bailey, who was interviewed first because, as a committeeman, he would see other candidates’ interviews and allowing him to go later would give him an unfair advantage.


Committeemen had the right to endorse candidates before the interviews began and Scott used it as an opportunity to praise Deer, describing him as a pillar of the community and someone who has what it takes to represent the community on the county board.


“[He is a] life-long resident, great guy, spiritual in nature, a great family man and a community man,” he said. “I don’t think we can ask more from a person who goes to the county [board].”


Deer said that he was honored to get the endorsement from the Steele family, noting that he considered the commissioner his mentor. He said that his goal was to build on what his predecessor already accomplished.


“I’m passionate about the same issues,” Deer said. “My goal is to provide continuity for Robert’s legacy and then take it up a few notches.”


He also noted that, as the head of Friends of Robert Steele, he already had the experience necessary to keep the seat after the next election.


“We already know how to raise money,” Deer said.  “We know how to win elections and we’re ready to hit ground running.”


22nd Ward Committeeman Michael Rodriguez noted that healthcare and public safety make up the lion’s share of the county budget and wondered how Deer would handle the issues. Deer replied that, as a doctor, he already had experience dealing with Medicaid. He also wanted to look over the Cook County Health and Hospitals System’s balance sheet to “make it better than it is.”


“For law enforcement, I’d like to see more cultural competency training and I would also like to see more mental health intervention training,” Deer added.


Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), who served as the committee vice-chair, asked what Deer would do about job creation. Deer said that he believed entrepreneurship training was key. He argued that it was especially important for ex-offenders, since many of them have skills that would be useful for building legitimate businesses.


When asked about how he feels about raising taxes, Deer said he didn’t have an easy answer.


“That would be one I’d have to think about, because I’d be concerned about constituents and raising taxes,” he said.


Other West Side candidates included Keith Norton, general counselor for the Illinois State Treasurer; former Chicago Bullas player Wallace “Mickey” Johnson;  Eric Strickland, executive director of the Lawndale Business & Local Development Corporation; Vetress Boyce, who ran for 24th Ward alderman in the last two elections; and Trina Mangrum, Ald. Ervin’s chief of staff.


It took the committee less than an hour to select Deer. Scott told reporters that there were four rounds of voting that whittled candidates down to the committee’s ultimate selection. During the final vote, the aldermen decided to back Deer unanimously.


The aldermen declined to comment on which candidates made the previous three rounds, saying only that it was a tough choice.


“It was much closer than I expected,” Scott said. “We had a lot of qualified candidates, a lot of people interested. It made it tough on the [committeemen] to get the job done.”


In a victory speech, Deer said he was grateful to the Steele family and the officials involved, and emphasized that he knew his job wouldn’t be easy.


“Know this — I need your prayers, because we have a lot of obstacles and we got a lot of work to do,” he said.


Bobbie Steele, who attended the meeting, told the Weekly that she had full confidence in Deer.


“Dennis has a proven track record in the community,” she said. “He’s a leader trained under Robert Steele. And, of course, I’ve known him since he was eight years old, and I’ve always known him as someone who helps his people, and helps people, period. That is his legacy and I know he will continue it on a bigger scale.”


Deer told reporters that, while he thought Steele’s endorsement helped “tremendously,” he was a strong candidate even without it, citing his work in the community as a major reason for his selection.  He said that public health and safety, as well as community development, would be his major priorities.


­When asked about whether he’s worried about campaigning on the South Side, where he isn’t as well-known, Deer said that many of the issues affecting the West Side affect the South Side as well, and that he was no stranger to that part of the city.


Scott told the reporters that Deer would have his support.


“We’ll help him,” he said. “I am willing to cajole other committeemen to help him.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...

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