I sent questions to all three mayoral candidates: Azark Cobbs, Deb Feinen, and Don Gerard. Their answers will be published as they’re received. For more on each candidate, you can check out the Champaign County Voters Alliance or watch the League of Women Voters of Champaign County Candidate Forum. The consolidated election is April 4th, but vote-by-mail and early voting are already underway. Find out more about all of your options at the Champaign County Clerk’s website.
Deborah Frank Feinen was elected as the Mayor of Champaign in 2015, again in 2019, and is running for re-election. In addition to being the mayor, Feinen is an attorney, and currently Vice President for Downstate Operations at Attorneys’ Title Guaranty Fund, Inc.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: What is the most important issue facing Champaign right now, and what is your plan to address it?
Deb Feinen: Gun Violence continues to be the most pressing issue to be addressed in Champaign. In 2022 our homicides were down 47.1% from 2021. This is evidence that our multifaceted and comprehensive communitywide approach to addressing gun violence is having an impact. I support the great work of our police in conjunction with social service programs such as those in the Violence Reduction Blueprint. I also support the work of community members and associations, coordinating with law enforcement to make sure our neighborhoods are safe.
Council is in the middle of implementing the Violence Reduction Blueprint which has about $8 million over two years allocated to violence reduction social services measures. The Blueprint provides support for victims and their families, for our youth who are struggling or facing critical crossroads in their lives, for the formerly incarcerated who need assistance to be successful and for neighborhood wellness and community engagement. Next steps need to be data driven. This will include reviewing the report from the University of Illinois College of Education evaluators who will be looking at each program to help us determine which programs are working, which need to be tweaked and which ones may not be the best choice for our community. Once we have that information, we can continue or modify the current programs to have greater impact in a thoughtful data driven way.
SP: What is an issue you wish you’d handled or approached differently over the course of your previous term?
Feinen: Managing the COVID-19 response was all encompassing and it drew me, the Council and city staff away from many of our priorities that we had been set to move forward on as a city in order to address immediate issues and to ensure the health and well-being of Champaign residents. I wish that I had found a way to continue to focus meaningful energy on those priorities. Finding a better way to manage the urgency of now while still planning for our future needs is something that I strive to balance, but one that will always be a challenge in government. The last four years were particularly hard in striking that balance. My plan for my next term in office would be that I will work on those priorities delayed by the pandemic while having the benefit of the insights learned last term.
SP: What are you most proud of from your previous term?
Feinen: As your Mayor, I governed during the COVID-19 pandemic creating and maintaining partnerships throughout our community that provided information and service during its most critical periods. That shared experience formed a framework for cooperation between entities moving forward. The work we did was informed by the best and brightest scientists at the University of Illinois, and at public health. Together, we were focused on the needs of our residents and local business community. We were successful in having lower community transmission rates and high vaccination rates. We provided funding to those in need, cooperated with other governmental entities, the private sector and non-profits, and provided clear information to residents.
SP: What motivated you to run again this time around?
Feinen: It is service to our community in a way that changes people’s lives and neighborhoods for the better, confirmed by hundreds of conversations I have had on doorsteps throughout the city, that is my motivation for my continued service. That is why I hope you will support me for another term as your Mayor.
SP: Who do you look up to that has most informed your leadership and/or governing style?
Feinen: Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Former Governor Jim Edgar.Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms worked to make Atlanta affordable, resilient, and equitable. She created Atlanta’s first fully staffed Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (something Champaign has also done). I admired her grace while managing the pandemic as well as the impact of the racial justice movement on her city. She has helped other mayors as well, becoming a spokeswoman on the challenges and opportunities facing cities and leaders throughout the United States.
Governor Edgar is the creator of the Edgar Fellows Program which emphasizes responsible and responsive governance and teaches leadership and statesmanship to emerging leaders in the State of Illinois while emphasizing mutual understanding across regional, partisan, and ethnic lines in addressing major challenges. He governed this way and is now sharing his wisdom while growing our next leaders.
SP: If you are not re-elected, how would you continue to advocate for the issues you care about in Champaign?
Feinen: There are many ways to serve a community — as an elected official is one of those ways but, so is service through non-profits. I would continue serving the community in every way I could, as I have done in the past, by increasing my time on local non-profit boards and by volunteering for local charities.