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Columbia Missourian

Sid Sullivan runs for mayor in a bid for change in a diverse community

By Elizabeth Pearl
March 22, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
After coming in third in 2007's mayoral race, Sid Sullivan is taking on his second mayoral bid in 2013.

COLUMBIA — Sid Sullivan never shows up anywhere without a "Sid Sullivan for Mayor" sticker or button pinned to his jacket. At campaign events where everyone else is wearing "Hello my name is" tags, Sullivan wears one of the buttons. He doesn't have just a name, he has a race to run.

The buttons aren't recycled from his last campaign for mayor. They're brand new.

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After coming in third with 12 percent of the vote in the 2007 Columbia mayoral race, Sullivan threw out all of the files, fliers and campaign paraphernalia he had. He was never going to run again.

"I thought I had made my contributions," he says, and he intended to stay out of this year's race. People kept asking him to run again for mayor, though.

"You can say no 20 times and then say yes once and you're in the thick of things."

Sullivan and his wife, Joan Sullivan, have never been ones for lying down. Joan Sullivan has run for U.S. Congress and for Cook County commissioner in Illinois. Sid Sullivan has run for Boone County commissioner, Columbia mayor and a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives.

Between them, they've lost five different bids for political office. Now Sid Sullivan is running for mayor again, and Joan Sullivan is working as his campaign manager.


Sid Sullivan has worked in more fields than most people have time to dream about. He trained to become a Jesuit priest, taught math in Ohio, led a civil rights movement in Akron and worked in the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Cook County Circuit Court and pharmaceutical sales at Roche Diagnostics Corp.

But he's never worked in Missouri politics.

Four years after moving to Columbia in 2002, Sullivan ran for Missouri's 24th district as a state representative. He lost in the primary to former Columbia Public Schools superintendent Jim Ritter.

Sullivan decided to run because the state had taken money away from disability services. He wanted to get it back.

"It forced (people with disabilities) to choose between eating and getting medicine," he said.

Before that race, he had never felt the call to run for public office. Joan Sullivan was the one with the political drive. She ran for Cook County commissioner in 1994 and for Congress in 1996.

"I do have fire in my belly," Joan Sullivan said. "I can't see things that are wrong without trying to jump in and change them."

Joan Sullivan has been a social worker, juvenile detention supervisor, civil rights activist and political candidate. She came in a close second for Cook County commissioner but lost favor with her party and knew she would never be able to win in Chicago.

"When you run in Chicago, whew!" she said with a dismissive wave. "You don't run in Chicago if you're a reformer."

The couple share a love for politics and change, Joan Sullivan said, but they take different approaches to that love. She is passionate; her husband is thoughtful.

"He's more serious," Joan Sullivan said. She gets fired up when her doctor starts talking politics. Sid Sullivan, though, gives the impression of someone who has studied every detail of an issue before offering an opinion.

Before they moved from Chicago, Joan Sullivan was always the one putting herself in the ring.

"She was the one with the political passion," Sid Sullivan said. "She's stepped back from that."

Sid Sullivan was the one who started running after the couple moved to Missouri. He lost his first race, for state representative but realized while speaking to residents during the campaign how many problems existed in the county. He waited another year and ran for Boone County Southern District commissioner against incumbent Karen Miller.

He lost again in the primary. And when many of the issues he had wanted to fix still were not fixed, he ran for mayor of Columbia three years later.

Khesha Duncan has known the Sullivans for three years and volunteers for his campaign. She believes this makes him a serious man and a viable political candidate.

"He likes to weigh all the options," Duncan said. "When making a decision he gathers as much information as possible. He includes all those things equally before making a decision about something."


Sullivan's bid to become mayor of Columbia reflects a remarkable evolution. After graduating from high school in suburban Detroit, he started training to become a Jesuit priest. While in training, he studied philosophy in Chicago while teaching high school math and working in the civil rights movement in Ohio.

That's where he met Joan. They worked together in a coalition of civil rights groups and became friends. When he left for New York to pursue a master's degree in sociology, they lost touch. While there he quit the Jesuit order; he had completed 12 of the 15 years of required years training.

"I increasingly felt it was not the right thing for me," he said. "I was dissatisfied with where my life was going."

Sullivan had lost ties to friends and family — and he had lost his mission in life. When he looked at men who had become priests before him, he didn't want their lives.

"I didn't want to be what they were," he said.

He moved back to the Midwest and called Joan, eight years after they had last spoken. She answered the phone and had no idea who he was.

"When he called me again and said what his name was, I had forgotten," she said, recalling that she thought he was a different man named Tom Sullivan. "I talked to him for five minutes as the wrong guy."

Joan Sullivan eventually remembered Sid. They rekindled their acquaintance and eventually became best friends. They married in 1975.

"Marry a friend; it will always last," she said. "Sid was a darn good friend."

Sid Sullivan went to work for the Illinois Department of Corrections in Springfield and then in Chicago, where he also took on a job with the Cook County Circuit Court. He spent 14 years in Chicago working on jail, probation and court improvements, then he left when he began to feel stagnant.

"At some point you get passed over for promotions," he said. "I realized I'd be sitting forever in a mid-level position."

So he quit and went back to school, earning a master's degree in business administration from DePaul University. Recruited there by a headhunter, he went to work for Roche Diagnostics Corp.

In the sales department at Roche, Sullivan worked with a small team on a product called OnTrak, a urine testing product that brought back results much quicker than anything before it. He said that in 10 years he developed OnTrak into a $30 million product.

He is proud of the accomplishment of launching and marketing a product. It was his first venture into the private sector.

"It was hard work," he said.

In 2001, Sullivan took a buy-out when the company was sold. Chinese competitors had driven up the price of OnTrak and wiped out Roche Diagnostics' profits.

The Sullivans retired to Columbia and immediately began attending public meetings. Their first was a meeting of the Boone County Commission. Other than the commissioners, they were the only people there.

"We have always, always, always been active," Joan Sullivan said. "We immediately go to any meeting that's open. It might be boring to other people but not to us. We talk about it over the breakfast table."

Linda Green and her husband, Ken Green, met the Sullivans at a public meeting, and they became closer after Sid Sullivan decided to run for office. The Greens have mailed fliers and edited literature for Sullivan's campaign.

"Any responsible citizen needs to become involved in what's going on in their town," Linda Green said. "I think Sid is very much attuned to the issues going on in this town for all citizens, including middle-class and lower-income people who tend to get left out."


Button firmly pinned on his lapel at a campaign meet-and-greet at the home of former MU journalism professor Steve Weinberg, Sullivan told the story of how he came to live in Columbia as 15 people sipped hot apple cider and watched the Weinbergs' dog sniff around the kitchen floor.

When he and Joan Sullivan looked to move away from Chicago, he said, they got a book that listed the 50 nicest places to live after retirement. Columbia was one of them. They visited 10 or 15 cities in the Midwest but kept coming back here.

They wanted to live in a place with a dab of rural character but also a good cultural scene. More than that, he said, he loved the diversity of Columbia.

"It's a very diverse, wonderful community," he said. "In minorities, religion, disabilities, generation — wonderfully diverse."

He is running for mayor, he said, because he wants these diverse groups to have a fair say in their city.

"We travel in small circles," he said. As mayor, he hopes to get further out of his circle and give more attention to the people in the community who need it.

"It's part of being human. You try to provide opportunities for people who have more to overcome than the rest of us."


The first time you run and lose a bid for public office, Joan Sullivan said, it hurts.

"You think, 'Oh my god! I've been rejected!' Then you think about it, what you were in there for. If you have issues, you should run. If you have people you can help, what the heck are you doing?"

The Sullivans have developed a tradition: After each election defeat they travel somewhere. They're avid travelers in general, having visited more than 30 countries, including Indonesia, China, Turkey and Chile.

"Every time we've lost an election, we give ourselves a reward after," Joan Sullivan said. "I wonder where we'll go after this."

For Sid Sullivan, the disappointment he feels after a campaign loss doesn't stem from selfish motivations. He never wanted to be a politician.

"It wasn't a boyhood ambition," he said. "I was on student council in high school, but I didn't aspire to this."

Even now, he wants change more than he wants the office. He called himself the "pragmatic campaigner," a candidate who runs the race not for glory but for the people watching from the sidelines.

"At this stage in my life it's not really a career," he said.

He doesn't covet the office, but if the office is what he needs to create change, he'll certainly try to get it. As many times as it takes.

"I'm Sid Sullivan," he says at the beginning of his speech to a crowd at a forum full of potential constituents. "And I'm again running for mayor of Columbia."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.