When State Rep. Jim Durkin tapped Mark Hosty last year to run for a McCain delegate slot to the Republican National Convention, the prospect didn’t look promising.

“He approached me when John McCain was carrying his own suitcases through airports, flying commercial and was down to four staff members across the whole country,” the Forest Park commissioner recalls about the fateful meeting with McCain’s campaign chairman in Illinois.

But Hosty’s faith in McCain was rewarded when, two weeks ago, Hosty scored a rare chance for a local politician: He got an aisle seat-and a say-in the biggest show of national politics. On Sept. 3, Hosty was one of the 2,343 delegates in St. Paul who gave Arizona Sen. John McCain the Republican nomination for president.

“For sports fans, the ultimate place to go is the Super Bowl,” Hosty says. He sat down last week with the Review at Healy’s Westside, the Madison Street restaurant and bar that he runs. “I went to the Super Bowl of political functions. I’ve always been interested in politics. It’s nice to see the inner workings.”

This McCain delegate hails from a family of Irish Catholic Democrats. “Chicago Democrats: That’s different from the rest of the country,” Hosty says. He met McCain six years ago at a Shedd Aquarium fundraiser for Durkin, who was running for the U.S. Senate at the time. McCain made an impression on Hosty.

“I shook hands with him and got to speak with him briefly,” Hosty says of McCain. “I was overtaken by his man-of-the-people-type feeling. He was just very comfortable to be around.”

Though McCain was languishing in the polls last year and had been forced to lay off almost his entire paid campaign staff because of excessive spending and weaker-than-expected fundraising, he caught fire this winter. And in the Feb. 5 Illinois primary, Hosty- the only Republican in his family-was elected as one of two GOP delegates delegate to the convention from the 7th Congressional District. Hosty was the top vote getter in the district, outdistancing a field of 12 candidates.

“I’m come from a very Democratic family, but I’m a very independent thinker,” Hosty says. One of his cousins, now the Democratic committeeman for River Forest, was a delegate pledged to Jimmy Carter at the Democratic National Convention 28 years ago.

“We traded a couple of jabs over the summer but we just kind of laughed about it,” Hosty says of his cousin John Hosty.

On Labor Day weekend, Hosty and his wife, Jennifer, made the leisurely two day drive up to the Twin Cities. On Sunday, Aug. 31, they checked into the Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis, where the Illinois delegation stayed along with many members of the press.

Each day of the convention, the delegates boarded buses for the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. A police officer rode along on every bus, a precaution that struck Hosty as unnecessary. But on Labor Day, 15 members of the Connecticut delegation were attacked and injured by protesters.

“That first day they rerouted us twice because of people throwing things off of highway overpasses at the buses,” Hosty said.

After the first day, the bus rides were uneventful. Inside the convention hall, which is a hockey arena, the Illinois delegation had some of the worse seats, according to Hosty-way in the back far away from the podium.

But that location had its advantages. The Illinois delegation was wedged between the TV production sets for CNN and Fox News. And as the big names trooped by on their way to be interviewed for TV, Hosty took advantage of his aisle seat to shake hands with the likes of Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Karl Rove.

On the first day of the convention, both first lady Laura Bush and Cindy McCain walked by within an arms length of Hosty. “I’ve never been that close to a first lady,” Hosty says.

The highlight of the convention for Hosty was the speech by the vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“It was just electric,” Hosty recalls. “She was a spectacular speaker. She really had the crowd eating out of her hand. She has a stage presence. She has a confidence and she also had some darned good ideas.”

Hosty, who is 40, relates to the former village board member and mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town less than two-thirds the size of Forest Park. While critics have questioned whether her small-town government experience qualifies Palin, 44, to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Hosty touts service in local government as valuable experience that keeps a public official in touch with the needs and desires of the people.

“I think it’s important to have someone up through the ranks who was a local village board member, mayor and now governor,” Hosty says.

Though Forest Park elections are nonpartisan, Hosty says that on the presidential level he’s always voted Republican, starting George H.W. Bush in 1988.

A few years before that, a young Mark Hosty had met Bush’s predecessor while running an errand for his dad, who was a member of the Chicago Board of Options. Ronald Reagan, who was running for president against Jimmy Carter, was visiting the Board of Trade. Hosty was the only one riding the elevator until it stepped at the fourth floor.

“The elevator door opens … and in steps Ronald Reagan and his entourage, and I was the only one on it,” Hosty recalls. “I was an 11-year-old kid just standing there staring up at him.”