NORWOOD PARK — When Ald. Mary O'Connor (41st) was elected to the City Council in 2011, she knew she would face some big challenges as a freshman alderman elected by fewer than 300 votes to represent the largest ward in Chicago.
She just didn't think her biggest foe would be Mother Nature.
Since taking office, O'Connor and her five-person staff have coped with a number of wild weather events, ranging from blinding snow storms, high winds and rampaging floods.
"Sometimes I feel like I run a FEMA office rather than an aldermanic office," O'Connor said, laughing ruefully. "The weather has been non-stop."
And while all of the city has suffered through an especially cold and snowy Chiberian winter, the primarily residential 41st Ward, which includes Edgebrook, Norwood Park, Edison Park and O'Hare Airport, has been hit particularly hard, O'Connor said.
"This is a forgotten part of the city," O'Connor said. "For decades, we have been left to fend for ourselves."
O'Connor said she plans to run for re-election in 2015 after delivering on the vision of the ward she campaigned on, with improved schools, renovated parks and thriving business districts.
"We've made some big strides," O'Connor said. "I feel like I've made real progress reintroducing the city to the ward. I love this job."
Chicago Police Officer Kelli Kaelin said she plans to run against O'Connor for 41st Ward alderman and expects to launch her campaign soon.
O'Connor has about $31,000 in her campaign coffers, according to the most recent report filed with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
O'Connor, who is not married and does not have children, said she does not mind putting in the long hours it takes to serve as alderman and run two businesses, O'Connor's Market and Deli and Unforgettable Edibles catering.
"I've always worked," O'Connor said, noting that she's been in business for 25 years. "I love it. That's what I'm comfortable with."
O'Connor declined to join the Council's Progressive Reform Caucus, which often criticizes Emanuel and frequently votes against the mayor's initiatives.
"I wanted to stay independent," O'Connor said. "I like to deal with people one-on-one, in private."
O'Connor has energetically courted Mayor Rahm Emanuel, often praising him for supporting projects in the 41st Ward.
"We have been ignored for so long, the city has to reinvest here," O'Connor said. "And I tell the mayor all the time, the city will see a return on its investment."
The ward has benefited because of her "respectful" working relationship with Emanuel, O'Connor said.
"You have to work with the mayor," O'Connor said. "He is the leader of the city."
Nearly $30 million will be spent over the next year rebuilding crumbling sewers and water mains that contribute to flooding in the 41st Ward, O'Connor said. A hydraulic study is planned for the north and south side of Touhy Avenue in an effort to pinpoint the cause of repeated flooding in Edison Park, she added.
Last month, the first of three elementary school additions designed to relieve severe overcrowding opened at Edison Park Elementary School. Construction is expected to start this summer on additions at Oriole Park Elementary School and Wildwood Elementary School.
In all, the city and the Chicago Public Schools plan to spend $74 million over the next several years on schools in the 41st Ward, O'Connor said. That includes $17 million for new science labs, lockers and windows at Taft High School.
O'Connor said she would next turn her attention to Ebinger and Dirksen elementary schools, which would be among the most overcrowded in the city if not for modular buildings. Improving Taft High School will also be a "big focus" for O'Connor, she said.
"I want Taft to be a school that all parents want to send their children to, and I want there to be enough space for them," O'Connor said.
Taft is the most crowded high school in the city, according to CPS data.
All 41st Ward playgrounds will have new equipment and play surfaces by the end of 2016, O'Connor said.
O'Connor faulted former Ald. Brian G. Doherty — who represented the ward for 20 years — for allowing the ward's infrastructure to crumble. He stepped down after losing a race for the state Senate in 2010.
Doherty "did not advocate enough in the past," O'Connor said.
O'Connor defeated Maurita Gavin, one of Doherty's top aides, to win her seat.
The alderman said other priorities for the last year of her term include a proposal to change how the city allocates each alderman's discretionary budget, which is typically $1.3 million and is designed for infrastructure improvements, such as street and sidewalk repairs.
Instead of being based on each ward's population — which is about 50,000 people — it should be based on the geographic size of the ward, O'Connor said. That would benefit the 41st Ward — the city's largest, she added.
"I have 150 miles of streets," O'Connor said. "I can't even begin to address the street repair needs with my" discretionary budget.
But O'Connor acknowledged it would be a hard sell — one sure to be opposed by aldermen of smaller wards, who would lose money.
"It is a question of equity," O'Connor said. "It is simply not fair to taxpayers."
Other sources of frustration for O'Connor include Rosemont's huge new outlet mall, which has doubtless attracted shoppers from the city and is slurping up all-important sales tax revenue, O'Connor said.
In an effort to create a small entertainment district near the mall, O'Connor spearheaded a change in the zoning for property near the city limits, hoping to catch shoppers on their way to or from the mall.
"That area has been blighted for a long time," O'Connor said, noting that there are no tax increment financing districts in the 41st Ward to spur redevelopment.
O'Connor also is working to address the 124 percent increase in the number of complaints after a new east-west runway opened in October at O'Hare, she said. Along with Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th), O'Connor said she plans to hold a hearing to persuade airport and Federal Aviation Administration officials to turn down the volume.
"The conversation is active," O'Connor said. "That's my job."