Tom O’Halleran traveled an unusual road from a rough Chicago neighborhood to his present role as the newest representative from Arizona’s sprawling 1st Congressional District, and says his life and career choices have all contributed to his ability to work across the gaping chasm that is American politics.
Arizona’s 1st Congressional District is the size of Illinois, contains five reservations and the nation’s largest Native voting bloc; one-fourth of the population is American Indian and O’Halleran just wants to help everyone.
The son of a janitor who had lost his farm during the Depression, O’Halleran says his memories are of being “brought up in a home with love and caring.” That imbued O’Halleran with respect for other people and opinions as the family moved from basement apartment to basement apartment in some of Chicago’s rougher neighborhoods. In fact, “my childhood prepared me tremendously” for a succession of careers where the ability to engage with people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs is essential, he says.
That ability came in handy during O’Halleran’s first career in the Chicago Police Department, where he became a decorated homicide detective. After 13 years in law enforcement, O’Halleran moved on to the Chicago Board of Trade, a commodities exchange. Eventually, O’Halleran opened his own trading business and joined the exchange’s board of directors, where he led finance, floor operations and planning committees, further honing his ability to bring people together to develop solutions. O’Halleran next moved into consulting work, where he supported technology integration on trading floors and the development of new trading practices.
In 1993, O’Halleran and his wife, Pat, relocated to rural Arizona, expecting to enjoy a well-earned retirement. However, he soon found himself plunging into a third career: public service. “I never thought about being in government before,” says O’Halleran. “But, I got involved in some local community issues, and I went down to the legislature a couple of times. I didn’t like what I was seeing about how people were being treated. More than that, though, I was bothered by how the entire [legislative] process worked.”
After being asked to run for the state Legislature – and winning a seat – the scrappy kid from Chicago was sworn in as a State Representative in 2001. “Instead of in the business world, where we all at least try to work together, I found that one party was over here and the other one was over there,” he says. “Nobody worked with one another. So, I found groups willing to work together, and we really got things done.” Among other achievements, including reforming the state’s child protection agency, leading a bipartisan effort to institute full-day kindergarten and boost education funding, O’Halleran notes that the Legislature’s approval rating rose dramatically during his time in office.
O’Halleran, who has always had a keen interest in natural resources and is considered an expert on water issues, chaired the House Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee as well as its predecessor, the Natural Resources, Agriculture, Water and Native American Affairs Committee. However, his commitment to doing the right thing by his constituents sometimes didn’t sit well with legislative leadership. O’Halleran, at the time a registered Republican, was stripped of his committee chairmanship by the late Arizona House Speaker Jake Flake (R-Snowflake), coincidentally a cousin of U. S. Senator Jeff Flake, for defying the party. His transgression: Pushing through a bill that provided more funding for the beleaguered agency in late 2003. That didn’t deter him, though; O’Halleran is still a staunch advocate for children and rural communities. After three terms in the Arizona House, O’Halleran was turned out of office, but made a comeback as a state senator in 2007.
Over the next few years, O’Halleran became disillusioned with the Republican Party and eventually switched to the Democrats. Although he hadn’t been in elective office for nearly six years, in 2015 he says that he was asked to serve again. This time, O’Halleran ran to fill the newly opened congressional seat that former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick vacated in an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Sen. John McCain. O’Halleran defeated his Republican opponent, former Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, by a respectable six percent.
“But I don’t really have a desire to be in power, I just want to be in a place where I can help people,” O’Halleran says, including settling water rights on four tribal nations in his district. “We supported Tom O’Halleran because he’s supportive of our priorities, including housing, health care and education,” Navajo Nation President Russell Begay says. “We’ve already met with him in Washington, Phoenix and on the Navajo Nation to discuss these critical issues.”
Looking forward to his congressional term, O’Halleran has already begun to bring his collaborative governing style to the Beltway. “We will get a lot more done as Americans than we will by having these two power centers at odds,” he says. “When people work together, they get more done, instead of fighting.” He says he’s already filed a bill that would establish higher ethical standards in the legislative branch and is planning to file campaign finance reform legislation. He also has what he calls “people” issues on his priority list: “Education, children’s issues, jobs, natural resources and making sure that Native American populations are respected for their sovereignty and cultures, and to ensure they have a seat at the table.”