Mike Cashman is one of ten candidates running for the Democratic nomination for the three six-year terms on the board of commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago up for election this year. Cashman is a long-time water polo coach at St. Ignatius and Loyola Academy in Wilmette, a native of the Southwest Side, and a first-time candidate for public office. This campaign, however, isn’t his first exposure to public service: he’s the grandson of Michael Howlett, the former Illinois Secretary of State.
Can you tell me about your background?
I grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago, in the West Lawn neighborhood just east of Midway Airport. My last eighteen years I’ve been in education. I went to St. Rita High School, where I fell in love with water polo. I graduated a two-time All-American water polo player, then went and played water polo at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York for a year, before transferring to Northwestern University and worked toward a degree in history. The life plan was to go to law school and get involved in public service right away, but while I was working one of my three jobs in college, I was approached by a parent from St. Ignatius College Prep to see if I would help out and coach the water polo teams that they were just starting. I thought it was a pretty positive thing for me to be more involved in the sport and give back, so I started doing that. I fell in love with it, one thing led to another, and I ended up working at St. Ignatius for about sixteen years. Over time I built a water polo program there as the girls water polo coach, and I held various roles in their fundraising office, admissions, and eventually ended up in the classroom for my last six years at Ignatius. I was a social studies teacher, teaching AP US History, economics, and world history.
My claim to fame at St. Ignatius is that I’m the only coach in the school’s 150-year history to ever win a IHSA state championship. We won in 2013. When I was there, we had a great run—we were the first team to ever play in a state championship, in 2006. For about ten years there, we finished in the top three eight out of the ten years. It was a blast, and a lot of the kids got to go on and play in college. I got to know a lot of the good families at Ignatius, and many of them are my friends now.
I left Ignatius at the end of 2016. I started to get involved in politics and help out on some campaigns. I was approached by someone at Loyola to teach social studies, so I started working there. A year later, I got back into coaching. I coach the boys water polo program at Loyola Academy right now, and I’m an assistant swim coach, as well as running for office.
How does all that experience lead you to run for the MWRD?
I’ve always been drawn to public service. My hero, the person I’ve always looked up to, is my grandfather. He was a public servant—he was actually a water polo player too, which is why I wanted to try water polo. He served as a public servant in Illinois in the late sixties and early seventies and was a well-respected guy. The idea of being a public servant was what was appealing to me, not [being] a politician. When people talk to them, they talk about public service and they talk about being statesmen.
For me, I was compelled to run for this race because one, I want to be a public servant; two, this is one of those positions where you’re more of an educator as well, and I feel like you can do a lot of good in this position. That’s where my vision of this office goes, is not only being a conduit from the district to the public and legislative branch, but also an educator, finding ways to help communities.
Who was your grandfather?
His name is Michael J. Howlett, he was a secretary of state. During the late ‘60s, he was state auditor, and he ran for governor in ‘76. His claim to fame was beating Dan Walker in ‘76, the only Democrat to beat [an incumbent governor in Illinois]. Then he ran against Governor Thompson and he lost, and then he retired.
The South Side Weekly covers—as the name suggests—the South Side, an area disproportionately impacted by urban flooding. What solutions do you think the MWRD should pursue to minimize the threat of urban flooding?
Urban flooding is one of the biggest issues the district has to deal with. I think the district can do a better job in community outreach on a local level, using more of an educational platform so that we can come in and teach residents what to do, how to prevent certain things that are under our control. It’s been a lot harder to do because of climate change, because of the heavier rainfall that we have. There’s a huge economic impact because of this.
I think the district does a good job on the regional level, but on the community level, the local level, I think they can do a lot better. Researching new technologies and cost-effective things that can work to help community residents to battle those sort of things. Infrastructure’s huge, it’s just an ongoing project. A lot of these pipes are really old. There’s other ways in which we can put in that new infrastructure and make sure that doesn’t happen.
What steps do you think the district should be taking to reduce its use of road salts and other contributors to its chloride output?
A lot of people don’t understand how important this salt issue is. I feel that it has to do with community outreach and education. There’s a way we have to educate the public. I don’t believe we can force people to do things, but I believe if you give them a better understanding of what’s happening, we can push this forward. Right now, the district is only doing a few pop-up stands once in a while. I’m aware that they’ve only hosted one educational town hall for some of the other departments and state agencies that work with this, but I believe this should be an ongoing conversation with all of the state agencies and local municipalities, as well as community organizers, to make sure we can all get on the same page and we’re using the best practices, and ones that are much more green-efficient.
Similar question: since 2017, the district has been operating a nutrient recovery facility at the Stickney plant. Do you think the district should be doing more to reduce its phosphorus levels?
The district’s doing a fairly good job right now, but I think they’re only doing that at the Stickney plant. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be happening at all the other plants as well. What I’d like to do is gather the district’s scientists and find best practices and ways to communicate so that we can push this forward, to make sure we can push that level down further going forward. I want to see the plants not work in silos—I want to see everybody working on the same page and making sure we can do that, making sure it’s economically feasible too.
A different kind of emissions: the district has made substantial progress on emissions reductions recently, but it’s still a long way from carbon neutral. Is there more you think the district should be doing to reduce its carbon emissions?
I’m not very familiar with that right now, I’d have to look into it more, but I do know that the district needs to do more research as far as best practices. What they can do is, as far as research and development and new technologies out there, the bottom line is we can always do more. As an educator and as someone who believes that you should always ask the question, “Why?”, I do believe that you should always kind of move forward and say, “Why aren’t we doing a better job at this? What is holding us from doing this?”
The district is the second-largest landowner in Cook County. Are there any specific projects you think the district should pursue with its lands?
I think it’s more about community outreach for me. It’s incredible how much land the MWRD owns. I think there should be opportunities there for education, urban farming, and, in some of their leases, make sure that they have those opportunities. I know there was an issue with rewriting the lease in Blue Island, to make sure they can create more of an urban farming environment, because it wasn’t set up that way. [Ed note: the City of Blue Island subleased MWRD land to a community farm without charging the market rate, in violation of an Illinois law that limits commercial activities on MWRD land.] But I also believe the MWRD should have more community input, because they also have issues like in Skokie with the golf course, and what’s happening with that real estate. [Ed. note: The MWRD vetoed plans to build a new sports park on MWRD land in 2016, saying the land was necessary for a phosphate treatment building, but later allowed the Skokie Park District to build soccer and cricket fields on the land.] My vision of it is that the land should be used, it shouldn’t just be sitting there. I believe that we could turn some into reservoirs to help some of these local communities with flooding.
In 2018, the Green Party ran a slate in the general election that highlighted the issue of pay-to-play politics. Do you think the district should have rules restricting or banning altogether donations to candidates from companies and businesses that have contracts with the district?
I absolutely do. One thing I didn’t point out is that my candidacy is a complete grassroots effort. Every step of the way has been a milestone. Some of the hoops we had to get through—you had to get 7,142 signatures to get on the ballot, so you had to get double that or triple just to make sure you have staying power. Everyone I talked to said we were going to get challenged. We did, and we beat the challenge right away, because we had quality signatures. And then you just have to keep moving forward. I believe that pay-to-play should not be a part of the system. It’s great that they have an inspector general now that will oversee the district, that’s new. But I do believe that a lot of those policies have to be reviewed going forward, when you talk about fundraising efforts, and who should be allowed to donate to campaigns.
How do you distinguish yourself among the ten candidates who are running?
I am one of two that has not held public office before at any point in my life. There are board of trustees [members], there are township trustees, there’s a former mayor. I do believe that an educational background, being a teacher, is a huge advantage. Dealing with kids in an educational setting, getting them to do what you want, as far as getting them to learn the lesson plan, or getting them to work together as a team, all for one common goal, is a pretty huge accomplishment in many ways. I do believe I’m in it for all the right reasons, for public service and whatnot. I think it might be time for a new and fresh perspective on a board with people who are either trying to run as incumbents or running from one political office to another. It’s been a grassroots effort. What sets me apart is genuine outreach, what I’ve been doing, and the reaction of people I’ve been helping.
What challenges do you see on the horizon for the district that voters might not be thinking about—that I might not have asked about—but that will impact how it works over the next few years?
I think a lot of it has to do with climate change. Climate change is the hugest issue that people tend to neglect, and I think the district plays a vital role. I think it’s sadly one of the most important agencies in government that people overlook or don’t know what it does. I think some of the challenges will be making the district not think like a waste agency, and think of it more as a reclaim and reuse agency, looking at ways in which we can use all this waste productively, as a renewable energy source. Green jobs are the future. The district has a great opportunity to put itself out there, as educators and as people that will make these a little more prevalent, and people more aware of what’s going on.
Sam Joyce is a managing editor and the nature editor of the Weekly. He last covered Hyde Park & Kenwood for the 2019 Best of the South Side issue.