Flashy Suburban Mayor Prepares to Go on Trial
Rudolph Bush, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 13
Inside the village of Dixmoor’s dilapidated town hall, Donald Luster is known as the reverend mayor, and to hear him tell it, his service is an answer to God’s call.
But outside that building, his plentiful opponents use considerably less flattering titles to describe the sharply dressed ex-con turned minister who squeaked into the mayor’s office by one vote.
After three years as mayor, Luster’s foray into government could come to a crashing halt this week when he is scheduled for trial on charges that he failed to file his Illinois income taxes for two straight years and defrauded the state of $2,500 in unemployment benefits.
If convicted on any of the three felony counts, Luster, 41, would have to forfeit his office — and a term marked not only by questions about his often divisive leadership and always controversial history, but by a surprising measure of progress in the tiny, impoverished town.
Under Luster, Dixmoor has managed to secure at least one major new development, a proposed shopping center along Western Avenue north of 147th Street, a long-depressed area where the most vibrant business is an adult bookstore.
The town also is in negotiations with a developer to build a senior citizens apartment complex and has had talks with a major pharmacy chain, village sources say.
Some of the credit for the developments goes to the mayor, said Trustee Brad Carpenter, who despite being on the losing end of Luster’s one-vote victory in 2001 has been impressed by his ability to work with the Village Board as well as developers and businesses.
Any one of the developments would represent a major coup in Dixmoor, where the most recent business to come to town was a Department of Corrections work-release program in the late 1990s.
“He’s one hell of a talker,” Carpenter said. “When it comes to a businessperson calling, he’s on the phone right then.”
Luster also has overseen the replacement of the village treasurer with a Chicago firm, and for the first time in three years the town is getting comprehensive treasury reports, Carpenter said.
“I believe the people he has put around him have made him do a good job,” Carpenter said.
At the same time, the village is heavily in debt to its tax-increment-financing district, having borrowed some $850,000 in TIF tax proceeds just to pay the village’s day-to-day bills.
Figures on the town’s deficit weren’t available, but estimates by two trustees put Dixmoor at least a million dollars in the red.
Whatever progress Dixmoor has made under Luster is tainted not only by the town’s long-standing financial problems, but by the mayor’s current trouble with the law, his long criminal history and his flashy style.
“I knew from the beginning that that boy wouldn’t make a strong mayor when he first walked in [to Village Hall],” said Alice Green, a former trustee.
She recalls he started showing up at Village Hall meetings in the late 1990s, often getting in arguments with then-Mayor Erick Nickerson.
Luster said he had been attending council meetings for at least 10 years and knew early on that he hoped to one day run the town, something he openly acknowledges is a steppingstone toward his goal of some day running his own church.
“Have you ever felt called to something?” he asked. “I had to help people; it’s who I am.”
At Village Hall meetings and generally when he is in public, Luster talks and acts like a preacher, speaking in the emphatic cadences of the pulpit.
“He does the preacher thing, but when he gets really mad he resorts back to his former self, using slang” and cursing, Carpenter said.
Luster acknowledges he “wasn’t always a saint” but says he has changed his ways, something his critics find hard to believe.
Green watched Luster grow up, saw him get in and out of trouble with the law as a young man, then suddenly become an ordained minister at her Dixmoor church in 2000 and finally rise to challenge the political establishment in town.
“I’ve been knowing Luster since he was a little bitty baby,” she said. As a young man, “he was a bully and a thief,” she said.
Indeed, Luster was found guilty of robbery and battery in 1991, both felony convictions. He also was convicted of 3 other felonies, carrying an unregistered gun, obstructing police and disorderly conduct, court records state.
To hear him tell it, he was involved in only minor trouble and has since turned his life around.
“Do you know when I found out I had a felony conviction?” he said. “The day after I was elected.”
He never served time in prison for any of the crimes, according to state records.
That, too, could change if he is convicted of the charges against him.
The Illinois attorney general’s office is prosecuting Luster for failing to file state income tax returns in 1999 and 2000.
The attorney general also charges that in late 1999, Luster collected unemployment checks totaling $2,500 while working for a temporary agency. If convicted, he faces 2 to 5 years in prison on each count.
Luster did not elaborate on the allegations or his past crimes and declined to be interviewed formally for this article. His attorney did not return phone calls.
In two brief conversations, however, he said that he feels persecuted by prosecutors and the press for trying to help the village where he was raised.
One frequent criticism is that soon after he was elected, Luster had the village buy him a top-of-the-line Lincoln Town Car.
But Luster said published reports that he had the village replace that car with a newer model this year are false.
“They said I bought a new car, and there were no snowplows,” he said. “It was a lie. There’s a new fire engine and two new snowplows, and I don’t have a new car.”
Several trustees, including Carpenter, praise Luster for getting two slightly used plows for the village and a new fire engine.
Still, the fact he drives a Town Car on the village’s dime rankles some.
“I used my own car,” former mayor Nickerson said. “The village needed new equipment, such as police cars and hardware, and he goes out and purchases a luxury car for himself.”
The car cost about $35,000, according to village sources. In addition to the car flap, Luster has been criticized because the town’s fire station was closed from July through March, after a fire engine damaged the structure while pulling out on a call. The fire engine had to be parked in a nearby yard during the repairs, which began in February after months of bickering over who would receive the contract.
But it’s Luster’s style, as much as his actions and past, that seems to grate on those who oppose him. They point to his colorful tailored suits, wide brim hats and spit-shined shoes that stand in stark contrast to Dixmoor’s pot-holed streets, humble homes and, perhaps most of all, its tiny and miserably maintained Village Hall.
His most staunch political ally, Mayor Bill Shaw of Dolton, has backed Luster since before the 2001 election.
“Dixmoor is coming along very well,” Shaw said. “Donnie has done a good job in developing the landscape for the future.”
Despite that optimism, Luster and Dixmoor both seem to have an uphill climb ahead. Even so, the reverend mayor who is once again facing the law doesn’t seem bothered at all.
“We’re moving; we’re going places,” he said.