As council's sole Republican, Doherty takes a pragmatic approach

Alderman Brian Doherty doesn't mince words when it comes to politics.

"If you want the gravy, you gotta play the game," says Doherty, who has represented the 41st Ward since 1991.

One might imagine that Doherty, the sole Republican on the Chicago City Council, would face a contentious and possibly futile battle for influence.

But Doherty, while careful to distinguish himself as a social conservative and a tax opponent, blends easily into a  Democratic council whose members do not often challenge the mayor.

His career illustrates that the city's Democratic machine rewards cooperation from outsiders as much as party allegiance.

His ward includes O'Hare airport and the far Northwest Side neighborhoods of O'Hare, Edison Park, Norwood Park, Oriole Park and part of Edgebrook.

The population skews heavily toward Irish, Polish, German, Italian and Scandinavian immigrants.

The ward's single-family homes and, increasingly, condominiums, house firefighters, police and senior citizens. Property taxes, parking and new development dominate the local political agenda.

Like many of his constituents,  Doherty grew up in a Democratic household and switched sides during the Reagan Revolution.

"The Democratic party had gone too far to the left," he says, "with things like affirmative action, quotas, taxes. It [the Republican Party] reflected my values more than the Democrats did at the time."

Doherty, 50, has a deep voice and a ready sense of humor. His blunt way of speaking suggests directness and political security. He garnered a fifth term in 2007 with 73 percent of the vote.

He and his wife Rose, a certified public accountant, are the parents of two teenagers.

The son of Irish immigrants, Doherty grew up with eight brothers and sisters in Austin, on the city's West Side. His father worked as a Sears maintenance man for 35 years, mixing mud for plasterers on the side; his mother was a banquet hall waitress.

He attended Catholic grade school and Lane Tech High School. He excelled at boxing in his teens, winning a Golden Gloves championship in 1974.

"In the old neighborhood you didn't break ranks. My dad used to joke that voting for a Republican was like joining up with the IRA,"  says Doherty. "But my philosophy - as we got older, it changed. I saw my paycheck and the money that was taken out of it."

His family moved to the North Side shortly after the Austin neighborhood was rocked by riots in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

Republican State Rep. Roger McAuliffe befriended Doherty's family in the early 1980's and gave the boxing champ his initiation into political pugilism.

"He had a real tough election in 1982. My brother and I helped him out, and we won in a squeaker. And I got the bug," for politics, Doherty says.

Doherty worked as a legislative aide for McAuliffe from 1984 to 1991, and learned lessons about politics as art, science, and customer satisfaction.

"Roger was the best retail politician I'd ever met in terms of door-to-door, hands-on and knowing the community," says Doherty.

Doherty put this mentoring to good use when he knocked on "literally 10,000" doors in the winter of 1991 to beat veteran 41st Ward Alderman Roman Pucinski, a Democrat.

Rita McGovern, executive director of the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce, says the key to Doherty's longevity is his flexibility.

"Brian sticks to his ideals and to his Republican ideals, but he doesn't place his ideology over the wishes of the people in his ward," says McGovern. "If it's a good idea and it works for the people of his ward, he'll vote for it."

McGovern says this can be seen in the work of the local advisory board Doherty set up to handle zoning issues.

"He's never gone against one of their decisions," says McGovern.

James DelMedico, 76, is an indefatigable booster who joined the alderman's staff in 1991.

DelMedico touts the ward's low crime rate and high-performing schools. He points out the four new restaurants coming to Edison Park's burgeoning restaurant row.

Doherty, says DelMedico "is real hands-on. He stands for union. The seniors love him, as well as some of the young adults who've moved out here. And he does a lot for the veterans too."

So, how does a Republican alderman get the goods for his ward from the Democratic machine of Mayor Richard M. Daley?

One factor is the large contingent of city workers who call Doherty's ward home.

"Well, first of all, Daley is pretty fair about distributing the assets and services," says Doherty.

"The other issue is, I have a very large bloc of policemen, firemen, city workers that I represent," say Doherty. It's not in his interest to shortchange them to get to me."

Shared backgrounds and values also link Doherty to the mayor and to the conservative West Side Democrats who comprise a powerful bloc within the council.

"I get along with him very well," Doherty says of Daley. "We're both Irish, both Irish Catholic.  He gets miffed at me. I get miffed at him sometimes. But we've never gotten in a yelling match."

Doherty has consistently bucked the mayor's requests for tax increases. When first elected, he pledged never to vote for a tax raise. He's toed the line, right down to his recent "no" vote on increasing the real estate transfer tax.

He has supported the mayor on the overall budget votes, though, until 2007, when he joined 12 other aldermen in breaking ranks.

"I know he's kind of angry right now," Doherty said in January. "I didn't support the budget and taxes. But I didn't go out of my way to denounce it on the floor, either."

Doherty says he and Daley have always seen eye-to-eye on O'Hare airport, the "economic engine" of his area and a crucial component of Daley's bid to promote Chicago as a global city.

His fiscal conservatism aligns with Daley's pro-business affinities. He voted against a scaled-down affordable housing ordinance in 2007 on the grounds that it would slow development. The mayor had offered the ordinance to stave off a more far-reaching proposal.

When it comes to patronage, Doherty is old school.

In 2005, he opposed dropping the city’s court challenge to the anti-patronage Shakman decree.

While he says he believes that higher skilled jobs ought to be filled based on "experience and merit" he says he has no problem with patronage hiring for low-level jobs.

"With everything being equal, how do you decide who digs a better hole?" he says.

The alternative, he says, is "bureaucrats start running the system, and, by nature, they're not efficient."

Asked if he sees any real differences between himself and Daley, Doherty says the mayor “is more liberal on social issues."

In the early 1990's Doherty opposed extending domestic partnership benefits to gay city employees, saying the policy would be open to fraud. In 2000, he cast the sole vote against calling for congressional hearings on slave reparations, maintaining that his constituents - many of them first generation - shouldn't be held financially accountable for the historic tragedy.

But Doherty doesn't let conservative doctrine stand in the way of catering to a heavily union constituency.

In 2007 he aligned himself with supporters of the "big box" ordinance that would have required big retailers to pay their employees better than minimum wage. His support for the measure was a nod to the large labor population in his ward, as well as a recognition that his constituents don't want a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood.

A review of Doherty’s voting record from 2003 to 2006, shows he doesn't rock the boat often. Doherty voted with the mayor on key divided votes 78 percent of the time, according to former alderman Dick Simpson, now head of the political science department at UIC.

Doherty’s rate of agreement with the mayor on divided votes ranks below other Northwest Side Democrats like Margaret Laurino (D-39) and William J.P. Banks (D-36), both of whom had an 87 percent agreement rate.

But Doherty sided with the mayor on divided votes more often than some council members on the left, like Toni Preckwinkle (D-4), who voted with the mayor 50 percent of the time and Ricardo Munoz (D-22), who voted with the mayor 71 percent of the time.

Although the 41st ward has tilted Democratic in the last three presidential elections, Doherty has won reelection by solid margins. He's part of a popular Republican trifecta that includes State Rep. Mike McAuliffe (R-Chicago), who is Roger McAuliffe's son, and County Commissioner Pete Silvestri.

Norwood Park resident Frank Coconate, who's been stymied in his campaigns as an "independent" Democrat in the ward over the past seven years, charges that Northwest Side Republicans and their conservative Democratic brethren have colluded to keep more liberal Democrats from gaining traction.

Democrats in J.P. Banks' 36th ward, as well as in the 41st, Coconate says, enforce a non-aggression pact with Republicans in the 41st.

The Daley machine likes having Doherty run the ward, says Coconate, "because he doesn't stir up any anti-Daley sentiment."

Doherty, recounting two bruising partisan fights in 1996 and 2002, says there's no pact. Doherty dismisses Coconate as a "gadfly," and says he's not part of the Daley machine, just "occasionally allied."

"The interesting thing is we all work together, Democrats and Republicans, for our neighborhood," says Doherty. "The majority of us grew up together; our kids go to school together. We don't go looking for fights. We're content with what we have here, as long as we can work with other guys."

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