DIXON – Silence filled the room as John Simonton stood on a chair to address the crowd of about 75 people gathered at The Crystal Cork Wine Shoppe.
It was just before 10 p.m. Tuesday, and Simonton, an officer with the Dixon Police Department and a retired Illinois State Police lieutenant, had just been announced as the winner in the Lee County Republican Party primary election, beating incumbent Sheriff John Varga 57 to 43 percent.
Simonton garnered 3,156 votes, while Varga, who was seeking a third term, received 2,411 votes.
In his speech, Simonton spoke of the importance of collaboration and cooperation between Lee County agencies – something he’s been talking about for much of the campaign.
He also talked about how, from the beginning, he tried to make sure the race wasn’t personal, relaying how he knows Varga’s father from his early days working as a state trooper in District 1. Varga Sr., Simonton said, would often be called out with his wrecker to help when car accidents happened. Simonton called him a friend of the troopers and a friend of the deputies.
“It’s been very overwhelming,” Simonton said before the votes were tabulated, standing near a projector screen showing the voting results. “I’ve had such good support, not only from the [campaign] committee, but the communities all around Lee County.”
Simonton worked until about 3 p.m. Tuesday, he said, then went to vote before heading home to try and relax.
“This is my first time in politics,” he said. “I had no idea what to expect and I have a new appreciation for everyone running for an elected office right now because of the work that goes into it.”
A little after 8 p.m., the results started being posted online. Each update was met with applause, as guests periodically checked their phones for more recent results and started to debate how much longer until the final result would be known.
For Simonton, the campaign began in September, when he put together his committee. Members of that committee and his family, friends and supporters joined him to watch that campaign come to a close – including people from the state’s attorney’s office, the public defender’s office, the Dixon Police Department, Lee County Board, and Dixon Fire Department.
While he acknowledged the possibility of a Democrat running against him in the general election, Simonton said he’s hoping to work with Varga to make the transition seamless.
“That way, I’m not just stepping in on December 1 cold,” he said. “From the previous jobs, I already know about policy and development and procedures. I know about promotional aspects, as far as being objective.”
He said he hoped those discussions with Varga – and possible discussions with Lee County Board members and other county staff – could start in the late summer or early fall.
As sheriff, Simonton would like to create more two-way communication within the department and pursue and expand partnerships with other area law enforcement agencies or fire departments.
Varga, his family, and close friends and supporters – among them Lee County Board members and various sheriff’s department employees – gathered at the Old Lee County Courthouse to watch the votes come in.
And slowly but surely, they did.
Simonton took an early lead, and held on to it all the way to the end, the building quietly emptying of people as time passed. By 9:45 p.m., only a small handful of people remained.
“I’m just disappointed in the outcome, obviously,” Varga said, standing outside the courthouse. “We had a very good, clean campaign. We ran the campaign very well. We had a lot of supporters all the way around, and I’m very pleased with that. Very pleased with the people that we had behind us.
“It obviously just wasn’t meant to be.”
When asked about his plans for what’s next, Varga said that’s something he’ll figure out in the morning.
“I’m still sheriff until Nov. 30, and I still gotta run the department and do what needs to be done to make the decisions, so I’ll continue to do the job until that time.”