Municipal elections are happening April 2nd, and there are a variety of local positions up for grabs. We came up with some questions for candidates in several of these races, and will be publishing their answers over the course of the next couple of weeks as they respond. Smile Politely doesn’t generally endorse local candidates, and these interviews are not endorsements. Hopefully, they will provide you readers with some insight into the importance of local races, and help you develop a sense of which candidates share your values. We’ve reached out to those running for Champaign and Urbana school boards and park districts, Champaign City Council, Mayor of Champaign, and Parkland Board of Trustees.

Champaign residents will be electing three city council members for at-large seats. That means you do not have to vote for someone representing your particular district, rather you will have all names to choose from on your ballot. There are eight candidates vying for these three spots, including three incumbents.

Andrew Christensen is computer scientist and digital artist, and he is challenging for a seat on the Champaign City Council.

Smile Politely: Why are you seeking a seat on the city council? What are you hoping to improve and/or accomplish?

Andrew Christensen: After the 2016 federal election I chose to get involved in local politics to address my growing sense of helplessness in a country embracing politicians that appeal to fear and sow electoral apathy in order to entrench corporate supremacy in American social systems.

I took a city government class. I started a letter writing group with friends. I canvassed with political candidates, and this past November pushed students and minorities to get more involved in voting. In a separate bubble — I am a coordinator for the local student film writing and filmmaking program “Pens To Lens”, and I am regularly blown away by the willingness of community leaders and business leaders to volunteer their resources and expertise to help people grow without discrimination. Through these combined experiences, I finally realized that Champaign is my safe space — my oasis from a country in turmoil.

I joined this race because Champaign is a great place to live, and it has the capacity to be even greater. Champaign is a place where people value diversity of thought and identity, where we respect scientific facts, and where even local business owners challenge corporate greed.

From a seat on City Council, I want to end the wealth gap that divides our community by amplifying the voices of African American community leaders. I want to make sure senior citizens and citizens with disabilities have access to our city resources. I want to ensure that the city protects LGBT+ youth, seniors, and those with HIV, and requires fair compensation and employment benefits and a safe working environment for city employees and contractors. I want to protect immigrants from the federal witch hunt against them with strong “sanctuary city” initiatives. I want to get homeless people off the streets and in homes where they can address their life circumstances and begin contributing to the economy. And I want to enable the people who have traditionally been excluded from the political process to get involved in the game so that it finally starts to serve them.

SP: The Community Coalition has been a good first step in beginning to discuss community violence. Now, beyond conversations and collecting data, what specific actions can be taken to address the issue of gun violence in the community?

Christensen: Gun violence in our community is the symptom of a bigger problem. It is a desperate reaction to systemic repression. We have to address the socioeconomic gap that divides our city if we want potential offenders to see an alternative. We must start giving decision-making power to leaders of communities who are disproportionately affected by the violence — specifically African-Americans and low-income families — communities that historically do not have access to the political process. We can also improve public infrastructure in North Champaign and elevate requirements for mixed-income housing in the city zoning code.

A sustainable transition toward equity in this city will take time and trust. In the short-term, I support community policing initiatives that help build trust between unarmed police officers and the neighborhoods they patrol. Neighbors that trust the law enforcement institution are more willing to call out suspicious activity. A significant portion of the gun violence in our community occurs behind closed doors, and engaged neighbors are the city’s best allies for early conflict resolution. The city can do more to help neighborhood associations flourish.

I also believe CU Fresh Start rightly identifies previous gun crime offenders as centers of influence that can help prevent future gun crime in the community. This program requires predictable funding and employee stability to be able to offer services consistently, though. The city also needs to find ways to help citizens with criminal backgrounds find stable housing and employment. The American criminal justice system is predatory and makes felons out of citizens with less privilege, and it profits from their repeat offenses. Because of this perverted profit incentive, citizens with a criminal history frequently find themselves back in jail when they can’t get access to basic necessities like stable housing and stable employment. This is one of the reasons I support repealing clause 17-4.5 in our Human Rights Ordinance that allows discrimination in rental agreements.

SP: What sort of developments should be prioritized for Downtown Champaign?

Christensen: Downtown Champaign is the beating social and economic heart of our community. Part of its success is owed to the preservation of historical character. This character is a key factor in retaining and attracting new talent to our community — this sense of identity is a direct contributor to the local economy. I support growth that preserves historically important buildings, and I support encoding what makes them important.

I am concerned with the taxing structure that makes vacant properties profitable in an ecosystem where rental costs are on par with the Chicago rental market. I support tax incentives and zoning efforts that prioritize city in-fill over fringe development. We need to ensure that local businesses in the heart of the city are strong before we can rely on the health of businesses at the borders of town. In the 1960’s, a new mall on the west edge of Champaign siphoned off business from downtown Champaign until the downtown area was a husk of its former self, depressing the economy city-wide. We will be most prudent with taxpayer money if we develop our city from the inside outward.

SP: An area of Champaign that is sorely lacking in a healthy economic and recreational infrastructure is North Champaign. What ideas do you have for stimulating that region?

Christensen: Parts of North Champaign have fallen behind the development curve of the rest of the city because most of the city’s developers, appointees, and elected officials are not from North Champaign. 

As a gay white male, I regularly see the effects of societal privilege from both sides, and it has taught me to be very critical of power structures that prevent participation. I think the best way to stimulate development of North Champaign is to get North Champaign involved in the process. When new roles are available, the city council should be appointing community members from neighborhoods north of University Avenue to the Plan Commission and hiring them to Department of Planning and Development.

There are some common-sense steps the city can take, including small business incentives for black-owned businesses, prioritizing public works projects for the neighborhoods that need them the most, and simple safety measures like temporary street lights and traffic controls that reduce speeding through residential neighborhoods. We can also lead intergovernmental agreements with the CUMTD, the park board, and the school board that focus on infrastructure changes in North Champaign that make it easier to reach by public transit, more healthy, and more conducive to children’s growth.

Ultimately though, I see it as my role on city council to amplify the voices of the people who live there and make the changes they need in their neighborhoods.

SP: The City of Champaign currently does not have any funding mechanisms for the arts in the community. What responsibility does the city have to the arts community? Do you see it as an essential service in the same way as new construction and infrastructure improvements? Why or why not?

Christensen: I am a programmer and designer, and have been a founding board member of the local film society for 8 years. I have many close friendships with entrepreneurs and creators in this community, and the problem I have been trying to fix since before any political aspirations was the brain drain of this community. We have access to a disproportionate amount of world-class talent for a city our size, but these talented individuals are often convinced that their only opportunity for career success is in a large urban environment. In fact, I was one of them — I spent half a year in London working for a Hollywood visual effects company.

I returned to Champaign because I had a higher quality of life here. I can get access to great restaurants without reservations! I don’t lose two hours of every day to a commute. I know my neighbors and can participate in endless community activities. And most importantly, I continue to learn, to be challenged, and to produce work that is globally significant. Our community identity is a direct contributor to the local economy. Professionals who have the privilege to move where they want for work choose places that are social and inviting. Our thriving arts scene is a major reason many professionals, families, and retirees choose to live here.

We absolutely need to invest in the local arts, and not just because they’re pretty or they sound nice. They are an economic engine, and they distinguish us from the rest of Central Illinois. We need to invest in organizations like 40 North that are promoting this part of our identity so that we don’t keep losing talent to the coasts. And we need to provide opportunities for local creators to operate on a world stage without sacrificing the value proposition of our “microurban” community.