Candidate questionnaires

Portrait of Mary E. O'Connor

Mary E. O'Connor

Candidate for City Council, 41st Ward

Mary E. O'Connor

Candidate for City Council, 41st Ward

Portrait of Mary E. O'Connor

Education: Attended High School at Resurrection High School and received a Bachelor of Science with an emphasis on Nutrition from Eastern Illinois University.

Occupation: Alderman, City of Chicago 41st Ward

Home: Chicago

Age: Not answered

Past Political/Civic Experience: Not answered


Candidates running for City Council, 41st Ward

Responses to the Chicago Tribune's questionnaire

Q: Last year, the Chicago Tribune's investigative series "Broken Bonds" reported that, since 2000, Chicago had issued long-term bonds to spend nearly $10 billion, much of it for short-term operating expenses. Hundreds of millions of dollars went to delay bond payments by refinancing old debts, a tactic known as "scoop and toss" that extends payments far into the future. Was this borrowing justified? Going forward, how should City Hall change its finances to pay down existing debts and provide services? Will you argue primarily for cuts in spending or for tax increases? Please be specific.

It is difficult to say what the council believed was justified back when our City was struggling in the midst of a global economic recession. When I joined the council in 2011, I was not privy to all of the information the members had at the time that decision was made. I agree that these bonds were not ideal and that it appears that there was some crafty maneuvering. In general, I do not support general obligation bonds to cover debt. The fact is that reform comes over time and it cannot all happen at once. Elected officials cannot make every tough decision at the same time. And yet we still have responsibilities to our pensions, employees and city services. We need to continue to find a balance between making the necessary reforms as quickly as we can while meeting our obligations. Our goals should be to show marked progress each year that changes the debt and deals with debt more responsibly.

Q: Chicago will face a substantial increase in contributions to its police and fire pension funds in 2016. Chicago's unfunded pension liability amounts to about $7,000 for each resident of the city. How should the city solve its pension crisis? Please be specific about pension changes, spending cuts or revenue increases you would support.

The 41st Ward is home to many of Chicago's first responders. As such, I am committed to finding a solution to our pension crisis that will allow these brave men and women to retire with the economic security they deserve. Our government made promises to our public employees and unfortunately, our elected leaders did not fully appreciate the consequences of failing to live up to those commitments. Instead, we delayed and deferred on our obligations. A deep economic recession and the near financial collapse of our market were also contributing factors. And while I am certainly sensitive to the genuine concerns of our public workers, I do not believe our pension crisis can be fixed solely on the backs of taxpayers, many of whom lost their jobs and watched as their 401K plans disappeared in the last decade. Moving forward, I think it is clear that there has to be some give and take on all sides to resolve this problem. The leaders that are here today, myself included, have to make the difficult decisions and find a compromise that will save our pension system and avoid bankruptcy. In terms of revenue, I owe it to our retirees to consider all reasonable options, which might help stabilize our pension systems.

Q: What changes should be made in the city's use of tax increment financing? Would you support expansion or extension of TIF districts in your ward? How should excess TIF funds be spent? Do you support the $55 million allotment of TIF funds to buy land for a Marriott Hotel and DePaul basketball arena? Please explain.

The 41st Ward is the only one in the City of Chicago that does not benefit from TIF districts, so I am inclined to support measures that return surpluses to their respective taxing body. A TIF can be a useful tool for spurring economic development and creating good, high paying jobs for many residents in communities like mine. Ideally, they should produce a positive return on our investment by establishing a stronger local economy that will produce significant tax revenues. I believe that aldermen should be allowed some discretion when it comes to how those TIF funds are spent since they are ultimately in the best position to assess the right choices for economic development within their community. The impacted community should also have considerable input into proposed projects. The Marriot Hotel and DePaul basketball arena project is an appropriate use of TIF funds as the project will eventually help grow our tourism industry and increase economic activity in the surrounding area. It will also create many new jobs, across a wide range of trades and professional services.

Q: The Tribune Editorial Board recently offered "12 ways to heal a city" — the best ideas among more than 1,000 suggestions from readers on how to craft "A new Plan of Chicago." These proposals are available at Please tell us which ideas you would champion. We invite you to offer additional ideas for dealing with Chicago's challenges.

As a business owner, economic development is very important to the overall revitalization of our city. We need to provide the right incentives to bring businesses into our blighted areas. We must also continue making investments in after school programs, expand the use of services that help young people who have dropped out of school receive a high school diploma, and job-training programs in new industries so that future generations of young people have the skills they need to gain employment. I will continue to support efforts that expand access to our City Colleges, so that every child, regardless of their financial circumstances, has the opportunity to earn a college degree without having to rely on student loans. Better jobs will lead to stronger neighborhoods.

Q: Should the City Council keep or abolish the office of legislative inspector general? Should the city inspector general be given the authority to investigate aldermen and their staff members? Do you have other ideas to improve government ethics in Chicago? Please explain.

I support handing all oversight of aldermen and their staff over to the Office of Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. The City Council must have a watchdog that is credible, independent, and adequately funded.

Q: The Chicago Public Schools system has seen significant improvements in freshmen on track and high school graduation rates. CPS has also closed dozens of schools, used fiscal 2016 revenue to balance its 2015 budget and faces a roughly $700 million pension payment in 2016. Please give us your assessment of the academic and financial performance of the city's public schools. What is the key to improving public education in the city? Should members of the Board of Education be elected by the public or continue to be appointed by the mayor? Do you support the longer school day and year? Should CPS expand or reduce the number of charter schools? How should CPS close its significant budget gap?

I think our public schools are going in the right direction with graduation rates steadily rising and dropout rates declining. I'm excited about the measures we have taken on Early Childhood education and the increase of IB and STEM programs. The longer school day keeps kids in the classrooms and off the streets, and we should continue pushing for improved reforms of the school board. I do not support charter schools in the 41st Ward, as I do not believe they have a role to play in our neighborhoods, which are already home to some of the best schools in the City of Chicago. My preference is to continue making the necessary investments in our neighborhood schools so that they may keep up on advancements in technology. I support additional cost cutting measures at CPS so long as those cuts are kept out of the classroom.

Q: How would you attract more employers to your ward? How would you encourage employers to hire local residents? What have you done to promote economic development in your ward?

As a business owner and former President of the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce, I have had significant experience attracting employers into my neighborhood. As alderman, I have fought to ensure that my community directly benefits from economic activity in the surrounding area. For example, I introduced an ordinance that requires a percentage of non-federally funded projects be awarded to local residents. Whenever I meet with prospective businesses or developers, I strongly encourage them to hire locally, support union workers, join their local chamber of commerce and identify ways to support the community they seek to do business in. I also work closely with the City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development and other groups that foster development to strengthen our approach to growing businesses in the community. I have taken on filling empty storefronts by working hand-in-hand with the Chamber of Commerce.

Q: Do you support or oppose the City Council vote to increase the minimum wage in several steps to $13 an hour by 2019? Please explain.

I opposed this specific legislation because I think that we need a unified minimum wage that is not done by each municipality. However, I have been a longtime supporter of increasing the minimum wage. Increasing the minimum wage is an economic driver that will greatly benefit many working families. I contend that the minimum wage must be increased in a responsible way so that small businesses, specifically in border wards like mine, can absorb the additional payroll costs and keep their doors open for business and remain competitive in their pricing. There has to be a balance between the economic benefits of raising the minimum wage and losing small businesses that cannot absorb costs all at once which is why I support a responsible timeline for increasing the minimum wage.

Q: Should the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art be built at the proposed location on Chicago's lakefront? Please explain.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will bring tourism and help create revenue, and in addition, this project will not be financed using taxpayer dollars. Our city is dealing with serious financial problems and bringing additional tourism dollars to the city will help offset some those challenges.

Q: How can the city improve public safety? Please address the role and performance of the Chicago Police Department and the role of neighborhood residents in crime prevention. What have you done to improve public safety in your community?

The 16th District, which protects the 41st Ward, is the largest in the City of Chicago and I would support efforts to see its boundaries redrawn. This could result in smaller beats and improved response times throughout the district. While the 41st Ward is made up of the safest neighborhoods in Chicago, I have no doubt my ward would benefit from an increased police presence. I also support hiring additional police officers and making sure that every district is properly staffed. We must do more than simply keep up with the rate of attrition. I also support continued investments in our CAPS program, which plays a critical role in addressing the issue of public safety in my neighborhoods. The services they provide our seniors are extraordinary and we must do all that we can to support their mission. This past year, I also worked closely with OEMC and my local police commander on implementing new strategies for ensuring that calls for service in areas like the 41st Ward are assigned appropriately and that communication between dispatchers and our local police districts take into account our specific challenges. I also speak with the commander regularly to receive updates on safety issues in the ward and will continue to do so. In terms of community involvement, I regularly hold public safety forums where we review crime trends and safety tips. The community also gets an opportunity to directly ask questions to commanders and CAPS officers on crime issues affecting their neighborhood. I have also had tremendous success using social media as an opportunity to inform the public about specific crime trends and important alerts.

Q: Do you support Chicago's traffic light camera program? Please explain.

I did support it, however my preference has always been to have more officers on hand to enforce these traffic laws. Ultimately, I voted to support the establishment of child safety zones because the issue of reckless driving around our schools and parks is one that many parents and community members in my ward contact the service office to share their concerns about. Furthermore, a portion of those revenues are redirected back into traffic safety for things like speed humps, improved signage and street markings, and youth education programs in impoverished areas. I am encouraged that motorists are adhering to the law as the actual revenues from this program are falling far short of the initial projections.

Q: Should Chicago reduce the number of aldermen in the City Council?

No. I have the largest ward in the entire City of Chicago geographically and properly maintaining that territory is already a demanding task, one that I consider to be a full time job and then some. This is in addition to fulfilling an alderman's legislative responsibilities. Decreasing the number of aldermen will only strain an alderman's capacity to effectively deliver basic city services on behalf of his or her constituents. Residents in Chicago expect to be able to contact their alderman and submit a wide range of service requests, if the City Council were cut in half, the vast majority of those services would have to be centralized, a decision that I do not believe a majority of residents would support.

Q: What is your highest priority for improving your ward? What is the greatest concern you hear from residents of your ward?

For many years, the needs of the 41st Ward had gone ignored. Today, more and more tax dollars are being reinvested in our communities as a result of my efforts to secure additional investments in our schools, parks and local infrastructure. Those investments can and must continue as there is much more important work to be done. While many large-scale projects have been addressed, I would like to see the City of Chicago continue making significant investments in the delivery of those basic city services that have diminished in recent years as a result of budget cuts. Important services that residents have come to rely on like street resurfacing, forestry issues, street cleaning, snow plowing, expanding senior services, and other important functions. The expansion of O'Hare has impacted many residents in the 41st Ward. I pushed hard to make sure the concerns of my ward's residents were heard and I will continue to stand up for my ward and fight to protect the quality of life for my residents. I want to expedite the phasing out of louder, older aircrafts, enforce the Fly Quiet program and expand the Noise Abatement Program. I would also like to explore other options to reduce the noise impact on residents' quality of life. Making additional investments in our first responders and growing our business districts would also be priorities for my second term in office.

Q: Please tell us something about yourself that would surprise us.

I have never once had a cup of coffee.