Village leader stands firm as debate rages
By Mary Schmich
Published June 24, 2007
Some days Bill Sarto asks himself, "Why here?"
He was asking that on Friday morning as he steered his silver Lincoln Continental past the new construction and old cornfields of Carpentersville.
Why, he wondered, had his small northwest suburb become a symbol of one of the nation's biggest conflicts? And how had he -- a retired auditor, hardly an immigration activist -- wound up in the middle?
A little American flag stood in Sarto's rear window as he drove, and under the driver's visor, he'd tucked a letter he received the day before.
"Bill," the note began, in blue ink on a cream-colored card. "Your political courage has not gone unnoticed by your friends."
It was signed by Dick Durbin, U.S. senator from Illinois.
Until a few months ago, Sarto, 58, was not a notable politician. A short, sturdy man with neat brown hair, he had run for village president in 2005, won by 39 votes and set to fantasizing about a new, improved Carpentersville.
Sarto and his wife, Cheryl, had settled here in 1996 because she wanted to live close to her father. When her father had a stroke, he moved into their five-bedroom house. Bill's parents lived downstairs.
Then both of their fathers died within six months. Soon afterward, Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer. She and Bill divorced, largely, he says, because she didn't want to put him through another illness. They remained good friends until she died on Jan. 1, 2005.
In short, Sarto had endured a rough few years by the time he hung a few plaques and an etching of John F. Kennedy on the walls of his little Village Hall office and embarked on his presidential plans.
He wanted to do more to unify the town on the west side of the Fox River -- where the Carson Pirie Scott and the new million-dollar homes are -- with the town on the east side, where there's a day labor center and old houses that go for $150,000.
He fantasized about a first-class hotel. A comedy club. And over there -- he said as he drove on Friday past a sweeping green cornfield -- a teaching hospital.
"Things were going along quite swimmingly," he said. He laughed. "But based on my personal history, I knew that the light at the end of the tunnel was probably a train."
Forty percent of the 37,000 residents of Carpentersville are Latino, but Sarto hadn't thought much about immigration when he was elected. If he did think about it, he was fairly conservative, despite being a Democrat.
The country needed to know who was coming across the border, he thought. And why did so many Mexicans who moved here keep flying the Mexican flag?
"Prior to this debate," he said on Friday, "I maybe have been siding more with the other side."
"The other side" are people like the Village Board members who last fall proposed the Illegal Alien Immigration Relief Act, an ordinance that would penalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and business owners who hire them.
Sarto was taken aback. He called the idea "nonsense." "Colossally bad." "Unenforceable."
Three thousand people showed up to protest. The proposal was put on hold, but tempers weren't.
Last week, the board approved a non-binding resolution declaring English the village's official language. Sarto called it an insult to 40 percent of the town.
There are people who call Sarto things too. He's known for his dismissive e-mails. He ordered the police chief to do personal investigations on his two main board opponents.
"I'm called a bully, dictator, whatever," he said. "Obviously I don't have a majority on this board, so I can't dictate. I try to give guidance. Sometimes I may be a bit heavy-handed. But it takes a heavy hand. It's almost like herding cats, keeping this board focused."
Sarto doesn't talk much about human dignity or human rights. He talks about the town being distracted from its real business, set in the wrong direction.
But in the past few months, his thinking about immigration has shifted. He's thought in a new way about his grandparents, Italian immigrants. His grandmother never learned more English than she needed to raise her seven kids and send her English-speaking sons off to fight in World War II.
He's been thinking about the Polish caretakers who came into his house to tend to his father-in-law.
"It gave me a look at the rest of the world and how they view America," he said.
His Spanish doesn't extend much beyond "gracias."
"But lately," he said, "I've been thinking that instead of pointing the finger at others and saying, 'Learn our language,' maybe I could learn some of theirs. It would be a good way to reach out to other people."
He's learning to stomach the hate e-mail, and sometimes he glances at that etching on his office wall of JFK. "I met him when I was 12 years old," he said, sitting at his desk.
The day JFK came to the Fox River Valley, the nuns at St. Laurence in Elgin let the kids out for the day. When Sarto saw Kennedy sitting on the back of a convertible, he chased him and grabbed his tie.
"He said, 'Stop the car,' " Sarto recalled. "I was a short, skinny kid. I think he was afraid I'd go under the wheels."
It was just enough contact that sometimes lately, he looks at that etching and thinks: "He was in a lot of tough spots. What would he do?"
Social change isn't made only, or even primarily, by great people. It's made by the slow accumulation of regular people who in a pinch, whatever the reason, do the right thing.
"This has been painful," Sarto said. "But from a larger perspective, it's rewarding that it's happening here. It's opening people's eyes."