Sid Sullivan brings background as community organizer to mayoral campaign

Thursday, March 18, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Sid Sullivan discuss how the city might shore up its revenue shortfall. Watch Sullivan answer 11 questions on issues of importance to the city.

COLUMBIA — The girls all knew he wanted to be a priest.

"I think it was something that was growing," he says. "It got to be a problem senior year of high school. In terms of getting dates, it was always a problem."

Sid Sullivan

2980 Maple Bluff Drive

PERSONAL: 67. He is married to Joan Sullivan.

OCCUPATION: Retired. Worked for Roche Diagnostics for 12 years. He worked in the Illinois Department of Corrections and in the Cook County clerk’s office, also in Illinois.

EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and mathematics from Loyola University, 1967; master’s degree in sociology from the New School for Social Research, 1972; master’s degree in business administration from DePaul University, 1988.

RELEVANT BACKGROUND: Vice president of the Downtown Optimist Club of Columbia, 2006-07 and 2009-present; president of Maple Bluff Homeowners Association, 2006-08; former candidate for Southern Boone County commissioner; former candidate for 24th District state representative.

ON THE WEB: Sullivan's campaign Web site is He also has a Facebook page, Sid Sullivan for Mayor! (Columbia, Mo.), and a Twitter account.


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Sid Sullivan grew up in auto plant country: Birmingham, Mich., a suburb of Detroit. His father was an engineer at General Motors.

"I later found out it was called heart attack row," he says. "My dad had his first heart attack when I was about 8 years old. His fourth heart attack killed him."

Sullivan's dad died when Sid was in high school. He was befriended by the local parish priest and began to seriously consider that life for himself. After graduation, he entered the Jesuit seminary, the teaching branch of the Catholic priesthood.

Sid Sullivan is one of six people running for mayor on the April 6 ballot. He brings a  range of experiences to the campaign: teacher, community organizer, corrections analyst and pharmaceutical sales representative. But a higher calling shaped all of those experiences.

"There are parish priests, and there are order priests," he says. "The Jesuits are a teaching order. Jesuits take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience."

The Jesuit formation is a long process, the first step being a two-year period of prayer, work and study called novitiate training. Sullivan spent his time as a novitiate in Clarkston, Mich., at Colombiere College, a Jesuit institution affiliated with the University of Detroit.

Richard Rosenberg met Sullivan at Colombiere when Rosenberg was 17. Rosenberg has had a long career with the World Bank and specializes in a form of aid known as microfinance.

"He was quiet, he was funny, and he often had a glint in his eye," Rosenberg says of Sullivan. "If you played a practical joke on him, you ought to be ready for a nuclear response."

Rosenberg says novitiate training occurred in an isolated community where each person had specialties. Rosenberg and Sullivan were both barbers.

"I did something to Sid; I can't remember what," Rosenberg says, "and when I opened my underwear drawer I found a drawer full of hair from the barber shop."

Rosenberg was a year behind Sullivan at Colombiere. They parted ways when Sullivan moved to Chicago to begin the education phase of his training, earning bachelor's degrees in philosophy and mathematics from Loyola University.

As part of his training, Sullivan worked with a parish priest on Chicago's West Side, a neighborhood that had seen a lot of its white population flee to the suburbs.

"We went down every weekend to try and meet people and find out what the problems were and try to create a community that would be somewhat cohesive," Sullivan says. "We weren't trying to convert anybody."

After graduation Sullivan was assigned to a Jesuit high school in Cuyahoga Falls, near Akron, Ohio, to complete the next phase of his Jesuit formation. He taught math and served as summer school principal. He also became involved in the civil rights struggle exploding around him.

Tense times

Sullivan was in Ohio from 1967 to 1969, a period when Akron suffered severe racial tensions. He became active in an effort to repeal neighborhood covenants that restricted African-Americans from living in certain areas.

"The Civil Rights Act of  ’64 was just four years ago," he says. "It was a tense time. Just because the law passed didn't mean things changed automatically."

In the summer of 1968, Akron experience six straight days of riots. The National Guard had to be called in.

It was in that atmosphere of unrest that Sullivan met the woman who would become his wife.

Joan Anderson was from Akron and had been active with the Coalition for Action Now. It was a dangerous time to be involved.

"One of our people got their house shot up," she says. "I was given police protection. I had children, and it got really hairy."

One night the Jesuits called a meeting at the Akron Urban League to bring black and white organizers together. The blacks didn’t trust their white counterparts.

"It became very incendiary," she says. "I was just looking for the exit. I thought there was going to be a riot. Then Mr. Sullivan, young Mr. Sullivan, calmed it down, and we got down to business and started talking."

The two were friendly during that time but didn't date. Sullivan eventually moved to New York City to attend the New School for Social Research, where he earned a master’s degree in sociology. He also worked for U.S. Sen. Jacob Javits, D-N.Y.

The job involved helping people through a community center in Hunts Point — a neighborhood in the South Bronx with a large Puerto Rican population.

"A lot of poor people that spoke Spanish but didn't read Spanish and didn't speak English were moving to New York," he says. "They were just getting really gobbled up."

After graduating, Sullivan found himself at a crossroads. He was nearing the final phase of the Jesuit formation and would soon be a priest. But it wasn't to be. After completing 12 of 15 years of training, Sullivan left the order.

Putting down roots

"I think it got to me after a while," he says. "The one thing that's really denied to you (as a priest) is the close relationship with someone else. It was something that was bothering me for probably the last several years. I declined minor orders, which is the first big step toward the priesthood."

Rosenberg, Sullivan's classmate at Colombiere, didn't complete his Jesuit training  either. He knows of only a handful of his classmates who did.

"The degree of personal turmoil that went along with that was high," he says. "At the same time, we got a superb education."

Sullivan's next step was to move back to Illinois where he took a job with the state Department of Corrections in Springfield where he studied jails and worked to make improvements to how they were run.

"They were in very bad shape back in the ’70s," he says.

He also got back in touch with Joan. She joined him in Illinois, and they married in 1975. "I established roots for the first time," he says.

That same year, the Sullivans moved to Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. Sullivan worked for the Circuit Court of Cook County for 12 years. He later joined the private sector in 1988 when he took a job with Roche Diagnostic Systems, a subsidiary of the pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche, earning a master’s degree in business administration along the way.

The first Sullivan to run for office wasn't Sid, but Joan — twice. In 1994 she ran for a county commission seat in Cook County, Ill. She says she finished second in the race and came close to unseating the incumbent. In 1996 she ran for U.S. Congress in a crowded field that included Danny Davis, who won the election and still represents Illinois' 7th District.

Sullivan traveled extensively while working for Roche. Fulton was a regular destination, and the area attracted him. When he retired in 2002, they moved to nearby Columbia.

"Columbia is a vibrant community," he says. "It's close enough to Chicago that we could get back. We kept our theater tickets in Chicago, and for a couple of years we would commute back four times a year."

A hard time sitting still

Sullivan had retired from business but quickly fell into local politics. Joan Sullivan says they began attending city meetings shortly after moving to Columbia.

"We have a passion for standing up for the little guy," she says.

In 2005 it was people with disabilities whose Medicare benefits were cut by the Missouri legislature. The following year, Sid Sullivan tried to unseat incumbent Ed Robb for the 24th District seat, but he lost to Jim Ritter in the Democratic primary.

In 2006 he challenged Karen Miller for Southern District Boone County commissioner and lost in the primary with only 30 percent of the votes. (There was no Republican challenger, so the primary decided the race).

Despite losing two previous races, he says he has learned a lot.

"You develop a constituency. In every case there was a problem we were trying to solve," he says.

Part of Sullivan's approach to politics is to write. He is a prolific contributor to local opinion pages. "I do better at writing than public speaking," he says. "I'm getting better the more I write."

City planning is a favorite topic and one of the central planks in his campaign for mayor. He says Columbia has made mistakes by allowing too much development to take place too quickly.

Sullivan says cities all over the country have overdeveloped, leaving a glut of property in the current recession. "To a certain extent that's what happened here on the north side of Columbia because of the rapid development," he says.

Sullivan's campaign manager is Arthur Nunn, a 20-year-old with a surprising political resume.

He helped manage the MySpace page for John Edwards' campaign in 2004. In 2008 he worked for Steve Gaw's campaign for Missouri's 9th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He met Sullivan during the campaign at a Muleskinners forum.

"He has a very diverse background," Nunn says. "He's dealt with so many different issues and has always stood up for what he believes in."

Nunn says he's constantly amazed by Sullivan's knowledge of the issues.

"There was a time with the surveillance cameras, when he was first asked that question in public, he knew all the details: the cost and what the impact could be based on other cities," he says.

Sullivan has said he strongly opposes city spending on surveillance cameras for downtown and thinks individual business owners should decide whether to install and pay for them.

Rosenberg, who has known Sullivan since their days as Jesuits, says he hasn't talked to Sid in several years but isn't surprised to learn he’s running for mayor.

"Sid has always been low on the egomaniac quotient," he says. "If Sid's running for mayor, I can guarantee you it's not because he wants status but because he wants to make a difference."

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Ray Shapiro March 18, 2010 | 6:46 p.m.

There are different kinds of "peacemakers."

For instance, there's this kind:

Then there's this kind:
("It became very incendiary," she says. "I was just looking for the exit. I thought there was going to be a riot. Then Mr. Sullivan, young Mr. Sullivan, calmed it down, and we got down to business and started talking.")

-I'm very concerned as to which one we'll be using this summer.

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