Chicago’s 39th Ward sits on the northern edge of the city and is home to plenty of small businesses, ethnic restaurants, and two universities.
Its current alderman is not a homegrown product of the Windy City, but a UConn graduate – Samantha Nugent ’98 (CLAS), who earned her degree in political science and grew up in Waterbury and Southington.
The City Council of Chicago is comprised of 50 representatives, or aldermen; each one represents one of 50 sections, or wards, of the nation’s third-largest city.
Nugent represents a population of about 56,000 people – the approximate size of Connecticut cities like Milford, West Haven, or Manchester.
“We are basically running a city government like you would in Connecticut,” Nugent says. “I am one of 50 elected people to make sure that Chicago is running smoothly under the leadership of the mayor.
“As alderman, I am your direct line. You have a pothole, you call me. We handle any issue you could imagine, from zoning to liquor licenses. With the pandemic, we are working on issues like mass vaccination and business loans.”
Nugent won her first four-year term as alderman in two rounds of elections in February and April of 2019.
“You win elections for alderman races in Chicago based how you deal with constituents on a personal basis,” says Nugent. “We did that for a year-and-a-half and knocked on a door 47,000 times. Like Tip O’Neill said, ‘All politics is local.’ I am a runner, and I run all around my ward to see what is going on in all 45 precincts.”
Nugent’s love of government and the political process goes back to growing up in Connecticut and her time at UConn. She interned in the Hartford office of U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, and worked on an election campaign for then-State Sen. Don Williams. She also worked for UConn Catering during her college days, and waitressed at local watering hole Huskies.
Her life was in for a change when she took part in the Washington, D.C. semester program at American University and on her first day there – January 7, 1997, to be exact – Samantha Guastella, as she was then, sat next to fellow participant Rory Nugent, from Manteno, a small town in the part of Illinois known as Chicagoland, who would eventually become her husband.
She returned to UConn following the semester in the nation’s capital and spent more time at the capitol in Hartford, working with people like now-U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy ‘02 JD. Following graduation, she was employed by a pair of lobbying firms in Connecticut, and then was a legislative counsel for the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C.
Nugent and her now-husband moved to California in 2000, where she had positions in corporate governmental affairs, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed things for the couple.
“My husband and I just didn’t feel connected to our family on the West Coast,” says Nugent. “It couldn’t be a seven-hour flight from family anymore. We wanted to be closer to family and I always felt connected to Chicago.”
The couple moved there in 2002 and now have three school-aged children.
Nugent has held positions in the offices of Richard M. Daley, the mayor of Chicago from 1989 to 2011, and with Lisa Madigan, the attorney general for Illinois.
She earned her law degree from Loyola University Chicago in 2005 and was a vice counsel for the British Consulate General for almost six years. She was chief of staff for the Cook County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for two-and-a-half years.
Nugent then decided to take the full jump into politics and run for office in 2019.
“Running for alderman reminds me of the Presidential caucus in Iowa,” she says. “You have to get to know people and see everybody. That’s important, and part of the reason I love the job. I live in the ward – by law you have to – and I am seeing the things I work on all the time.”
Like many large cities, Chicago has seen its problems, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic and last summer’s unrest.
“This year was challenging with the pandemic being debilitating and with both the peaceful and violent protests that followed the senseless death of George Floyd,” says Nugent. “We are attempting to reform our police department, and we are under a federal consent decree to do that. I sit on the public safety committee and there are over 800 recommendations we are trying to comply with.”
But Chicago also has countless positive aspects that often get overlooked in the national narrative, Nugent says.
“Architecturally, we are one of the most, if not the most, spectacular cities in the country,” Nugent says. “We have such fantastic museums and theater, it is unreal. Plus there are places like Navy Pier and Millennium Park.”
She also feels the past year demonstrated the generosity of the people of her adopted city.
“We need to focus on the can-do attitude we saw,” Nugent says. “That was neighbor helping neighbor, and how hard they want to be their brother’s keeper.
“I love my job so much. I get to do everything as an alderman and all of it is good…trying to get a small business a loan, opening a theatre, working with seniors. I go to bed at night thinking this is a great job. Sometimes I wonder, ‘How did I upset all these people today,’ but the whole thing is really great!”