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Kane Co.’s first openly gay judge talks about fight to get there

Judge John Daltswears his oath office with Judge F. Keith Brown Thursday Kane County Branch courtroom St. Charles. Daltis assisted

Judge John Dalton swears his oath of office with Judge F. Keith Brown Thursday at the Kane County Branch courtroom in St. Charles. Dalton is assisted by his husband Rich Jacobs. He is the first openly gay judge in Kane County. Mary Beth Nolan~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 5, 2013 6:12AM

ELGIN – It was a dream John Dalton hadn’t dared to dream, something, he said, “couldn’t be done.”

It was Dalton’s dream to become a judge, something that was fueled by the images of judges he saw in movies and on TV and by the judges he knew. Something he thought about as a young attorney and closeted gay man and concluded, “You couldn’t be an openly gay trial attorney, much less an openly gay judicial candidate.”

“It wasn’t until the world changed and there was progress toward equality that I dared to imagine a time when I could run for office and win,” he said.

That time finally came this fall when, after five years of dreaming, one failed campaign and a lot of persistence, he beat incumbent Republican Judge John Walters of Elgin to become the first openly gay judge in Kane County — really, he said, in any Illinois county outside Cook.

“That is exactly what I want to be, exactly what I want to do, so I fought for it for the past five years. In the end, persistence won out,” Dalton said.

Five years ago, Dalton, 51, of Elgin, said he felt like Kane County and society in general had come to a place where that dream could become reality. He felt well-equipped by the education his parents had given him and the experiences life had, he said. And he felt called to do it, he said.

So in fall 2010, the attorney ran as a Democrat for Kane County 16th Circuit Court judge.

He lost that race to Republican David Akemann, he said, but he didn’t feel like that was a repudiation of him or the campaign he had waged. Instead, it felt like a wave — nationally and locally, Republicans swept that election — and, he said, “a big enough wave will cast aside even a strong swimmer.”

Dalton quickly was buoyed by a win in spring 2011, putting him on the Elgin Community College District 509 Board of Trustees, which he called an “absolutely critical resource in our community.”

And “much faster than anyone could have thought possible,” he said, the opportunity to run for judge presented itself again: This time, for Kane County Second Subcircuit judge. This time, he won.

“I didn’t run as ‘the gay candidate,’ and I don’t see myself as ‘the gay judge.’ I was running as someone I thought was well qualified and competent, who just happens to be gay,” he said.

“But it’s true I believe I’ve broken down some barriers.”

District 509 includes parts of five counties — Kane, McHenry, DeKalb, DuPage and Cook — and Dalton said he believes he is the first openly gay elected official in all but Cook. (He married Rich Jacobs in 2008 in California, before civil unions became legal in Illinois.) He doesn’t want to hide that fact, he said, because there are thousands of gay youth in those counties who have not had prominent role models.

And for anybody who has a dream, he said, Winston Churchill’s words are true: “Never, never, never, never give up.”

“If you took your shot and you failed, that doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to do that. It just means you’re not going to get to do that right now. You have to be persistent — to dust yourself off and go back and keep fighting that for however long it takes,” Dalton said.

“No one ever gives you anything in life. You’ve got to fight for it, and as my late father used to say, ‘Anything worth having is worth working for.’”

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