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Chicago

Osterman has come a long way

By PAUL M. GREEN

The date: February 26, 1990
The place: Chicago City Hall's Office of Special Events
The Event: Frankie Avalon is coming, Frankie Avalon is coming

The staff is scurrying around preparing for the visit of the onetime teen idol who has agreed to be part of the city's summertime festivities entitled "Back to the Beach." Good-natured fun turns to spontaneous hilarity as some staff members emerge dressed in outlandish beach garb, funny hats and grass skirts. Avalon's appearance is preceded by a conga line to the mayor's office, and the entire event ends with friendly ribbing between Office of Special Events staff, the mayor's staff and the media.

Observing this frenetic energy is the unquestioned leader of the group: Kathy Osterman, director of the Office of Special Events (OSE). Few individuals in the one-year-old Daley administration can match "0" in political muscle, governmental influence or loyalty to the mayor. As the slogan goes, "Osterman's come a long way" in a relatively short period of time.

A decade ago Osterman was a community organizer in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood on the city's far northeast side. She worked with all types of local groups, volunteering her time in efforts to create playground safety programs and senior citizen social activities. In 1981 she joined the new administration of the recently elected Cook County State's Atty. Rich Daley as community supervisor.

A political Pygmalion, Kathy Osterman has transformed herself into a major political force along the city's lakefront. winning the 48th Ward alderman post in 1987 and the ward's Democratic committeeman election one year later. Veteran city political observers whether they are friends or foes of Osterman agree or one vital point: She has become a major player in 1990 Chicago.

Keeping up with Osterman as she tells her views of the city's future is like trying to lasso a volcano. She does not talk, she erupts. Ideas flow in many directions, but they all have a common theme: Chicago's economic and cultural advancement.

She scoffs at recent critics who have accused her of politicizing OSE, of consolidating her power within the city's culture and arts community, and of unabashedly promoting herself and Daley. "I'm too busy," she says, "doing my job to worry about them."

According to Osterman, she will "not have a day off between Memorial Day and mid-September." She rattled off such time-consuming coming attractions as Taste of Chicago, Gospelfest and the 110 summer neighborhood festivals. With a slight grin she adds, "This job has even more tension than being alderman."

My immediate response was to ask her why she voluntarily gave up being a Chicago city council member (a cherished goal to many would-be city pols) to take her new post. Her response revealed an individual whose personal ambition and dreams for Chicago have united in a perfect job for her. "In the council," said Osterman, "I was one of 50 .... Now I'm in charge of an important citywide department." She ad-

38/April 1990/Illinois Issues


mits, "The decision to switch wasn't easy, at this job has allowed me to meet such incredible people like Lech Walesa, a man who has changed the world."

Osterman also sees her job' heavily involved in economic issues. She argues, "OSE is very critical as to how Chicago is positioned in the 1990s .... We need to project an attractive image for business and tourism as well as promote fun, music, culture and people events."

Loyalty is important to Osterman. She remembers vividly her climb up the ladder in the 48th Ward and how she and a young state senator. Rich Daley, became allies a decade before he decided to run for mayor in the 1989 election. With undeniable pride Osterman asserts, ' 'Rich was in my ward talking about issues facing the elderly like nursing home reform before he even ran for state's attorney." Whatever political battles lie ahead for Chicago's new Mayor Daley, he can be sure of one thing, that Kathy Osterman will be at his side.

Urban America faces many challenges in the last decade of the 20th century. It must search for revenue while moderating its need for taxation; it must find solutions for the poor in the areas of health, housing and education while it maintains its middle-class tax base; and it must provide improved amenities for its low-income residents while satisfying the lifestyle demands of its middle- and upper-income inhabitants. With the departments of special events, tourism and films clearly under her command, Kathy Osterman has responsibilities and capabilties to help meet these difficult challenges.

She is far more than "the good time girl'' or the Pearl Mesta of Chicago politics. Though to some her duties seem frivolous, she commands a politically sensitive and economically vital post in the Daley administration. The mayor knows it, she knows it, and the people of Chicago will soon know it. Chicago is Kathy Osterman's kind of town. And she is going to keep spreading her influence with a hearty smile and boundless energy that will mask only partially her strong desire to achieve success for herself, her city and her mayor.

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors State University.

April 1990/Illinois Issues/39


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