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Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer speaks at the Cook County Health Professional Building in the Illinois Medical District, Tuesday morning, April 12, 2022. Deer died Sunday at the age of 51. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Cook County Commissioner Dennis Deer dies at age 51

The Democratic commissioner was known for his advocacy of improving mental health care.

Dennis Deer, a Democratic commissioner on the Cook County Board, has died.

He had complications from a rare double lung transplant he received last year, said Commissioner Bill Lowry, who said goodbye to Deer yesterday in the hospital with Deer’s family.

“He’s more of a brother than a colleague,” Lowry said. “I’m going to do everything I can to continue the service he started on top of my own service. There won’t be a day I don’t think about him.”

In a statement on social media, Deer’s family said he died on Sunday and that his “greatest joy and pride were his family” — his wife and high school sweetheart, Barbara, and his three children.

Friends and colleagues remembered Deer, 51, as warm, approachable and positive, someone who proudly wore his spirituality and spoke in “Deerisms,” or phrases he would often say, like ‘No doubt.”

He became commissioner in 2017 after then-Commissioner Robert Steele died. Deer represented the second district, which covered parts of the South Side into downtown. Born and raised on the West Side, Deer was a therapist and counselor and was passionate about mental health.

Deer was chairman of the health and hospitals committee on the county board, and also was a member of the Cook County Health board. The county has one of the largest public health systems in the nation, with a legacy and mission to provide medical care to people no matter if they can pay.

Commissioner Donna Miller, who represents the south suburbs, said Deer’s advocacy for improving mental health care will be a big part of his legacy.

“We’re all talking about it now, but really even six, eight years ago, we weren’t talking about it to the degree that we were, but he’s always been talking about it,” Miller said.

He also helped lead the push to make Juneteenth a paid Cook County holiday and advocated for healthier food options in a campaign called “Food is Medicine.”

Miller said she was particularly proud of Deer as a family man, noting that he and his wife had Friday night date nights. His family celebrated big milestones this year, as his kids graduated college and high school.

“He really inspired me to love the love of family, and how he just incorporated that in everything he did,” Miller said. “His wife is my sorority sister, so I will wrap my arms around her because I know it’s not just the hard part right now. It’s the next year. And then the next year.”

In a statement, county Board President Toni Preckwinkle said she is devastated by Deer’s death.

“He was a fierce champion of equity in every space he entered,” Preckwinkle said.

She said Deer brought his intellect, wisdom, passion, advocacy and faith everywhere he went.

“I will miss him greatly,” Preckwinkle said.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who served on the county board with Deer before becoming mayor, called his former colleague “a beacon of hope and compassion” and a “tireless advocate for the underserved and underrepresented.”

Deer had a double lung transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital last year. His lungs were failing so much that he took his third oath of office in a hospital room, according to the Sun-Times.

“I am just taking in every moment to be grateful, to not take any day for granted,” he said after receiving his transplant. “It is a blessing to be able to breathe again.”

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County government.

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