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Ald. O’Connor the big winner in Council shake up

 Mayor Rahm Emanuel with 40th ward Alderman PO'Connor . Wednesday May 18 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel with 40th ward Alderman Pat O'Connor . Wednesday, May 18, 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 22, 2011 6:56PM

For 22 years, Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) has been the City Council’s most powerful aldermen. From now on, he’ll have to share the title with Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th).

O’Connor is the big winner in the City Council reorganization approved Wednesday.

Not only will he chair a powerful new committee that will carry the water on Emanuel’s most important legislation. He’s the new mayor’s floor leader — and one of the only aldermen who has Emanuel’s ear.

For a likable guy who’s not one to toot his own horn, it’s a somewhat uncomfortable position for O’Connor.

It’s one thing for him to broker and host the ice-breaking meeting between Burke and Emanuel. It’s quite another to join Burke in the political spotlight.

“I have five kids. So, that responsibility far outweighs any of this stuff. But, we’ll see,” O’Connor joked Wednesday when asked if he’s feeling the pressure.

O’Connor served for years as Daley’s unofficial floor leader. How does Emanuel’s style differ from Daley’s?

“They’re both pretty driven, plain-speaking individuals. As long as I speak English, I pretty much will know what I need to do,” the alderman said.

Emanuel was asked why he put so much trust in O’Connor, who came in fifth when he tried to claim the seat in Congress that Emanuel vacated in 2008 to become President Obama’s chief of staff.

“When I was a Congressman, we developed a close working relationship. When I was considering running [for mayor], he was somebody I talked to,” the mayor said.

“Pat is an alderman who’s experienced and seasoned in the City Council, a committed public servant ... and somebody I trust and [who] shares my sense of purpose to bring change about. That’s why he has this committee and is somebody I rely on.”

The son of a longtime deputy sanitation commissioner and married to his Mather High School sweetheart, O’Connor was elected to the City Council in 1983 at the age of 28.

He ran to help then-mayoral candidate Richard M. Daley by tying up an incumbent alderman who was supporting then-Mayor Jane Byrne. And he wanted to settle a score with Byrne, who had fired Patrick O’Connor Sr.

The younger O’Connor, an attorney, had already beaten Byrne by winning a Shakman lawsuit filed on his father’s behalf.

Daley had two chances to return the favor — in the 1990 and `92 campaigns for state’s attorney — and he failed to deliver both times.

The highlight of O’Connor’s aldermanic career was the behind-the-scenes role he played in settling a 1983 teachers strike while chairing the City Council’s Education Committee. The low-light was a mid-1980’s Chicago Sun-Times story detailing how O’Connor and others padded their aldermanic payrolls with relatives and friends.

Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune also reported that O’Connor’s wife sold $22 million worth of houses and condos in the 40th Ward after her husband signed off on zoning changes for those projects.

O’Connor has argued that “the community was totally supportive in every instance” and that he has followed the city’s ethics rules.

In 1996, O’Connor, then 44, was diagnosed with testicular cancer, a disease normally confined to men in their late teens and early 20’s. After surgery and radiation treatments, politics suddenly took a backseat. It’s a lesson he will undoubtedly carry into his new role.

“That’s probably the greatest moment of clarity you can ever imagine,” O’Connor once told the Sun-Times.

“You start looking around the dinner table and realize you have five children and a wife you might not be there for.”

Even after ceding power to his colleague, Burke had only praise for O’Connor.

“Ald. O¹Connor and I have absolutely no disagreement whatsoever. He is an outstanding member of the City Council, has been for many years and will continue to be someone that the other members look up to,” he said.

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