We're already hearing news about Champaign's upcoming mayoral election, and Deb Frank Feinen, a long-time City Council member, is part of that. I chatted with her recently about her political background and ideas about our community.
Smile Politely: Have you always lived in Champaign?
Feinen: For the most part. I lived in Urbana briefly. My dad was a lawyer and got his first job out of law school here, so we stayed.
I like that we’re a pretty small community. We have a hip, international flair, so I don’t mean small as in a bedroom community. But there are lots of connections, so lots of people know each other. You can’t go grocery shopping without knowing someone, and I like that.
Smile Politely: What got you involved in public office?
Feinen: My mom was involved in local politics, so at a pretty early age I got involved too. She ran for County Board and became Circuit Clerk, so I helped knock on doors for as long as I can remember, and I attended lots of political events. I also attended County Board meetings with her. That was an opportunity to see how local government works with the community, and I became really interested then.
I’m a lawyer. I’m now with Tummelson Bryan & Knox in Urbana; I switched January 1st from Nally, Bauer, Feinen & Mann in Champaign, which dissolved in December.
When my mom was appointed to be Circuit Clerk, I was in my last year of law school. I decided to come back and try to get appointed to her County Board seat, so I moved back to Champaign for my last year of law school. But the County Board members wouldn’t appoint me, so I ran and won. That was in 1992, and I was on the County Board until I became part of City Council in 2006.
Smile Politely: What projects and issues have you been particularly passionate about during your time in public office?
Feinen: When I was on the County Board, implementing the ADA was, believe it or not, kind of a new thing, so we had to make sure people were complying with the new law. We were also building a lot of facilities at that time: a new nursing home, a new youth detention center, a new courthouse, a new jail. I was involved in overseeing the nursing home, which was part of County Board’s role at the time. How animals were being treated in Animal Control was important to me. And environmental issues. There were a lot of solid waste disposal issues while I was on County Board. We did our first solid waste plan as a county during that time. I did the environmental law and energy program at Chicago-Kent, so I have an environmental law background.
On City Council, I have spent untold amounts of time on Urbana Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B). Champaign, Urbana, and the University were lucky enough to get $20 million from the government to put broadband in. There are now seven rings of broadband in our community, and now we’re at the stage of trying to get everyone connected. It’s gigabyte speed, so it’s amazing.
We are also unique in the nation—and I can’t take credit for this, this was thanks to the grant writers—in the fact that we connected households in under-served neighborhoods. We also covered many “community anchor institutions”—things like schools, churches, and the Boys & Girls Club. That was written into the grant. Most communities took the money and connected their governments, schools, police departments, and things like that.
I’ve been on the committee since we first got the grant; I’ve served as chair and vice chair, and I’m now serving on the not-for-profit board. The committee has been involved in every part of the process. We had a technical advisory committee, of course, but we still made decisions about things like what type of conduit should go in the hole so that the fibers could go through it. We also did things like develop polices about minority inclusion in contracting. We created a policy for a community benefit fund, so when and if we ever start turning a profit, a percentage of that profit will go to benefit underserved areas. I can’t take credit for all those ideas, but I’ve been a part of them and supportive of them from the beginning.
Smile Politely: Why have you decided to run for mayor?
Feinen: I think I have something to offer our community. I think I have the ability to work well with people, to build coalitions, to work with other council members and civic leaders. I’m really interested in continuing economic development and finding ways to take advantage of the vibrant infrastructure we have in this community. There aren’t very many cities at all in the nation that have gigabyte speed internet, so we’re in a really great position.
Smile Politely: How so?
Feinen: Through business development, for example, which would help provide dollars that could then be spent on other things. In tight budget things, it’s hard to fund our wish list. If we have economic development related to UC2B, we can help fund what we want.
Recently, I traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee with some other community leaders. They’re a gigabyte city, and they’ve really leveraged their net worth in a positive way. Their library is incredibly dynamic, which is related to their internet. In neighborhoods that were once sort of blighted, they started giving away housing, rehabbing housing, and offering low mortgage loans. So they ended up with an artist community, new schools, and small businesses. Those are the kinds of things that could be available to us here.
We’ve been really concentrating on getting it in the ground and getting it up and running. We’re just now beginning to think about what we can do with it. For instance, Chattanooga does a gigabyte app contest during the summer at their local college. They house entrepreneurs, and the contest is all about creating new businesses and apps. And there’s no reason we couldn’t have a competition like that. We’re uniquely positioned for projects like that because of the University of Illinois.
Smile Politely: How does your political philosophy differ from the other mayoral candidates?
Feinen: I differ from Don Gerard in that I would rather grow the city budget through economic development rather than increased taxes. We’ve increased a lot of taxes since Mayor Gerard has started.
I think I’m pretty similar to Karen Foster, though we have different life experiences. My County Board experience is an advantage because I’ve worked with those community leaders. I’m also an attorney and a small business owner. I know all the politicians say it, but it really does matter to be responsible for making sure the mortgage is paid, the lights are on, and you’re paying your secretaries. I think those are skills that will serve me well if I become mayor.
Smile Politely: How do you see Champaign’s relationship to Campustown?
Feinen: I think in some ways even though we have a transient population, the issues remain the same. Student issues remain pretty constant, such as issues relating to housing, bars, and parking. We often work with the university on crosswalks, traffic patterns, and things like that. I think the relationship with the university is positive and has been developing more over the course of time that I’ve been on council. We’ve had Chancellors who are willing to reach out and work with the cities. Chancellor Wise, for instance, has been a really strong advocate of UC2B.
Smile Politely: How do you see Champaign’s relationship to Urbana?
Feinen: I think Urbana has the reputation for being more Democratic and less traditional than Champaign. But we do still have a lot of common goals. I now have a law firm in Urbana, so I’m learning more about it since I’m over there every day. Everyone always teases about it, but the two cities are really just different flavors for different people.
Smile Politely: Who are your political heroes?
Feinen: My mom. I learned a lot from her. She really took the job seriously. She believed it was a public trust and tried very hard to listen to the concerns of her community. When she was a County Board member, there was a lot of knocking on doors and getting on phones and really making sure before she made a decision that she heard what the community had to say about it. And that was in an age before email. So it was a lot of shoe leather.
Smile Politely: What are your views on concealed carry?
Feinen: I’m OK with concealed carry. I think the key is licensing and making sure people are trained. But I also support that businesses can tell people they can’t bring a firearm into their place of business. I think it would also be okay for municipalities to decide what they want on a case by case basis, but the Supreme Court says we can’t.
Smile Politely: What are your views on access to abortion?
Feinen: I’m pro-choice.
Smile Politely: What about same-sex marriage?
Feinen: I’m in favor of it. I was at the County Clerk’s office handing out cake the day that people could first come and register for civil unions. I also supported non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation on the County Board when that wasn’t a very popular position and certainly wasn’t popular among the old Republican guard.
SP: If you had to reduce the city’s budget, what is the first thing you would cut?
Feinen: We have cut so many millions of dollars recently, so I’m not sure. I think it’s much more complicated than that. The city has been down to a bare bones budget for many years.
I’m interested in bringing revenue to the city. And also not growing areas of the city until we know how we’re going to pay for them.
There are some primary areas of the budget that we need to make sure have adequate funding: fire, police, and city works. There are lots of other really important city services that don’t fall under those three areas, but those are the ones that require the most focus to make sure they’re happening. Public works has cut an incredible amount of money over the last several years. Now, fire, police, and public works don’t really have anything more they could cut before there would be public safety issues.
SP: What is the political view that you hold that would be most of a turn-off to a very liberal, very Democratic voter?
Feinen: Nothing in terms of social issues, especially since the city doesn’t usually make decisions that affect social issues. I think the main thing is that I’m less likely to vote for taxation. I have supported some taxes, like the storm water utility fee, because I thought that was an infrastructure issue that had to be solved for our community. But I’m more likely to look for a different solution before going for a tax increase. But on the other hand I don’t want to characterize Democrats as pro-tax, either.
I think the main thing that would be a turn-off is my Republican background. I like that the City Council is non-partisan. It makes it easier for people in the community to reach out to you when you don’t have an R or a D after your name. But in the past I’ve run for public office as a Republican. I think, though, if voters look at the issues, they’ll see I’m pretty much a moderate. But then again, maybe that’s a turn-off for hardcore Republicans.
SP: What are your favorite places in our community?
Feinen: I love the Boneyard Second Street Reach. One of the things I do for fun is take photographs. Whenever I’m asked to take a family photo or portrait, that’s where I want to do that. I also love community events here. I love the 4th of July in Champaign-Urbana. And I’m a soccer mom, so I love being out at Parkland. I know a lot of families who participate in soccer, and it’s really fun to be part of that.