In advance of the election on February 28th, we'll be running a series of interviews with the three contenders for mayor of Urbana: Mayor Laurel Prussing, Diane Marlin, and Evelyn Underwood. Here’s the first installment.
Smile Politely: What first brought you to Urbana?
Laurel Prussing: My husband got a job at the University of Illinois. He’s a professor of aerospace engineering. He’s originally from Illinois, so we decided to move here.
SP: What political or leadership experiences led you to the mayor’s office?
Prussing: When I first moved to Champaign-Urbana, I got involved in an environmental advocacy group called Housewives Interested in Political Solutions (HIPS). It was a women’s group, and we had a great deal of fun. I became the legislative chairman of the group. We started a recycling program here in the 1970s. Our goal was to get deposits on beverage containers. We got it through the Urbana City Council. Eight other states passed similar legislation, but the state of Illinois turned it down. That experience was my introduction to politics.
After that I was asked to run for the county board. My first question was, “What’s the county board?” But I ran. That was in 1972. Before that, all the county board members had all been white men. There were seven people running in the primary, and the top three went on to the general election. I was the third one, and I won by one vote. That’s why I always tell people, “Yes, your vote counts.” The three of us were all women, and we were the first three women to be elected to the board. On the county board, I wrote the first ordinance. Before that, everything had been in the form of resolutions. That ordinance prohibited dogs from running at large in unincorporated subdivisions.
I was the only Democrat in the courthouse for eight years and the first Democratic woman to be elected at the countywide level in Champaign County. During my time as auditor, we won awards for financial reporting and budgeting.
After that, I ran for state representative. The district had been carved up when Republicans re-drew the map. The district excluded some parts of Urbana and added Mahomet and Gibson City. I won that election in 1992 by only 34 votes. Because it was such a narrow margin, I was probably the #1 target in the house. I lost with 47% of the vote in 1994. That was a bad year for Democrats across the country.
In 2005, I ran for may of Urbana. I wont the primary and then the general election. I am the first woman mayor of Urbana. Now, people take it for granted that many women hold public office in C-U. But back when I ran for county board in 1972, the News-Gazette headline read, “Faculty wives sweep incumbents from office.” I always say, “I’m the first one, but I won’t be the last.”
SP: As mayor, what have been your core accomlishments?
Prussing: I instituted a civilian police review board in my first term. It was the first one south of I-80. I think we have an excellent police force in Urbana, but if residents have complaint, they should be able to talk to a neutral board. Our officers are trained to de-escalate situations, and I think they do a great job. One local department I can think of has paid millions of dollars in claims for officer misconduct. Urbana has paid $0. That’s an indication that we have a good police department that cares about dealing fairly with the public.
During the recession, my job was to find money to keep the city going. I cut on administrative costs. I decided to let the country administrator go. I didn’t need someone at that level because I’m an economist, so I know how to do a budget. Some people think if you get a bill you’re just supposed to pay it, but I asked questions about why we were spending money in certain areas and how we could spend less. You don’t just have to accept what people ask you. You have to be able to negotiate. I’m proud that during the recession we didn’t let any employees go. We lengthened the time to replace someone if they retired or quit, but we didn’t let anyone go.
SP: What are your priorities for Urbana if you are re-elected?
Prussing: We have to find ways to get more tax revenue. If we win the lawsuit with Carle, that will go a long way toward that issue. In 2012 Carle stopped paying its property taxes. They were our biggest tax payer. When they stopped paying taxes, their share got distributed to everyone else, so the residents of Urbana have higher property taxes as a result. Meanwhile, they built a new gigantic building. If we win this lawsuit, property tax could go down in Urbana by as much as 20%.
But we can’t just wait and see if we will win. We have to actively work to build the assessed value of Urbana. We have worked out tax breaks for new home construction. The number of new homes being built here is going up. If we have more assessed value, everyone’s tax rate will go down. The ideal would be to have our tax rate no higher than Champaign’s.
We are also working on a new project to revitalize the Landmark Hotel. We are working with a developer who owns boutique hotels in college towns. The plan is for him to buy the Landmark from the current owner and restore it. Perhaps he would also buy Lincoln Square, which would be a really significant development. We will talk about that more in March.
SP: What differentiates you from your opponents?
Prussing: The difference is that I have already taken on some really tough problems that other people did not want to deal with. I was able to hang in there and get the job done. A lot of people thought I was crazy to challenge Carle. But our attorney won in an appellate court, and I feel hopeful about what will happen in the Illinois Supreme Court.
Some people give up, but I think you have you have to look at a problem and see what can be done and then do it. You’re not going to win if you don’t try. In my time as mayor, I’ve gotten things done step by step.
Stay tuned for continued coverage of the upcoming Urbana Mayoral Election with Diane Marlin and Evelyn Underwood interviews.