Friday, December 17, 2010

Aldermanic Candidates

Reprinted from the Beverly Review
by Patrick Thomas
Not long after 19th Ward Ald. Ginger Rugai won re-election in 2007, her aide and ward committeeman, Matt O’Shea, let her know that he was serious about taking her place someday.
“I said, ‘Hey listen, I don’t know when you want to retire or move on, but when you make that decision I just want you to know that I’m interested,’” O’Shea said. “Contrary to popular belief, this hasn’t been my plan for 15 years.”
But given the amount of community organizations he has been involved in, the number of contacts he has made throughout the ward and the local jobs he has performed, most pertinently at the 19th Ward Office, O’Shea’s plan to become the next alderman seemed only natural.
“At the risk of sounding cheesy, I care deeply about this neighborhood. I was lucky enough to grow up here; I’m raising my children here; and I hope they raise their families here. It’s the best place to raise a family, and I know that’s a line I use over and over, but it’s a line I truly believe.”
O’Shea will undoubtedly be repeating that line over the next two months as he faces five other first-time candidates in the Feb. 22 election for 19th Ward alderman.
Unlike the other candidates, as an employee in the office of the 19th Ward, O’Shea has to walk a fine line during the campaign. For example, he took a break from his office to walk across the street to a Dunkin’ Donuts for this interview. Laws prevent him from campaigning on city time, and he admitted that complaints have been filed against him with the Board of Elections regarding campaign ethics, which he said were in regard to use of campaign contributions for a 19th Ward Web site.
Despite those challenges, O’Shea said he continues to knock on doors and meet with voters, but he said his real push will begin on Jan. 1.
“People want to celebrate the holidays,” O’Shea said. “I don’t want to be that guy saying, ‘Can I talk to you about TIFs?’”
But O’Shea said he won’t be running a Rose Garden campaign, trying to stay quiet so as not to slip up and ruin his good chances of winning the election.
“We are facing some monumental problems in this community. People want to talk to you; they want to meet you; and they want to know who you are and what is your background,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea’s background is deeply rooted in the 19th Ward. With the exception of his college years at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., he has spent his life in the 19th Ward. All three of his siblings and parents live in the ward, and his wife, Cara, teaches at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS). He and Cara live in West Beverly and raise their three children in the parish of St. John Fisher Roman Catholic Church. The second of four, O’Shea, 41, grew up in North Beverly and attended Christ the King Elementary School and Mt. Carmel High School. He grew up with the Sheahan and Rugai kids and knew the Joyce and Hynes families, all longtime ward political leaders.
“I wouldn’t say I was enamored, but I always thought it was neat that their dads and mom were so involved,” O’Shea said.
At 23, while working in social services at the Cook County Courthouse in Markham, O’Shea bought his first house on the 11300 block of South Rockwell Street. On the side, he bartended at Reilly’s Daughter in Oak Lawn and McNally’s Tavern, 11136 S. Western Ave.
He has been criticized publicly on online message boards and local blogs for being nothing more than a glorified bartender, but O’Shea said that doesn’t exclude him from being a viable candidate. Bartending helped him pay off college loans, buy his first house and allowed him to meet many people for whom he organized countless outings and sports leagues.
O’Shea said he has worked various neighborhood jobs, from pumping gas at the former Gas City at 111th Street and Lawndale Avenue, to working at The Plaza in Evergreen Park as a janitor and finally as the director of community programs at CHSAS from 2004 to 2008.
“I don’t let that nonsense bother me,” he said. “That background made me a better person. I challenge anyone to find someone who has worked harder for this community for the last 20 years. The relationships I have built, the organizations I’ve been associated with, the people I have worked with to make this community stronger for the future. I’ll run my resume against anyone’s.”
In terms of community service, O’Shea’s resume is indeed long. He has volunteered for the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA) and served on the boards of the Beverly Arts Center and Mt. Greenwood Local Redevelopment Corp. He has raised money for Misericordia Heart of Mercy and Special Olympics Chicago, to name a few organizations.
He has worked in support of many local politicians’ campaigns over the years, and one year that got him in some trouble. During the 2003 election for Rugai, he was arrested after getting into an altercation with a campaign worker for an opponent. The charges were dropped shortly thereafter.
“It’s not a moment that I’m proud of. People who know me best know I wear my heart on my sleeve. Yeah, I’m embarrassed about it,” O’Shea said. “If you were to ask me what my biggest shortfall is, it’s that I have a bad temper.”
But O’Shea has shown he isn’t afraid to take action on behalf of his neighbors. On Christmas Eve 2008 while dressed up for Mass, O’Shea caught a suspected burglar by chasing him blocks through the snow.

But when he saw the suspects attempt to break into a home on the 10600 block of South Campbell Avenue, he took action. He chased the burglars through alleys and gangways at 107th Street and Campbell, past apartments and houses and finally to the 10600 block of South Western Avenue, where a juvenile threw a loaded gun aside before police caught him.
While O’Shea didn’t make it to Mass that day and said his wife was upset with him for trying to be a hero, he said his actions made for good conversation around the dinner table.
“No, I didn’t make it to Mass, but it was the talk of the Christmas Eve party,” he said.
If elected, O’Shea will have to deal with public safety issues, which he said require more police officers. He wants to take surplus funds from TIF districts to start a police hire pilot program. O’Shea said that in his current job, he works closely with local police.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not on the phone with the 22nd District. If I had my cell phone on me I would show you the 15 officers’ numbers I have in my phone,” O’Shea said. “I hound these guys with ‘What do you know about this? What do you know about that?’”
To fund city services, O’Shea said he wants to streamline city government by combining city departments. He said he is “leery” of privatizing Midway Airport. He wants to preserve the “7 percent solution” property tax cap in Cook County and said an income tax increase should be a last resort.
“We’re in a crisis here. We are not going to solve this problem with budget cuts or tax increases. I am not in favor of any type of tax increase until we exhaust all these other options,” O’Shea said.
Instead, O’Shea said, he favors a moderate expansion of gaming. He said bringing a city-owned casino to Chicago could help restore funding levels for city pensions.
“The budget deficit is in the billions of dollars, and studies have shown people are leaving to go to Indiana to gamble. If we put a taxpayer casino downtown, we can attract tourism and promote more people visiting the city,” O’Shea said.
Improving the options in public high schools is also an issue. While many neighborhood parents, especially in Mt. Greenwood, want to make CHSAS a neighborhood school, or at least open the enrollment, O’Shea said he is not ready to change admissions policies at CHSAS until numbers show a surge of neighborhood students being rejected.
“To remove the magnet [status] would be something that really needs to be looked at,” O’Shea said. “I wouldn’t race into that.”
But equally important an issue in 19th Ward public schools is overcrowding. O’Shea said he hopes an annex building will ease the situation at Mt. Greenwood Elementary School come September 2011. He also wants to build a similar unit at Cassell Elementary School. He said $2 million has already gone into improvements at Sutherland Elementary School. Rugai has sought a new Esmond Elementary School for several years, but those plans have never come to fruition. O’Shea said the schools need more room.
“Sutherland is crowded. Clissold is moderately crowded. Mt. Greenwood is busting at the seams. Cassell is crowded,” O’Shea said.
But while an annex costs about $2 million and might be considered a short-term approach, O’Shea reminded voters that the cost of a new school is high. For now, he is taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Let’s fix what we can now, and let’s work on what we can fix. We can’t build a school for next year. We need to find where we can get those dollars,” O’Shea said.
If a new school is built, O’Shea said it could possibly be one that could have special- needs children attending classes with general education students.
“There is gap between Barbara Vick and [CHSAS]. They are traveling all over the city. The most vulnerable kids are getting on buses and leaving the neighborhood. I want to work on finding an option here,” O’Shea said.
Meanwhile, because of a difficult economy and high property taxes, the 19th Ward’s private and Catholic schools have been struggling.
“Catholic schools are hurting because we have great options in the public schools here,” O’Shea said.
As far as economic development, O’Shea said it’s equally as important to sustain existing 19th Ward businesses as it is to recruit new ones.
“It’s real easy to go online and order this and that for Christmas, but we need to go to Ms. Priss. We need to go to Blossom Boys. We need to go to South Side Irish Imports. We need to go buy gift certificates from Koda. This is what we have to do for our community,” he said.
O’Shea said that too often local residents demand new restaurants but fail to support the restaurants and other local businesses they already have. He said he will continue to push for new opportunities.
“Ginger had her own way of doing things, and I am going to have my own way of doing things. I’m going to be actively involved in trying to recruit new businesses,” O’Shea said. “I think we need to work harder to attract new businesses, and we have to sustain the businesses we have.”
O’Shea’s resume also includes his volunteer work with the South Side Irish St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee during the last 13 years of the event’s existence. O’Shea’s family was close to the Hendry and Coakley families who started the parade, and he also marched in it during his youth. However, O’Shea said he was one of the majority of committee members who voted to end the parade. He said people tell him he will be haunted by that decision, but he said if elected alderman he has no plans of changing his mind.
“The South Side Irish Parade was a victim of its own success. It was something that was too big for our community,” O’Shea said. “Until I see a plan that makes that a safe event, I can’t foresee a South Side Irish parade coming back. The neighborhood has to be safe. Residents need to feel safe.”
O’Shea said the 19th Ward Youth Foundation is his proudest accomplishment. The organization, started in 2008, provides activities for community children, like a Nerf football league, movies in the park and the Beverly Hills Turkey Trot.
O’Shea credits his community involvement to his parents Dan, a retired investment broker, and Colleen, a retired travel agent. They are not politicians, but they get involved anyway.
“My parents were real active. They taught us as kids to just get involved, help out. Go shovel Ms. So-and-so’s sidewalk, go help that lady put her groceries in the car,’” O’Shea said.
But go run for alderman?
“No. I think my parents are proud of what I have done as far as community service, but I think if you ask my dad, he’d probably say, ‘What the hell is he doing this for?’”
It was his father who prompted O’Shea to work on the annual Christ the King Food Drive, and although he has not lived in the parish for 20 years, O’Shea still organizes the food drive, bringing together his classmates from Christ the King one day of the year to deliver food to eight centers throughout the city, including the Maple/Morgan Park Community Food Pantry.
“I was raised that is what you do,” O’Shea said. “My memory of that as a little kid was my dad waking me up on Saturday morning and saying ‘Get up. It’s the Food Drive.’ All I wanted to do was watch Scooby-Doo. I didn’t want to go knock on peoples’ doors when it was freezing out. Now I joke with my friends that whatever we do the rest of the year, we make up for it that day.”
O’Shea said his campaign has wide support. A November fundraiser drew 500 supporters. He said he has raised six figures for his campaign already, and by the amount of people saying hello to him at the Dunkin Donuts, it’s clear O’Shea is a popular candidate. But he said he is also the best.
“I’m committed to this neighborhood,” O’Shea said. “I feel like I’m the most qualified.”

I asked Mr. O'Shea for a photograph so that I could include it in this article. I felt that the photograph that was included in the newspaper article could be prejudicial.   Murph