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Article posted: 4/12/2013 5:30 AM

Des Plaines mayor-elect young, not inexperienced

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

At 26, Des Plaines Mayor-elect Matt Bogusz already has earned many distinctions -- among them youngest mayor in the Northwest suburbs, and perhaps the youngest city leader in recent Illinois history.

Bogusz's swift political ascent has raised speculation about his political future.

He said this week he's always been eager to serve his hometown, which he started doing as a Des Plaines Library board member and a member of the city's Special Events Commission. He was elected 3rd Ward alderman at age 22.

Now, Bogusz is essentially chairman of the board for a $125 million corporation.

Tuesday's decisive election victory surprised some, though perhaps none more than Bogusz himself.

"We did not truly expect that," Bogusz said of his wide margin of victory.

In a three-man field that included a popular former mayor, Tony Arredia, Bogusz captured 55 percent of the votes. Suburban mayors reacted with amazement.

Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson recalled that when he was first elected mayor in 1997, veteran leaders referred to him as the new kid on the block.

"I was 37," said Johnson, now 53. "I was told I was the youngest mayor north of Springfield."

Bogusz is the youngest mayor in the 52-year history of the Northwest Municipal Conference, Executive Director Mark Fowler said.

"Even though he's young, he comes in with a tremendous amount of experience," Fowler said, explaining that Bogusz has good working knowledge of city budgets as chairman of the city's finance committee.

"Just having the energy that it takes to do the job, I think that's an advantage that he has. What he lacks in institutional knowledge, he makes up for in enthusiasm and really a go-getter attitude."

Des Plaines' role as one of the larger cities within the conference is significant to the agency's ability to influence state legislation affecting municipalities, Fowler said.

For the past two years, Bogusz, a college intern for state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, has been serving on the municipal conference's legislative committee.

"Matt joins a long list of (Des Plaines) mayors that are active, not only regionally, but statewide," Fowler said. "They have been naturally looked at as a leader in the Northwest suburbs."

A leader early on

Even as a Boy Scout, Bogusz exhibited remarkable leadership qualities, veteran ABC 7 television reporter Paul Meincke recalled Thursday.

Meincke led a troop of Scouts on an 11-day backpacking trip in the New Mexico wilderness in 2004.

"Matt emerged very quickly as a natural leader," Meincke said. "He became the senior crew chief. He is a take-charge guy. … He's the kind of kid you look at and say, 'This guy is going to go places.'"

Bogusz earned his Eagle Scout rank and later became a director on the Northwest Suburban Council.

At Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, where Bogusz was student council president, Principal Daniel Tully, his government teacher, said it was obvious Bogusz was destined for a career in politics.

"He is articulate, organized, commands a great presence when he is in a room."

Bogusz helped found the school's debate team and won the Catholic Forensic League conference championship a few years in a row, Tully said.

"Matt's been a great success story and a great example of a don, which is our mascot."

Defying age

Bogusz's age was an issue throughout the campaign. His much-older opponents used the phrase "Matt wasn't born yet" as a punch line when speaking of their own accomplishments during candidate debates, and said he lacked the experience to lead a city of roughly 59,000 people.

Bogusz said focusing on his age backfired. "Every time they did it, I won votes," he said. "People like substance. They don't like petty politics. It's reverse ageism."

Neither Arredia -- at 75, almost three times Bogusz's age -- nor Alderman Mark Walsten returned phone calls requesting comment.

Bogusz said some voters didn't take him seriously because of his age when he first knocked on their doors, but that he won them over by listening.

"We were able to get support across all different age groups," Bogusz said. "Young families want to move forward, and the older voters were around and saw some of the hiccups of the previous administrations."

Bogusz, who said he spent about $35,000, was the only candidate of the three to use social media heavily to reach and engage voters, but he also used conventional methods, such as phone calls and mailers.

A savvy media professional, Bogusz showed he can play dirty by sending out an eleventh-hour mailer with the headline "Arredia Felon Tree" attacking the former mayor's political connections to people whose appointment Arredia's camp claims he had nothing to do with.

Bogusz defended the flier saying the information in it was sourced from newspaper articles and that throughout the campaign he tried to draw a contrast between himself and the politics of the past.

Ultimately, Bogusz said it was the boots on the ground that made the difference. He and 50 volunteers knocked on more than 30,000 doors. "We worked hard to earn the votes that we won."

He had the backing of former Des Plaines Mayor and now state Rep. Marty Moylan, who himself knocked on doors, made phone calls and distributed fliers contrasting Arredia and Bogusz.

"He's going to be a good mayor. He's got that determination," said Moylan, a Des Plaines Democrat. "Age shouldn't matter. It's about your record and your involvement with the community. He had a great ground game and a campaign organization."

Bogusz said he is optimistic he can build consensus among sometimes fractious council members.

"We're not always going to agree, but this council will be respectful of one another, and that's a priority of mine. We've got to compromise. We've got to work together, and we'll continue to move the city forward."

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