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Five reasons to watch this election cycle

I don’t know if there will ever be a more interesting local election cycle in local C-U politics. I’m not even sure where to start and I’m not sure where this ends, but it will be fun watching the election results come in on April 7th. Here are five things about this election cycle that are especially noteworthy.  

1. Unit 4 Referendum: Have you ever seen such an organized effort in opposition to a school funding referendum? The typical political hyperbole in these situations is to suggest that people against the referendum hate kids and teachers. What we are observing now is much more intelligent and constructive. Sure, you’ll hear the occasional rhetoric about how one side is not putting the kids first, but both sides of this argument clearly have the best interests of the community at heart. The Keep Central Central (KCC) supporters do not like the proposed Interstate Drive location and have even proposed other site alternatives. The group is a diverse political mix of individuals that includes both liberals and conservatives. Unit 4 has put together an informative website that explains the referendum and answers many frequently asked questions. I feel that Unit 4 deserves more credit for their site selection and due diligence process, but they lost much credibility by circumventing the voters in major decisions. The school board took it upon themselves to purchase the Interstate Drive property and did not even make the sale contingent on the passage of a referendum. Oddly, the April 7th referendum does not even mention Interstate Drive. While the school district obviously has the best interests of the school district in mind, the school board is asking voters to trust them with a $144M blank check. It will be interesting to see what the voter response is on election night. In Sunday’s N-G, the two opposing sides made their cases to (A) Vote Yes (B) Vote No.

2. Dodds Park: While the Dodds Park topic can be considered part of the Unit 4 referendum discussion, this turned into its own monster. The 11th hour discussion on Dodds Park polarized the community and Unit 4 did themselves no favors in saying the school district could wait up to 2 years for a better location since KCC is also arguing the community can spend a little more time and get this right. Given the circumstances, I just don’t see how any Park Board Commissioner could rush into a last-minute vote and vote yes. I think Commissioner Barb Kuhl said it best at the meeting, “Unfortunately, there’s not enough time to research and resolve all the issues surrounding the request for Dodds prior to the April 7 election date. I don’t want to influence anyone’s votes positively or negatively and there’s just not enough time. There’s too many elements surrounding this issue, and I don’t think it’s fair to the residents to not have those researched and determined before voting for the referendum.” Politically, Unit 4’s request of the Park Board to consider Dodds Park made little sense to me unless you were wanting to see Joe Petry’s name in the paper. Instead of a conventional lobbying effort with park commissioners, the school board decided to put public pressure on the park board to give up Dodds Park. I wish I could have been in the room to tell them that was a horrible idea. Let’s just say I was not surprised by Park Commissioner Tim McMahon’s stern “No means No!” message to the school board’s second request for Dodds. With a $144M referendum on the line, it might be a good idea for the school board to hire a political consultant if the referendum fails again. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed the political theater. I just don’t see how it was in any way productive in getting the referendum passed.  

3. Unit 4 School Board: There has been a dark cloud over the current school board after political shenanigans resulted the lowest vote getter in the last election becoming the school board President with no school board experience. Almost immediately after that, school board veteran Stig Lanesskog resigned without giving a reason. People are paying close attention this election and hopefully trust can once again be restored to the school board. There is an impressive group of candidates running and it’s nice to see the candidates running together and not against each other. The Citizen 4 blog is a great reference for everything Unit 4. You can get more information on the School Board candidates here

4. Champaign Mayor: I can’t believe this race is down to #4 on this list as I thought this election cycle was going to be all about the Champaign mayoral race. This is incumbent Mayor Don Gerard’s race to lose and he hasn’t made things easy on himself during his first term with his personal behavior. Thankfully for him, the enonomy has rebounded and life is relatively good in Champaign. With three opponents Deb Feinen, Karen Foster, and Joe Petry splitting up opposition to Gerard, the winner of this race could possibly win with 35% of the vote. In a field of political moderates, Gerard has suddenly gone out of his way to distinguish himself as the liberal democrat. This is a far cry from the independent, consensus-building Don Gerard who I endorsed over Jerry Schweighart 4 years ago. Gerard is doing whatever he has to do to win and that is just good politics. The people who were paying attention to the first race might accuse him of being full of crap, but isn’t this the characteristic of a good politician?  Money and endorsements are pouring in for Deb Feinen while Petry and Foster are both impressive opponents.

Disclaimer: I endorsed Don Gerard in the last election and donated to his campaign shortly after his election. This election cycle, I have hosted a fundraiser for Deb Feinen and have made phone calls on her behalf. 

5. North End Breakfast Club/Chamber of Commerce: There are usually not too many surprises coming out the North End Breakfast Club, but I’m definitely surprised this group did not make an endorsement in the mayoral race. The supporters of the NEBC made a difference for Gerard in the first election after they went all-in for him and it’s notable that Gerard did not earn their endorsement during his first term.   If the North End is not unified behind a single mayoral candidate, that could certainly have an effect on the outcome. Here are the NEBC endorsements. The Business Empowered PAC (Chamber of Commerce) also put out their endorsements. This organization has been accused of being one-dimensional by local democrats, so I found it very interesting they endorsed Kerris Lee and Chris Kloeppel as both of these school board board candidates were also endorsed by the NEBC. The Business Empowered PAC is stepping up their game and are providing both money and campaign support to the candidates they endorse. Both of these political organizations are building steam and are showing no signs of fizzling out. 

My democrat friend Brendan McGinty tells me we as voters should be paying more attention to Parkland College and I think he makes a good point. It would have made my top 5, but I think both him and Tim Johnson are a lock for Parkland Trustee. They are running against former Tuscola school Superintendent James Voyles.

Also making the honorable mention list is the Champaign Park District race. With all the Dodds Park drama, incumbent Jane Solon voted with the majority of her board against the land swap and I suspect voting one way or the other on Dodds Park will influence some voters as she runs to keep her seat. After the vote, John Foreman took exception Jane not recusing herself since she is an Atkins Group employee. This was discussed in Tom’s Mailbag and has many scratching their head since Atkins already sold the land on Interstate Drive and Jane is merely an employee with no financial interest in any park district/unit 4 dealings. Obviously, Mr. Foreman really liked the Dodds Park idea. I don’t know if many people are paying attention at the level, but Jane is running against Craig Hayes (Chairman of the Park Foundation Board) and Brent West. Good luck to everyone running.

It goes without saying, but local elections matter. Voter turnout 4 years ago was 17% in Champaign County. You may have noticed the City of Champaign 1 precinct was featured in a recent N-G article because Gerard received 90% in that district in the last election. Can you believe that only 18.11% of registered voters voted in that precinct in April 2011? That is pathetic by any standard. Very few people show up at local government meetings and too few people get involved in community conversations that can have a major consequence on the future of your school, township, park district, city and county. At the very least, don’t forget to vote.

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