Ald. Matt O’Shea is feeling the squeeze from both sides as he runs to return to City Hall representing the Southwest Side political bastions of Beverly, Mount Greenwood and Morgan Park.
On the right in the 19th Ward race, Fraternal Order of Police-backed former Chicago police Sgt. Mike Cummings is hammering O’Shea, saying he has failed to support cops and take the steps necessary to make area residents and business owners feel safe.
And on the left, computer consultant Tim Noonan argues the ward is far more racially, economically and politically diverse than O’Shea and other Southwest Side Democratic machine politicians in charge over the decades have accepted. Today’s residents deserve a City Hall representative who better embraces those differences, he says.
O’Shea is positioning himself in his run for a fourth term as the middle-of-the-road realist who has worked with all kinds of people throughout the ward and has a record of accomplishments to prove it.
At a moment of widening political polarization in the city, the Election Day question is: Will the incumbent successfully chart a path between his opponents or will the electorate from one side or the other carry their standard-bearer to a seat on the council? If none of the three candidates secures more than 50% of the vote on Feb. 28, the top two vote-getters will face off in the runoff election on April 4.
O’Shea noted that the eastern end of the ward tends to be more integrated and progressive, while Mount Greenwood to the southwest is more conservative. Overall, he said, his approach best fits the entirety of the 19th Ward, which is bracketed by suburbs to the west and south.
“I have always tried to be, I would always describe myself as a moderate, as being pragmatic, being able to build relationships and work with everybody, no matter where you’re coming from,” O’Shea said. “Not only do I do that in the City Council, but I do that here in the community.”
O’Shea pointed to big recent investments in local public schools such as Morgan Park High School and Esmond Elementary School that have large Black student populations as evidence he appreciates the importance of making improvements to help people throughout the ward.
And on the public safety side, he said he has brought in technology to help police locally, such as observation cameras and license plate reader cameras, while also introducing legislation in the City Council aimed at speeding up the hiring of more officers and trying to convince those already on the force to stay.
“What I’m running on is a record of doing everything I can to work closely with law enforcement, the Chicago Police Department, the 22nd (police) district, making my community, having it continue to be, a safe place,” O’Shea said.
“But like many communities in our city, we’re seeing an uptick in crime. We’re seeing crimes we haven’t seen before. And that’s alarming, and when some elected officials talk about, ‘shootings are down, murders are down,’ people don’t want to hear that,” he said. “Both reported crime and the perception of crime are up. People are afraid to be out at night.”
Cummings said O’Shea only pays lip service to backing cops.
He retired from the Chicago Police Department in 2021 after 35 years. Cummings was in the spotlight in 2014, when the Police Department conducted an internal investigation into whether he told a band to cut short its set at McNally’s bar in Morgan Park because there were “too many Black people” in the crowd, according to the Beverly Review.
The department also looked into whether Cummings owned McNally’s in violation of Police Department rules. The investigation found the allegations were not sustained, according to the Review.
Cummings said he didn’t make the comment about the crowd and didn’t own the bar.
Cummings said it became apparent during unrest in Chicago in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer that O’Shea wouldn’t go as far as he should to back police who were working long hours in tough circumstances.
“In 2020, with all the social unrest or rioting that was going on, I contacted our alderman and he didn’t have any answers. He said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ ” Cummings said. “And I asked him to take a vote of no-confidence against the superintendent and the mayor, and he said, ‘It doesn’t work that way.’”
“He’s a 12-year incumbent, he claims he’s pro-police. But at the end of the day, he’s walked away from the police,” Cummings added.
Chicago needs to attract more police by improving their working conditions, in part by doing a better job standardizing their days off, Cummings said. “People want to be police officers. Right now they don’t want to be Chicago police officers,” he said.
O’Shea said Cummings doesn’t offer real solutions. “People want their elected officials to work together to find solutions,” he said. “All I’ve heard from Mike Cummings in recent weeks and months is divisiveness.”
Noonan, meanwhile, said the ward needs a new direction.
“Both of my opponents are looking at public safety through blue-shaded glasses, if you will,” he said. “I’m looking at it from a community standpoint, because I think the answers to our problems are in the community, not in the police station. Oftentimes, people speak of crime, and crime is a reactive thing, and public safety is proactive.”
“A lot of police understand there needs to be community building between police and the community,” Noonan said.
But there also needs to be a different understanding of who lives in the ward and what they want, he said.
“I’m running against two ‘back the blue’ types, and going through the census data, first responders are not even the top five of the number of careers the citizens of the 19th Ward actually have,” he said. “And they are the loudest, no doubt about that. But they are not the most populous.”
By bringing residents together to deal with issues rather than “siloing” 19th Ward neighborhoods and demanding they compete against each other for resources, Noonan said the ward can better take advantage of its talent.
He pointed to the campaign he and other residents successfully mounted to defeat a 2016 proposal to shutter Kellogg Elementary School in Beverly as part of a ward-wide public school restructuring plan meant to alleviate overcrowding at other area schools.
“When we were doing the closing of the school, there were a few of the activists, there was a guy who did marketing work for companies, we had all these resources together that we didn’t know that we had, and were able to fight to keep the school open,” Noonan said. “So we were able to tap into that and keep the school open. So there’s a lot of diversity — not to mention race as well — but there’s a lot of diversity across the board.”
While it’s more diverse than its long tradition of Irish political hegemony would suggest, the 19th Ward remains one of the whiter council districts. Under the new map approved by aldermen last year, the ward is about 61% white, 27% Black and 7% Latino, according to city records.
Noonan noted the irony of “another white Irish guy” running on a platform highlighting the ward’s diversity, and said he would have happily stepped aside if another progressive had shown interest in running. “If we could have found somebody of color or a woman it would have been probably better,” he said.
It’s also a ward with a tradition of locally owned businesses catering to residents. But Cummings said that formerly thriving shopping scene is a shell of what it once was, with lots of vacant storefronts “with brown paper over the windows and metal grates down over the doors” along stretches of 95th Street and elsewhere.
“It boils down to crime,” he said. “If you’re going to be a retailer, you’re not going to open up in Beverly or Mount Greenwood when you can go across the street into Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park and have the security of the police department. There’s just no economic development here.”
Noonan likewise pointed to the struggles of neighborhood commercial corridors, and said he would fight to direct more city money to help independent stores rather than luring chains with property tax incentive packages.
“A lot of businesses are closing,” he said. “A lot of support for mom-and-pop businesses, that’s what they need here. We see a lot of these larger corporate businesses that are coming here, being wooed here with (tax-increment financing) money.”
O’Shea said it’s tough for neighborhoods on the edge of the city to compete with nearby suburbs that “have many more tools that they can offer to businesses to locate there.”
But he said he has worked with local business groups to attract retailers, and organized fundraisers to help stores weather the pandemic.
“That’s been a battle long before the last few years,” he said. “There are significantly fewer vacancies in the 19th Ward today than there were when I started.”