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.
Don Gerard was the mayor of Champaign from 2011-2015, and is recently retired from the University of Illinois where he was a facilities manager. He announced back in November that he would be running for the office again.
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?
Don Gerard: There are many issues, however, many tie into the adverse effects of the current decline of the Historic Downtown District (HDD). Since I left office Champaign has lost Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival, C-U Pride Parade & Festival, there are no PYGMALION shows of which to speak, and far more empty storefronts. The recent 500%* increase on the food and beverage tax probably didn’t phase fast food chain restaurants, but it has a measurable negative effect on locally owned businesses.
Champaign needs to exempt businesses in the HDD from this local tax and seek ways to incentivize new and existing businesses, and for goodness sakes, those giant, LED-adorned “CLOSED – GO AWAY” barricades which begin thwarting potential visitors at 9 p.m. on the surface lots in the heart of downtown are simply painful to see.
A thriving and vibrant downtown is not only a key source of revenue (a dollar spent at a locally owned business is said to “roll over” five fold in the local economy), but it is an import aspect when businesses, UIUC, etc. are striving to recruit and retain the best and brightest workforce. Champaign needs to actively seek to pump some life into downtown this spring or we’re going to see another decline by the end of summer.
SP: Is there a decision made by the current mayor/city council recently that you would have handled differently?
Gerard: There are many, however, one of the things which has bothered me the most is the current council’s habit of no longer responding to constituents. I’ve found I’m not alone in having my comments, questions, and concerns either brushed off or ignored altogether. When Rodney Davis was outspoken about his desire to see marriage equality repealed and Roe v. Wade overturned, when he voted to gut the Affordable Care Act and blew up the deficit with tax breaks for the wealthy, when he proudly stood by our former president and earned an A+ rating from the NRA, I want to know why the highest elected official continued to donate money and work to re-elect him. I want to know why our mayor used her title to help him and why, exactly, she believed he was better suited to represent and work for her constituents than, say, Betsy Dirkson-Londigran. It is egregiously hypocritical for the mayor to keep stressing her “non-partisan” position when she’s attending and sponsoring political fund-raisers for elected officials who do not reflect the values of an educated, progressive and welcoming community.
SP: What is your motivation for running for this office again? Why now?
Gerard: We have been living downtown for three years, and I have been working with the homeless for almost two years, and the regression and decline is evident every time I walk out of our building. Hearing my neighbors worry about business, and having been there as mayor during the best years of the downtown restoration and revival, I felt like someone needed to at least spark interest in discussing and debating the plan for the immediate future.
SP: What are you most proud of from your time as mayor?
Gerard: One afternoon a man came up to me, gave me a hug and said, “everything got better because of you.” I thanked him for his kind words and after he walked away I was told it was Kiwanne Carrington’s father.
Not just that, mind you, but the fact there are so many people who tell me how the things we did made their life better. People who admitted they never voted or even paid that much attention love to reminisce and remind me we helped to bring local government a bit more accessible for everyone.
SP: What is something you wish you’d handled differently?
Gerard: Katherine Hepburn said something, like, “The stupid things you do, you regret if you have any sense, and if you don’t regret them, maybe you’re stupid.”
I learned a lot of hard lessons, but, if I am honest, I know it made me a far better person.
Sometimes I regret not striving to be more politically savvy and maybe a little more prudent about those I chose to trust.
SP: Who do you look up to that has most informed your leadership or governing style?
Gerard: I always admired Al Franken for becoming a respected and effective legislator despite his history in show business. Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar and I crossed paths a few times and he was always gracious and encouraging. He really was one of the last “old-school reach-across-the-aisle” politicians. Plus, he admitted some of his decisions were wrong, owned them and continued to advocating for good policy.
Without question Governor J.B. Pritzker is one of the most effective leaders we have seen at any level in the past few decades. He is a true public servant.
SP: If you are not elected, how will you advocate for the issues you care about in Champaign?
Gerard: Oh, gosh, I don’t know…the same stuff I always do, I suppose. Pay attention, submit notices of appearance on important issues being discussed by our state legislators, initiate conversations, and openly support organizations and individuals who seek justice and change for the greater good.
My pastor, Bishop Lloyd Gwin at the Church of the Living God, has floated the idea of a “Public Engagement Ministry” to help members of our church family to know best how to seek and enact action with respect to government. Sometimes simple education on “how to” is all someone needs to “see the change, be the change” and whatnot.
The Sierra Club, ACLU, Faith In Place and many, many others have me on their email lists and I do my best to support them how and when I’m able.
*Editor’s Note: The local food and beverage tax increased from .5% to 2.5%, an increase of 400%.