Former independent Chicago Ald. Martin Oberman was unanimously elected Tuesday to serve as Metra’s chairman — the first Chicagoan to assume that spot in the commuter rail agency’s 30-year history.
Before Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped him in September to replace another Emanuel appointee enveloped in controversy, Oberman was a Lincoln Park resident and Loop attorney who rode a bike more than Metra.
But since joining the Metra Board, Oberman has been diligently “doing his homework,’’ said former Metra Acting Chair Jack Partelow, who nominated Oberman on Tuesday. Oberman’s quick-study skills, diplomacy and persuasiveness convinced 10 fellow members — all suburbanites — to elect the only Chicagoan in their midst as chairman.
“It was his personality,’’ Partelow said. “It was the man. He impressed everybody.’’
Board member Jack Schaffer, a McHenry County Republican, conceded that he surprised himself by deciding that Oberman topped two suburban contenders for the job because of his “skill set . . . independence and integrity.’’
“I am very proud and comfortable voting for a Chicago liberal Democrat who I believe will do a good job as chair,’’ Schaffer said.
Even Oberman, 68, recognized that some observers might be wondering, “How can you have a City of Chicago person be chair of Metra?” The spot traditionally has gone to suburban Republicans.
Another Chicagoan, Larry Huggins, briefly served as acting chair, but later, as a board member, he was forced by Emanuel to resign during the tumult after the board decided to give then-CEO Alex Clifford a buyout worth up to $871,000 in June. Clifford had accused both Huggins and then-Metra chair Brad O’Halloran of orchestrating his ouster because he would not “play ball’’ on contracts and patronage.
Even if he is a Chicagoan, Oberman said, in the end Metra is “one system” spanning six counties, and each board member — including the chairman — has only one vote of equal weight.
Oberman said he will not “micromanage’’ Metra or do the “hiring and firing.’’ He called Metra a “billion-dollar business” that “needs to be run with the highest degree of corporate professionalism” and vowed not to “play political games’’ with it.
The former 43rd Ward alderman, known for his independent streak and reform work, assumes the Metra chairmanship as the agency faces rider complaints about delays and up to $9.6 billion in capital needs over 10 years.
His term will last until November 2016, unless lawmakers and a gubernatorial task force decide to reorganize Metra and other Chicago area transit agencies first.
Although RTA chairman John Gates Jr. has repeatedly questioned why Metra won’t float bonds to address its capital needs, Oberman wasn’t eager to embrace such an idea Tuesday.
“Our governments in Illinois are saddled right now with way too much debt, and it’s not my goal to go out and add more debt,’’ he said.
In the past, the politicians who appoint Metra board members have been thought to hold the strings on who’s elected as chairman. Board member Schaffer said Tuesday that “a couple” of appointing authorities were “sniffing around on the outside” of the selection process “but by and large they stayed out of it.’’
On the eve of his election, Oberman said Monday that he had not talked to Emanuel since the day the mayor appointed him. He received no marching orders from the mayor’ office on who should be Metra chair, Oberman said.
“I am not a person that people ask to serve in public life so someone can order me around,’’ Oberman told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think the mayor knew that. I have been asked to use my best judgment and that is what I have been doing.’’
On Tuesday, Emanuel was clearly happy about Oberman’s quick rise to Metra chair.
He said Metra board members, “see in Marty Oberman what I saw when I decided to nominate him: a person committed to public service, committed to the task ahead of him and bringing a vision of how to modernize something that will help serve the overall regional economy, which Chicago is the center of.’’
Contributing: Fran Spielman