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Rahm Emanuel chooses veteran Ald. Matt O’Shea to head Aviation Committee

O'Hare runway construction work in 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday chose Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) — a political work horse — not a show horse — to chair the City Council’s Aviation Committee and ride herd over an $8.7 billion O’Hare Airport expansion project.

O’Shea replaces newly retired Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd), whose decision to step down early touched off a heated competition for the Aviation prize.

Sources said the Aviation sweepstakes ultimately came down to a rainbow of three finalists: O’Shea, Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st) and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th).

Having chosen a Hispanic replacement to fill Zalewski’s City Council seat, Emanuel was free to avoid playing racial politics.

The mayor ultimately chose O’Shea because he trusts him to make certain that minorities and women get their fair share of the gravy train of jobs and contracts generated by the O’Hare expansion project, but to do it without grandstanding or delay.

Ald. Matt O’Shea will be the new chair of the City Council’s Aviation Committee. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times
Ald. Matt O’Shea will be the new chair of the City Council’s Aviation Committee. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

That’s particularly important now that Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans is on her way out and Chief Procurement Officer Jamie Rhee is on her way in.

“I always try to be a team player. I put the time in. I work hard each and every day. I have the ability to bring parties together and the track record has been just to be steady. Not say a lot. Just try to get things done,” O’Shea said Tuesday.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), chairman of the City Council’s Hispanic Caucus, will serve as vice-chairman of the Aviation Committee. He will help O’Shea in ensuring a fair distribution of jobs and contracts.

“I’ve always been fair. I always try to be fair. I know how important this is to the future of our city. That expansion at O’Hare is our future,” O’Shea said.

“I’ve worked well with Jamie Rhee over the last few years on different projects. I’m up to the challenge — and I know it’s gonna be a challenge.”

Moreno said he likes O’Shea, but not the mayor’s selection.

“For Latino parity, it should have been a Latino — not necessarily me,” Moreno said. “And you’re appointing somebody who voted against the Legal Defense Fund for immigrants. In this day of Trump and what’s going on, it’s kind of a slap in the face.”

O’Shea has established himself as a popular alderman who pays attention to housekeeping details while serving as the City Council champion for victims of domestic violence.

A fee weeks ago, he stood at Emanuel’s side as the mayor announced plans to tax Airbnb and other home-sharing services yet again—this time to double shelter beds and support services for victims of domestic violence.

The choice of O’Shea can also be viewed as belated political payback for the pivotal role that O’Shea played in helping Emanuel survive the 2015 mayoral runoff.

Between the first and second rounds of that mayoral sweepstakes, Emanuel boosted his support among white voters by 11.25 percentage points.

The increase was fueled by Emanuel’s showing in O’Shea’s 19th Ward, where the son of Democratic power broker Jeremiah Joyce worked for vanquished mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

With O’Shea’s formidable support, Emanuel got 59 percent of the 19,828 total votes cast in the 19th Ward.

Ald. Matt O’Shea. | Sun-Times file photo
Ald. Matt O’Shea. | Sun-Times file photo

The mayor’s boost among white voters was further driven by his 63.6 percent share of the 18,373 votes cast in the Northwest Side’s 41st Ward. That defied those who claimed Emanuel would pay a price for his decision to turn a deaf ear to noise-weary residents around O’Hare Airport.

In a post-runoff interview, O’Shea said his ward had a 56 percent turnout — well above the citywide 40 percent — and Emanuel carried 56 of 57 precincts. He pointed to Emanuel’s decision to prevent the Beverly Arts Center from closing and improve Southwest Side schools, including Morgan Park High School.

On Tuesday, O’Shea acknowledged that the political help he provided to Emanuel in 2015 may well have played a role in his selection.

“I’ve enjoyed a good relationship with the mayor. Even when we disagreed on issues, I’ve always quietly disagreed with him. He’s been very helpful to my community. That’s what’s most important to me,” O’Shea said. “We did work hard, particularly in the runoff. I think the mayor has done a good job under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I look forward to continuing working with him.”

Ald. Nick Sposato (38th), vice-chairman of the Aviation Committee, campaigned hard and publicly for the Aviation chairmanship, which comes with a modest, $109,496-a-year budget that hasn’t been raised in years.

Sposato had also urged Emanuel to steer clear of racial politics, arguing that if any group is being shortchanged in City Council leadership, it’s whites.

The mayor ended up taking that advice in a way he hopes will boost his standing on the Southwest Side.

But the beneficiary is O’Shea.

“Matt O’Shea is a great guy. He’s a hard worker. He’ll do great in that position. I’m fine with it,” Sposato said Tuesday.

O’Shea’s Southwest Side ward does not include an airport. But he grew up “directly under” a Midway flight path.

“It wasn’t uncommon on nice summer days with the windows open to have to tell someone, `Hold on a second’ when you were on the phone,” he said.

In other Council moves, Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) is the new vice-chairman of the Transportation committee. Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) will serve as vice-chair of the Human Relations Committee. Ervin gets a seat on the slow-starting Chicago Infrastructure Trust. And Ald. Michael Scott (24th) will become a member of the Finance Committee.

Zalewski’s City Council replacement, State Rep. Silvana Tabares, gets a seat on seven lesser committees: Workforce Development, Budget, Health, Economic Development, Housing, Special Events and Human Relations.