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Tom O’Halleran: ‘If we don’t work together, it’s going to cost us’

Moderates may be an endangered species, but they have reason to hope, Arizona Democrat says

“As a country, we were formed to be together,” says Rep. Tom O’Halleran. “It’s not like we aren’t tied at the hip on the economy or health care — we are.”
“As a country, we were formed to be together,” says Rep. Tom O’Halleran. “It’s not like we aren’t tied at the hip on the economy or health care — we are.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Most of us only get to live one life. You establish yourself in one town, pursue a career in one field. For the partisans among us, you back just one party. 

Not Tom O’Halleran. The Chicago cop turned futures trader turned business consultant turned Arizona retiree turned state lawmaker turned radio host turned Democratic congressman has packed a whole lot of living into his 76 years. There has been one constant throughout most of it: his wife, Pat, and family. Oh, and the White Sox. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Q: You’ve had some pretty big career jumps, and one stands out to me the most. You went from cop to futures trader in the late 1970s. How did that happen? 

A: My father-in-law was a futures trader. He worked in the corn pits, not in financial futures. Financial futures were just starting up, and I was hesitant. I’d never even thought of that in my life. But I found the transition was much easier because you had to think on your feet and make decisions very quickly. Being a police officer, you’re trained not to get intimidated, and all that training carried over. 

Q: What’s a bear market compared to the ’68 riots, right?

A: That is true, all my life since then. And I did work in the ’68 riots.  

Q: You’ve talked a lot about why you became a Democrat. But why were you originally a Republican?

A: I grew up in a rough section of town, and my dad was a janitor, so I had seen a lot in life even before becoming a police officer. But then you get out there and start saying, Well, how did we get here, in a city like Chicago? It had been run by the Daleys for a long time. And I thought at that time that I knew more than I did.

And then later on in life, once I got involved in running for office, your life experiences start to pop into your head. You flashback to what you saw as a police officer, the struggles of people, the poverty, the violence. 

When I was in Arizona’s legislature, I didn’t think we were doing enough. So the transition began when I was still a Republican. I wanted to work with other people. I didn’t want people telling me why you can’t do this or that with the other party. 

When I lost a primary for the state Senate, I said, “OK, I’ve done my bit, and that’s about it.” I’m here [now] because Democrats came to me. My wife and I sat down, and it took us four months to make that decision. 

Q: Some people look at how polarized voters have become and say moderates are going the way of the dodo. Do you agree?

A: Well, if I’m disappearing, I’m not going to do it sitting down. As I look at the Problem Solvers [Caucus], moderates on both sides, we’re a larger organization today than we were in the last Congress. Because people find out that if you can work together, you can be more successful. That just has to be a message that gets out to the American people. 

As a country, we were formed to be together. It’s not like we aren’t tied at the hip on the economy or health care — we are. If this person gets sick over here, we’re not Sparta, we’re not going to put them on the hillside. We’re going to bring them in, because they’re part of our great country. We have to realize that if we don’t work together, it’s going to cost us so much more. 

Q: Democrats didn’t do so great down ballot in 2020, and the party’s pretty nervous about 2022. What’s your advice to the rest of your party, as someone who’s outperformed the top of the ticket?

A: My advice is to take a hard look at what constituents want and need. You can’t work on every issue effectively. I had a target to get on the Energy and Commerce Committee, because it deals with so many issues that impact my district, and also the Agriculture Committee, because I have the largest number of national forests in the country. 

There are no guarantees in this process. But there I’ll guarantee you one thing, if you don’t come here and try to find solutions, and all you want to do is argue and be political about it, you’re making a mistake. Because you won’t get any satisfaction out of the job, and your constituents won’t. 

The Blue Dogs are a great group, because we can try to help with messaging within the larger Congress and to the American people. And the Problem Solvers are a great group, because you can sit across the table from somebody and disagree, and not become enemies. 

Just like when I was in business, you don’t sit down at the table in negotiations and start going, “Well, I disagree. So let’s stop.” You keep working at it. I’ve been married for 52 years. You will always have your struggles during marriage, especially that length of time. But you don’t start by telling the other person they’re always wrong.  

Q: You’re a baseball fan, so I saved my hardest question for last. Cubs, White Sox or D-backs?

A: I’ve been a lifelong Sox fan. I grew up near the South Side of Chicago — the magnet was more to the south than to the north. My dad never went to a ballgame at all, but my uncle loved baseball, and he always went to Sox games except for one time. I went with him to a Cubs game, and he left the stadium and he goes, “Oh, we get to go home.” He didn’t mean “home” home. He meant back to Comiskey Park.

Quick hits

Last book you read? Tony Hillerman, I’ve read all his books. They’re mystery books.

In politics can the ends justify the means? No. 

Least popular opinion? I was a homicide detective, so I try to listen to all opinions.

If you could do anything else for a job, what would it be? If I was young enough, I’d go back to police work. It was a very rewarding job. But this one’s more rewarding.

Closest friend across the aisle? I’m a Problem Solver, so I’ve got a lot of them. Fred Upton, probably. 

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