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Martin Oberman, ‘smart guy in bow tie,’ to forge new route for Metra

MartJ. Oberman former 43rd Ward alderman his law office 135 S. LSalle. Oberman is Metra's new chairman.  |

Martin J. Oberman, a former 43rd Ward alderman, in his law office at 135 S. La Salle. Oberman is Metra's new chairman. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times

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Martin J. Oberman

Family: Son of the publisher of a scrap metal industry trade magazine and a full-time homemaker.

First job: Congressional page, age 13.

He owns: 20 bow ties, because “you don’t spill on them when you eat.’’

He drives: A 2011 Saab but has biked to work since 1972.

Favorite vacation spot: Caribbean islands with warm-weather beaches.

Husband of: Bonnie Oberman, Chicago director of Facing History and Ourselves.

Father to: Justin, adviser to transportation industry startups; Maren, an educator.

Most important trait: As Calvin Coolidge put it, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”

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Updated: March 19, 2014 6:10AM

As an independent alderman fighting the Chicago Machine and a public interest lawyer arguing in appellate court, Martin J. Oberman never held the gavel.

But he will starting Friday, when he takes the center seat for the first time as chairman of beleaguered Metra.

The new head of the board of the nation’s second-largest commuter rail agency comes to the role while Metra is under more pressure than perhaps at any time in its 30-year history.

The 10 suburban board members who unanimously elected the Chicagoan as chairman on Feb. 11 say he has the right skill set to usher in a new era. They cite his lawyerly powers of persuasion, “straight shooter” reputation, quick-study skills and consensus-building work.

After 12 years as the underdog in the City Council — and three failed runs for Illinois attorney general — the man best known as a bow-tied reformer is finally a player on a big stage.

The challenge of making an impact before his term expires in November 2016 doesn’t faze Oberman.

“I’m hitting the ground running,’’ said Oberman, who already has done extensive homework by visiting Metra about a dozen times since his September appointment.

“There’s no choice but to push. We have a lot of needs.”

Hitting his ‘sweet spot’

In recent months, Metra has faced nagging complaints about delays, allegations of influence-peddling, threats to upend the agency and a grilling over the up-to-$871,000 buyout of former CEO Alex Clifford.

Long-term, looming large is Metra’s estimated $9.6 billion in capital needs over 10 years — something board members hope Oberman will be effective in spotlighting and addressing. Nearly 60 percent of Metra’s rolling stock was rated beyond its useful life in 2012 — the worst record among the Chicago area’s three transit agencies.

At 68, Oberman has ping-ponged his way to the biggest job of his career.

A native of Springfield, he lived at one point in a house bordered on two sides by cornfields. Now he lives in Lincoln Park and often bikes to work.

He barely rode Metra before Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him to the board. But Oberman also notes he knew nothing about racing when he became general counsel to the Illinois Racing Board in 1972, yet he helped advance reforms there.

His right ring finger holds his class ring from Culver Military Academy, an elite Indiana boarding school where he marched every day in uniform.

Yet, Oberman said, it was watching other men in uniform — the Chicago police — attacking anti-war protesters during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention that convinced him to go into public service and fight, among other things, the Chicago Machine.

Though valedictorian at Culver, Oberman was an average student at Yale University, where he majored in psychology. But by the end of his junior year, he displayed the kind of persuasiveness that helped win him Metra’s chairmanship.

At 19, Oberman persuaded the psychology department chair to let him spend his senior year in independent study of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Initially, the chairman balked.

The department was stocked with “behavioralists,’’ Oberman said. “Freudian theory? We don’t do that here,’’ the chairman told him. He doubted Oberman could find an adviser on the topic. But Oberman ferreted out a professor who appreciated Freud. Afterward, he had his best year academically at Yale, he said.

From there, in law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oberman was “absolutely brilliant” and “at the top of our class,’’ said classmate Jim Munson, a retired attorney.

“His brain already worked like a lawyer’s when we got to law school’’ in 1966, Munson said. “He hit his sweet spot.’’

At UW-Madison, Oberman proved himself a gutsy problem solver. When students were being pummeled by police during anti-war marches, Oberman and another student came up with the idea of standing as nonpartisan human buffers between the protesters and the police.

“I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of,’’ Munson said. “But by golly, Marty went out and led it and it had a very calming effect.’’

The ‘smart guy in a bow tie’

In 1968, Oberman did volunteer work for Democratic presidential hopeful George McGovern. Around that time, he met an Encylopedia Britannica editor who supported anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy. Bonnie Oberman has been married to Oberman for 43 years.

“He was the funny, smart guy in a bow tie, even then,’’ she recalled.

After a stint at what is now the Sidley & Austin law firm, Oberman succeeded Bill Singer in 1975 as aldermen of Lincoln Park’s 43rd Ward. He followed Singer’s tradition of gathering heavy input on contentious issues, said friend and publicist June Rosner.

As a result, Rosner said, “Marty knows how to work with all sorts of interests and people and listens very intensely to what everybody says. He can bring divergent interests together. There’s not a lot of people like Marty around who have a lot of integrity.”

Oberman was among a handful of progressive anti-Machine aldermen who held news conferences off the council floor but couldn’t get anything done on it during the era of Mayors Richard J. Daley, Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne.

“It was never a question of winning council votes,’’ Oberman said. “It was a question of raising an issue — an impropriety, a waste in the budget — and publicizing it.’’

In 1987, Mayor Harold Washington gave him a chance to be a leader as chairman of the Shoreline Protection Commission — a role that required consensus-building.

Three unsuccessful runs for attorney general — in 1981, 1986 and 1994 — persuaded him to never run for public office again. He got “fed up” with the fundraising.

Instead, he kept busy as a lawyer on complex litigation and public interest cases. He garnered a largely winning record in appellate court.

Under Mayor Richard M. Daley, Oberman said, he put out feelers that he’d be interested in a public service role. No one ever called.

Similar feelers were relayed to Emanuel. “I recall saying ‘I did not want to sit on some boring board,” Oberman said. “If you have a problem that needs solving, give me a call.’ ’’

A “stimulating challenge”

Emanuel not only gave him one call, but two. Oberman served on Emanuel’s Midway Airport Privatization Commission, which dissolved after one of two bidders bailed out. On his last day on that commission, Emanuel pulled him aside and asked him to serve on the Metra Board.

“I told him I’d do it, but what was the agenda?’ “ Oberman recalled. “I was not someone who was interested in taking orders. He said the agenda was to go over there and make it transparent and accountable, that it’s essential to the economic health of our region that Metra be successful.’’

Oberman says he “barely knew” Emanuel when he was initially recruited. But the timing was right, said longtime friend and attorney Judd Miner, because Oberman was itching to dive into a meaty policy issue.

“He thought it might be exciting to clean up a board with a history of not operating very effectively in an area that’s very important,’’ Miner said. “He finds these kind of challenges stimulating.’’

Now that he finally holds the gavel, Oberman hopes to do something positive with it.

“It wasn’t a total loss, all those years of fighting, and he doesn’t regret it,’’ Bonnie Oberman said.

“But the point is, this is very different. He wanted to be in a position where he could get things done and bring about reforms. . . . He’s someone who has a lot of skill. Now, he’s going to be in a place where many more people are going to see it.’’

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