Local politics was anything but usual in 2015. More people were engaged and talking about local matters than any time in recent memory. This past year was a victory for local politics as we saw heightened public discussion and a huge turnout at the polls. The pundits expected this past election cycle to generate serious attention and they were not disappointed as impressive candidates stepped up and started working much earlier than usual. With many great people running and so many interrelated issues driving interest and discussion, I’m confident 2015 will not be forgotten any time soon. Here is a look back at many of the local political highlights from last year.
Keep Central Central
2015 commenced with the introduction of a new grassroots organization dedicated to defeating the Unit 4 school referendum. Although Keep Central Central (initially REWIND) did not receive a warm welcome from the North End Breakfast Club, the effort moved forward and remained focused on the issue of school location. This organization was fun to watch as the group was successful in getting more citizens engaged in the local political process. In this regard the group realized an epic victory long before the first vote was counted. The Unit 4 referendum lost by a large margin, largely in part to the efforts of KCC. As facility discussions start to ramp up in 2016, KCC remains intact, but only in an “observation phase”.
Click this link for appropriate theme music when reading about Dodds Park. In 2014, the Park District Board had previously rejected Unit 4’s past request to make Dodds Park available for consideration as a possible school site. The N-G officially opened the flood gates with an editorial encouraging the school board to formally request Dodds Park while encouraging a public dialogue. The School Board and Park District followed the N-G’s political advice and immediately did exactly as suggested as the Park District agreed to host a public conversation. While the majority of those speaking at this special forum were against the Park District offering Dodds Park as a school site, the public seemed sharply divided on the topic.
Shortly after the public forum in a separate meeting, the Park Board proceeded to vote on Dodds and a majority of that board voted against offering Dodds Park for consideration. Before the vote, public input was strongly against offering Dodds Park as not a single person spoke up in favor of the proposal in that follow-up meeting.
Jane Solon’s non-recusal
Jane Solon serves honorably on the Park Board. She had been a firm “no” vote against Dodds Park being offered as a school site and had been honest, open and direct about the topic long before John Foreman authored his editorial calling for public dialogue. When anonymous concerns emerged about a conflict of interest because of her employment with the Atkins Group, the Park District attorney was consulted on the matter and determined that no conflict of interest existed. After Jane Solon and a majority of the Park Board voted to reject Unit 4’s Dodds Park request, there was little surprise the pro-Dodds Park (as a school site) N-G chose not to endorse her. Sadly, the paper took it much further in the endorsement editorial with phrases like “stubborn refusal to recuse herself”…” She showed herself to be blind to both the reality and appearance of a conflict of interest”… “ignored widespread suspicion that that is what she was doing”…
I didn’t notice anyone making a big deal about this alleged conflict of interest beforehand, but the facts strongly suggest she ignored nothing. That said, I was frustrated when the editors took it much further and questioned her ethics and even went so far as to distort the facts. This hatchet job on Solon resulted in notable backlash from her friends and supporters in the community, including myself. Friends or not, I am all for transparency and holding elected officials accountable. Solon did her job and voted on a controversial public matter when everyone was paying close attention. On election night, I was very interested to see how the voting public would weigh in on the matter and it turns out Jane was reelected easily. Jim Dey wrote a follow-up article on the topic that presented both sides of an argument that nobody seemed to be very concerned about in the first place.
John Bambenek targets Joe Petry
John Bambenek did not particularly care for Joe Petry's approach to politics, and went on a one-man warpath against the poor bastard. Love him or hate him, Bambenek amazingly generated front page press by funding an anti-Joe PAC with tens of thousands of dollars without ever spending a cent. He is without a doubt the undisputed king of earned media. While the N-G is unlikely to be duped a second time by this tactic, I can promise you that if John wants to be heard, he will find a way.
Don Gerard's Twitter fight
After a questionable call during a UofI basketball game, Mayor Gerard engaged in a Twitter batter with ESPN's Dan Dakich. After the twitter fight generated national headlines, the N-G suggested Don Gerard might be getting a little "too social". That argument generated some interesting discussion with Don Gerard creatively leveraging all the attention to raise funds for C-U at Home by securing a sizeable donation from radio host Jay Mohr. Well played, Your Honor.
Until the Smile Politely/ChambanaMoms forum, the mayoral debates were generally dull and lacking fireworks. That somewhat changed when Smile Politely’s Seth Fein asked the marijuana question that invoked Deb Feinen's stern “supposed to be a family-friendly event” comment. Feinen quickly moved from discussing her possible past drug use in front of her children and addressed the marijuana topic as it relates to the City of Champaign. Don Gerard wasn't about to let that slide and he pounced, proceeding to call both Feinen and Petry liars for not answering the marijuana use question directly. I couldn't believe anyone would try to give Feinen grief for not answering a question about drug use in front of her kids. They did, and this generated a considerable amount of positive buzz in Feinen’s favor and contributed to the campaign's forward momentum. Ironically, the next question at the debate was about enhancing the family-friendly culture in Champaign. Tom Pauly from Smile Politely wrote a nice follow-up article and discusses the “incident” that overshadowed an impressive event.
Toby Sirois tries to bully small business owner
An overzealous campaign worker for the Gerard campaign did the unthinkable as he posed as a government official in an attempt to intimidate at least one small business owner into hanging Gerard campaign signs. It was beyond a campaign disaster and everyone seems to agree this type of horrible behavior should have no place in any American community. As a small business owner myself, I appreciate how Gerard immediately condemned the behavior. I also appreciate how Julia Reitz and her office pressed charges that led to a conviction. “The guilty verdict, she said, “sends a strong message that this behavior will not be tolerated in Champaign County.”
A memorable election night
Clearly the sideline pundits have no idea what they are talking about.In what many predicted would be close election results turned out to be landslide victories. With a huge turnout, the voters elected a new Champaign Mayor and soundly rejected the Unit 4 referendum. No sitting Unit 4 board member up for reelection was able to keep their seat. The park commissioner who voted against Dodds and endured the N-G hatchet job also won easily.
After one of the most hotly-contested local municipal elections in the history of ever, Deb Feinen was sworn in as only the second woman to be elected mayor of Champaign after Joan Severns, who served from 1979 to 1982. Read the ChambanaMom’s coverage here.
As a campaign volunteer, I developed an inside appreciation of how this amazing woman operates. I have always been a fan of her style, but she exceeded my high expectations and ran a perfect campaign. Her large margin of victory was earned the old-fashioned way.
Unit 4 board elects new spokesperson
Chris Kloeppel was unanimously selected by the new Unit 4 school board as the new board President to replace Laurie Bonnett while Amy Armstrong was selected as the new Vice President. Laurie Bonnett and Lynn Stuckey are the only two carryovers on the new board, but neither were voted to serve the top spots. The Unit 4 school board suddenly became a popular topic two years prior when Laurie Bonnett was elected as school board in divisive fashion with highly-respected Stig Lanesskog resigning almost immediately thereafter. Chris Kloeppel and Amy Armstrong offer a welcomed positive and constructive approach to problem solving after much of the community had lost confidence in the Unit 4 school board.
Barb Frasca not running for Recorder
While it was reported in 2014 that Barb Frasca would not be running for reelection, it generated several related headlines in 2015 that were noteworthy. First, the County Board considered merging the Recorder’s office with the County Clerk’s office. While that idea didn’t generate enough support on the County Board to get the ball rolling, the $93,000/year position has certainly generated conversation and interested candidates from both parties. There was plenty of GOP interest with four candidates submitting petitions while Matthew Duco will be the Democrat candidate on the November ballot. The Republican nominee will be determined in the upcoming spring primary.
Gerard tosses shade at former Campaign Manager
In a bizarre chain of events in 2014, Matt Duco was representing Don Gerard as his Campaign Manager on Smile Politely Radio only to step down just 12 days later per this Smile Politely SPlog entry. Mayor Gerard at the time put out an official statement about how this volunteer’s talents could be better applied. I kid you not. Duco was later referenced as a Campaign Advisor and quoted as such in the N-G as he helped Gerard clean up the Toby Sirois disaster. This Campaign Advisor loyally stood by Gerard though election night as Mayor Gerard made his concession call to Mayor Elect Feinen. When this volunteer later considered running for public office, Gerard surprisingly directed some unflattering comments at Duco saying, "He's just not somebody that I have placed a lot of faith or trust in." Ouch. After this strange sequence of events, Matt Duco did not seem too discouraged and has moved forward without Don Gerard’s endorsement. In fact, Matt Duco submitted more signatures on his petitions than any other county wide candidate he is now an official candidate for Champaign County Recorder with a large number of high-profile dem endorsements. Good Luck, Matt.
Adam Brown not running for State Rep
While the Illinois 102nd district may not be on the political radar come November, Adam Brown’s announcement that he was stepping down came as a surprise to many. Adam was a possible star in the Republican ranks and one of the few who has proven he can win contested elections as an underdog. It was more surprising when the Champaign Republican immediately threw his support behind Edgar County Republican Party Chairman Randy Peterson. Champaign County Republicans sought out a home candidate and successfully recruited Jim Acklin from Ogden while Governor Rauner has endorsed former State Rep Brad Halbrook out of Shelbyville. Champaign County has the largest bloc of votes in the district, with Vermilion and Douglas counties making up close to half of the votes in the seven-county district. The second-biggest bloc of votes belongs to Shelby County. Parts of Champaign County that are in the 102nd District include St. Joseph, Ogden, Homer, Tolono, Sidney, Philo, Pesotum and three city of Champaign precincts. It will be interesting to see if the Champaign County Republicans support the local candidate this spring and to what extent.
Not a single petition challenge in the area
The field for 2016 is officially set, at least for the most part. While parties can still slate candidates to fill candidate vacancies, all those who submitted petitions will be on the ballot. To get a complete list of candidates for local precinct committeeman, county board, etc, you can visit the County Clerk’s website to this link. Tom Kacich reports on the filings in this News-Gazette article, where he references the four-way Republican primary for County Recorder to see who will face Matt Duco in the general election. Don’t forget to vote.
Editor's Note: The article was originally published with the wrong title, and has since been changed. Apologies to the author. (PS)