by Patrick Thomas
Area Democrats selected a candidate with a history of public service and strong ties to the community to run for the seat of departing state Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-35th).
Based on the ranking of an evaluation committee, Democratic committeemen selected Bill Cunningham, of Beverly, out of a field of 31 candidates to run in Joyce’s spot in the November election against Republican Barbara Ruth Bellar.
“I’m excited,” said Cunningham, 42. “I really appreciate the support I received from the committee, and I am really looking forward to getting a campaign together and starting a new job.”
An evaluation panel of 20 leaders from across the district, comprised of educators, organized labor, law enforcement, local chambers of commerce, mayors, 19th Ward Ald. Ginger Rugai and state Sen. Ed Maloney (D-18th), ranked each of the candidates who appeared before them on June 29 and 30. Each candidate submitted an application, disclosure form and resume before meeting with the panel. Candidates were allotted three minutes each to state their case. They were then asked four questions about their integrity, policy-making experience, loyalty to the Democratic Party and future employment plans should they be selected to run. The panel sent their rankings to five area committeemen, including 19th Ward Committeeman Matt O’Shea, who according to election law must appoint a candidate because he represents the largest concentration of registered Democratic voters in the district. O’Shea said he merely followed the panel’s suggestions.
“We had a very talented group, and in the end we asked the panel to rank the top five. Bill Cunningham had the most votes,” O’Shea said.
Cunningham was followed in votes by Connie Mixon, 44, of Beverly, an associate professor of political science and social science at Daley College, and Maureen Kelly, 51, of Beverly, executive director of community and government relations at St. Xavier University.
With her message that “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” the surprising Mixon impressed the committee with her energy and nearly won the nomination, sources said.
O’Shea said many of the panelists worked up until the deadline the following afternoon to reach a decision.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the committee, but I stated early on that whoever our evaluation committee chooses, we should honor,” O’Shea said. “After all, they spent six hours of their life on this.”
O’Shea said the committee liked Cunningham’s credentials.
“One of the things we looked for was a record of public service, proven leadership, personal integrity, knowledge of the 35th District and knowledge of this community we live in,” O’Shea said. “Bill gave a very strong presentation in his talk and in the question-andanswer session that followed, and it showed that he understood the issues that the 35th District faces.”
An employee of the Cook County sheriff’s office for nearly 20 years, Cunningham worked under former Sheriff Mike Sheahan as communications director for 16 years and then under Sheriff Tom Dart as chief of staff. On June 7, Cunningham left the sheriff’s office to work as director of communications for Gov. Pat Quinn.
The following day news hit that Joyce was stepping down to take a post with Ave Maria University in Florida, and Cunningham, who had always wanted to work in the Illinois General Assembly, was left with a major decision: take a pay cut and follow his dream to become a legislator, or stay with the higher-paying job with Quinn and possibly be out of a job if the governor isn’t reelected in November.
Cunningham chose the former, and odds are it will pay off in a densely populated Democratic district.
“Obviously the timing was not exactly ideal,” Cunningham said. “The day after I took my new job at the governor’s office, I had a decision to make right away, but serving in the General Assembly is something I’ve always wanted to do. I felt like I might not have the opportunity to do it again. I spoke with several people, including former Sheriff Sheahan and Sheriff Tom Dart, and they told me if that was what I want to do, I should pursue it.”
Cunningham also spoke with Quinn, who also encouraged him. He took a leave of absence from Quinn’s office so as not to create any conflicts of interest.
While in the sheriff’s office, Cunningham oversaw efforts to halt wrongful evictions in mortgage foreclosure cases and worked with a state commission to draft new cemetery laws and regulations in the wake of last summer’s Burr Oak Cemetery scandal. Cunningham also coordinated Dart’s efforts to improve monitoring of registered sex offenders and supervised several community policing initiatives since the early 1990s.
“I have a lot of experience working for 20 years in politics, most all of that in the sheriff’s office. I felt like I learned a lot from two of the best public servants in this community in Mike Sheahan and Tom Dart, who taught me the need to work hard and always look out for the interest of taxpayers,” Cunningham said. “I was raised in the belief that government can be a positive force for change for working-class people, and those values have always been important to me. That’s why I got involved in politics and why I wanted to run for the General Assembly.”
Cunningham is also no stranger to the community. He served on the Local School Council at Sutherland Elementary School from 2004 to 2008, and his family has a long history in the Beverly area. A lifelong Beverly resident, he said his family has lived in the area for 120 years.
Cunningham attended St. Barnabas Elementary School, Mt. Carmel High School and University of Illinois at Chicago, where he earned a degree in political science. He and his wife Juliana live on the 10000 block of South Bell Avenue with their daughters Madeline, 12, and Olivia, 9.
Cunningham said he plans to make the job a full-time endeavor if he is elected in November.
Former Worth Mayor Ed Guzdziol, 64, finished fourth followed by Kent Oliven, 42, treasurer and finance director for the village of Calumet Park, and Chicago Police Officer Kevin Butler, 29.