When I met Julie Laut, she drank from a hand glazed mug and played with her dogs, which are Humane Society rescues. We were in the backyard of her house, the Griggs House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. She has a PhD focusing on, in her words, “transnational feminist history.” Her backyard neighbors have a chicken coop. As a Champaign townie, I’ve spent my life hearing jokes about liberal Urbana residents. When people make those jokes, I will now forever think of the morning I spent talking with Laut.
On August 3rd, she took over the empty Ward 2 seat on the Urbana City Council. The seat was vacated by Eric Jakobsson, who retired in June at age 81. Laut was one of two candidates for the position and was appointed by Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin before being confirmed by the council. The council voted 5-0, with Ward 5 alderman Dennis Roberts abstaining. She will serve the rest of Jakobssen’s terms, which will expire in May of next year.
Laut is a Democrat, fitting alongside the five other Democrats on City Council. When asked about her beliefs generally, Laut brought up where she lived before Urbana: “Portland and Colorado, so you can see where my political heart is.” The cheeky nod to progressive politics fit in well with what she wants to do with city council. “I want to help the city bring anti-racist values in our work,” she said. Speaking about police reform, she said “I completely understand the calls to ‘effing get this done now!’” before urging that a measured and intentional approach is necessary for lasting change. Laut identified her relative privilege and that it’s others who are calling for reform. “I’m not the person to speak on their behalf. They should be invited to the table.” She also identified housing and maintaining community safety nets during the pandemic as key issues for her.
When asked what drives her, Laut said that her ties to the Unitarian Universalist (UU) community are a major part of her personal life and community work. “UU has been a huge part of how I live my life.” Laut served in various capacities on the board of the local UU congregation for several years. UU is a “non-creedal” religious tradition focused not on specific doctrine, but on a commitment to shared values. According to Florence Caplow, the local UU minister, UU congregations are “highly liberal and engaged in justice work. There’s a spirit of inclusiveness.”
Caplow, who came to Urbana in 2017, when Laut was on the congregation’s board, said that Laut is “very calm, so when other people had a hard time, she just had this way of holding the calm and listening.” Caplow identified Laut as being instrumental in leading the congregation to committing to work on racial justice, though Laut downplayed her role. Laut herself was proud of overseeing the installation of solar panels on the congregation’s building and of helping to grow the congregation to around 350 members.
Laut has recently been making headlines as the organizer of CU Lockdown Trivia, a virtual trivia night. In March, along with a few friends, she started hosting the trivia nights “to spark joy in a difficult time and to build community even when we are kept physically apart.” Each week, Laut invites a representative from a local charity to ask players for a donation. According to Laut, these trivia nights have raised “nearly $8500” in the 22 weeks she’s hosted them.
During the pandemic, Laut also began a Little Free Pantry on her curb, where members of the community can drop off or pick up consumable items and food for free. Starting with some “old shelves” she had in her house, she put them outside and filled them with food for anyone who needed it. Reporting daily use of her community antry, she said it’s been most helpful for people struggling “at the end of the month,” filling the fridge for the week before a paycheck.
Professionally, Laut was a history teacher in Portland before starting graduate school. She earned a Master’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. Laut earned a doctorate degree from the University of Illinois in 2016 under the direction of Antoniette Burton. She then worked for the University of Illinois Press, overseeing outreach and development, hosting a publishing conference, and liaising with the university’s Chicago campus.
(Her PhD dissertation is called India at the United Nations: A Post-Colonial Nation-State on the Global Stage, 1945-1955 and focuses on the nationalizing movements of post-partition India, with an eye towards women’s roles in them. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s a fun 229 pages.)
The appointment process for the Ward 2 seat involved a public call for applications (which were reviewed by the mayor and city council members), an interview with the mayor, and a confirmation vote from the city council.
There were two qualifying applicants, Laut and Christopher Hansen. Hansen is a longtime Ward 2 resident who owns a small electronics company with several employees. He made headlines in 2018 when he published a nearly 14,000 word post on his website Corrupt C-U detailing his 2015 arrest and subsequent court battles. Charges against Hansen from the arrest were dropped. Since then, Hansen has appeared regularly in public input sections of city council meetings offering comment.
Hansen applied on the final day of the application window. The application window was extended the same day, after which Laut applied. When asked what inspired her candidacy, Laut cited several friends and colleagues nudging her to apply and an informative conversation with Esther Patt, a local tenant’s rights activist. Both candidates were then interviewed by Marlin.
Hansen said of his unsuccessful application: “I believe the reason I wasn’t appointed is because I’m too damn abrasive.” Neither Laut nor Hansen harbor any ill will toward each other.
In a memo introducing Laut to the city council, Marlin wrote “I believe that Dr. Julie Laut will represent the interests of Ward 2 well and that she will make significant positive contributions to all aspects of life in our community.”
When the city council confirmed Laut’s appointment, there was near unanimous support. Dennis Roberts offered the only dissenting voice, abstaining from the vote. In the meeting he said he would have “liked to have taken the gamble and have Christopher come forward to be on council.” Roberts explained in an interview that Hansen “has a lot of energy and awareness of how the city’s been working.”
Later in the meeting, Roberts said that he would like to see Hansen serve on a committee or board. In an interview, Hansen said he wasn’t interested in such a role. He is considering running for the seat in the next election.
In Urbana, members of city council (sometimes called alderman and more infrequently alderperson or alderwoman) serve as legislative representatives as well as having important oversight roles in city affairs. Per a 2016 ordinance, city council members will earn $6,878 each in 2020. When asked about the next election for the Ward 2 seat, Laut immediately said “I plan to run.”
Laut said she is always open to meeting new people and speaking with community residents. Her email is [email protected] and can be reached via phone at (513) 544-2682, though she says the best way to find her is to donate to her community pantry. “Buy a can of soup and talk with me in my front yard.”