Economy, crime at forefront of Champaign mayoral election

By Josh Winters

With less than two months until Election Day, Champaign’s four mayoral candidates are campaigning to persuade the city’s electorate that they are the best person to lead the city. Joe Petry, professor of economics, and City Council members-at-large Karen Foster and Deb Feinen are challenging incumbent Mayor Don Gerard in what all agree will be a tight race. 

“It’s going to be a very close race,” Foster said. “With four people in the race, you only have so many votes out there.”

This was the case in Champaign’s last mayoral election. In 2011, Gerard defeated incumbent Mayor Jerry Schweighart by 232 votes; a total of 8,416 votes were cast in the election.

Now the incumbent himself, Gerard is confident his record will speak for itself.

“This past year we’ve had $244 million in construction, and it’s not even slowing down. We’re passing discretionary taxes, all of our city services have been restored and revenues in the city for taxes are just booming,” Gerard said. “It’s hard to unseat an incumbent in a good economy, so I’m hoping that people will look back and say ‘I’m better off now than I was four years ago.’”

Gerard made headlines this month when he entered into a Twitter battle with ESPN analyst Dan Dakich over a foul in a Michigan State vs. Illinois basketball game. He highlighted the exchange as an example of his more casual personality, which he feels will him more relatable to voters. 

“People are sick of politicians,” Gerard said. “What they want is somebody who they can identify with and not somebody who says ‘I have all the answers and I know how things should be.’”

Foster disagreed and said she feels the mayor of Champaign should be more measured in their communication. 

“We need to bring maturity back to the mayor’s office, and I believe that I am the person that will be able to do it,” Foster said. 

Foster plans to devote her full time to being mayor, and will retire from her current teaching position in May. She believes her experience on the Champaign City Council and master’s degree in guidance and counseling helped her develop an ability to work well with her colleagues in city government.

“(With) my experience in my community, in my church, and being on the Council for the last eight years, I have built a broad base of support,” Foster said. “I’m able to work with people well, I’m able to listen to what they have to say and resolve their issues.”

Foster said poverty is a serious problem that needs to be addressed by the next mayor. If elected, she plans to allocate a portion of Champaign’s sales tax revenue to promote the development of minority-owned businesses in the city, as well as unbundle contracts for city projects, opening up more opportunities for smaller contractors. 

Petry agreed that poverty in Champaign is a pressing issue and emphasized its strong correlation with violent crime, which he said has risen over the last four years.

“It’s a big issue that we’re not talking about as much as I think we should be,” Petry said. “And as a result, we have more crime and more violence than I’d like to see.”

Economic development, he said, is essential in decreasing the rate of violent crime. Thus, he said his experience as an economist with a specialization in economic development makes him a strong candidate. 

The professor also outlined his economic development plan, which he said “begins with understanding the importance of the University as the economic engine of our community.” The plan would work to keep the jobs and businesses created by Research Park in Champaign, develop a more diverse business climate in Champaign’s downtown area, create more affordable residential housing and develop a “prosperity commission” that would emphasize the creation of minority-owned businesses.

The plan, he said, would make Champaign a safer city and benefit students in terms of the opportunities available to them. 

“For students, the question is “What does this focus on economic development and jobs really do for the students?’” Petry said. “There’s going to be more internship opportunities, more opportunities for part-time jobs and hopefully for full-time jobs upon graduation as well.”

Like Petry, Feinen emphasized economic development as an effective way to curb crime in Champaign and said if she is elected mayor, she would work to do just that. 

“One of the things I’m really excited about is our fiber optic infrastructure for Internet,” Feinen said. “We have a $30 million grant that put the fiber infrastructure in the ground, and we need to be using that to create jobs.”

Feinen said reducing the Champaign’s crime rate poses a unique challenge to the next mayor. While there are city programs meant to help keep young people away from crime, she said much of the recent violent crime has been committed by people between 22 and 30-years-old, necessitating a new approach from local government.

“You can’t ignore the violence that’s going on in the community right now,” Feinen said. “The police department needs support from the city council, but we also need to be creative about how we’re going about it.”

Feinen said her experience as an attorney, member of the Regional Planning Commission and a 14-year tenure on the County Board make her the most qualified to lead Champaign over the next four years.

“As an attorney, I have skills relating to mediation and negotiation which makes collaboration with people in our community more likely,” Feinen said. “In my professional life, I’m an attorney and a small business owner. I think I’m the only candidate with direct budget responsibility, accountability to keep the lights on and pay the staff and understands that value of being a business owner.”

The election for mayor will take place on April 7.

Josh can be reached at [email protected]