Mathias: “I have no regrets” about 30 years in public service
State rep loses seat in election
State Rep. Sidney Mathias, alongside his wife, Rita, said he has no regrets about a 30-year career in public office that may be coming to a close.
Steve Zalusky | Staff Photographer
The inviting aroma of matzo ball soup wandered from the kitchen of state Rep. Sidney and Rita Mathias' Buffalo Grove home Sunday.
Rita was preparing soups to take to New Jersey for Thanksgiving, where she and her husband will spend the holiday with their two sons and their families.
Their plans testify to the fact that there is life after Springfield for Mathias, a Republican who in January will end a 14-year career in the state legislature — and perhaps his 30-year run in public service — because of his Election Day loss to fellow incumbent state Rep. Carol Sente.
Theirs was the only race in Illinois pitting incumbent against incumbent.
On Sunday, two days after his 68th birthday, Mathias reflected on a political career that began in 1983 when he was appointed to Buffalo Grove's Zoning Board of Appeals.
"I feel blessed," he said of his time in public office. "I have no regrets."
Mathias already was involved in the community when he joined the ZBA, as one of the founding members of the Jewish Community Center in Buffalo Grove. Another ZBA board member at the time, current Lake County Board Chairman David Stolman, encouraged Mathias to get involved in village government. After filling out a talent bank application, he was asked to discuss the ZBA position with Village President Verna Clayton.
Five years later, Clayton plucked Mathias from the ZBA and appointed him to serve the last year of an unexpired term of a village board member.
"A lot of people said to me, 'You would make a great trustee,' said Mathias. "I have never actively planned my political career. I felt that, if an opportunity comes up, I would evaluate it and either go for it or not. I was content in every position that I was in to stay in that position, and I loved what I was doing in every one of those positions."
Mathias ran for the trustee seat in 1989, hoping he could finish third, behind a pair of incumbents, in a race for three open seats. Instead, he emerged as the top vote-getter.
After Clayton stepped down and moved to the state legislature, Mathias ran for village president in 1991 and was elected by a wide margin.
"I looked at the field that was developing for potential mayor's candidates, and I said, 'You know, I think could do a better job.'"
As village president, he presided over the further development of the village, which annexed the Rolling Hills subdivision and added its second golf course. He also established himself as an advocate on transportation issues when he successfully pushed for a Metra station in Buffalo Grove — the one that bears his name.
"I would say the number one accomplishment that I had as mayor was bringing commuter rail to this area," he said. "It was very difficult. It had been talked about. It was a one-track freight line. I remember going to Washington and lobbying at that time Congressman John Porter."
In 1998, members of the Republican state House leadership approached him to run for the 51st House District seat. After a tough primary which he won by about 400 votes, Mathias was elected to state office that November, where his experience in regional groups such as the Northwest Municipal Conference served him well.
In Springfield, Mathias found himself in the minority party, which meant he would have to seek bipartisan solutions.
"I think I realized early on that in order to get something done you have to reach across the aisle," he said.
Today he regards as his biggest legislative accomplishment was his role in reforming the Regional Transportation Authority.
"CTA, Metra and Pace were in deep financial trouble," he said. "The CTA was threatening to cut substantial service. Something had to be done."
As minority spokesman on the Mass Transit Committee, he worked with then-Chairman Julie Hamos to pass reform, which added transparency and funding to the RTA, but he said also increased suburban influence. The act included a one-quarter percent sales tax to the counties for road improvements.
Perhaps Mathias is best known, however, for something that has yet to come to fruition: the extension of Route 53 into Lake County. Today, he is still hopeful it will move forward, saying it will bring jobs to the county.
He was able to bring transportation improvements to other parts of his district, such as the Route 22 bypass in Lake Zurich.
Mathias said his other accomplishments have included fighting a 1 percent sales tax increase in Cook County through legislation he proposed to roll it back. The measure never passed, but the sales tax hike eventually was reduced by half of a percent.
Heading into this year's election, Mathias said he knew the odds were stacked against him because of the Democratic redistricting following the 2010 Census.
"Like they say, the pen is mightier than the sword," he said with a laugh. "In my case I was running against the pen and the sword. The pen of redistricting and the sword of (House Speaker) Michael Madigan. And he held both in his hands."
Mathias said is able to put his life into perspective because of several family health issues, including his own. He was born with a congenital heart defect — an aortic valve that did not close properly — and had surgery to replace the valve last year. Fortunately, he was able to have the surgery before he suffered a health episode that could result in permanent damage.
"I feel good," he said. "I have lost 20 pounds. Not that I would recommend my way of doing it."
Now, he said, he looks forward to spending time with his wife of 40 years and visiting family on the East Coast.
Rita said the last year has been hard for her, too. She lost her mother this year, and her twin sister has had major health issues.
She looks forward to Thanksgiving.
"Going there will be a new beginning for us," she said.
Mathias said he plans to pursue volunteer opportunities and see what the future will bring.
"We'll see what's behind door number three."
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