With a week and a half to go before the mayoral race will be decided in the City of Champaign, four candidates faced off yesterday for a final debate at Jupiter’s at the Crossing.

Sitting mayor Don Gerard, Councilwoman Deb Frank Feinen, Champaign Park District Commissioner Joe Petry, and Councilwoman Karen Foster took questions from Seth Fein, publisher of yours truly, and Laura Bleill, Mom-In-Chief of chambanamoms.com. A substantial crowd turned its attention away from the NCAA tournament to see what the mayoral candidates had to say for themselves.

You can stream the whole thing below (just start at roughly at the five minute mark):

We should have video footage soon, so we will update that as soon as possible.
 
UPDATE 7:15 p.m.: Here's the video footage from the event:
 

Here is what Smile Politely and Chambanamoms asked:

  1. What’s your grand vision for the city of Champaign?
  2. What do you think the role of the city is in collaborating with the school district? How would you distinguish between the roles of the two entities?
  3. As mayor, do you plan to address the lack of businesses owned by African Americans in our community, and if so, how?
  4. Would you support decriminalizing/legalizing marijuana? Have you ever smoked marijuana? And if so, have you smoked from a bong?
  5. What will you do to enhance the family friendly culture of Champaign?
  6. What’s the best live performance you’ve seen in Champaign?
  7. Significant budget cuts to U of I and other state funded entities are likely given the current climate in Springfield. How would you respond? Do these cuts present any opportunities for the city of Champaign? How would you respond to the negative aspects of a reduced budget?
  8. What types of businesses are currently missing in Champaign?
  9. How do you identify with those in the community who didn’t grow up here? How do you incorporate their worldview into your own?
  10. How will your political party affiliation affect how you govern as mayor?
  11. The recent issue with Dodds Park as a potential site for Central High School has exposed community concerns about lack of green spaces in our city. How would you push for more green space in our city?
  12. How can the city optimize transportation opportunities?
  13. If you could choose one song for karaoke, what would it be and why?
  14. Should transgender people be able to choose which bathrooms they use?
  15. What do you like about each other?
  16. What differentiates you from the other candidates?

Overall, this was a great debate; all four candidates gave lots of strong answers. But, as Poison proclaims, "every rose has its thorn". Here are, in my humble opinion, the highs and lows from the debate. 

Don Gerard

Overall

Gerard spent this debate focusing on his experience and track record over the past four years, frequently citing his successes and Champaign’s economic and social progress since he took office 2011. His answers were quick, specific, and seemed authentic and unpracticed.

Best Answer

Question 12 – Transportation Opportunities

Gerard took the chance to highlight his experience as mayor when discussing the possibility for a high speed rail line connecting Champaign and Chicago, foregrounding his knowledge of and role in talks surrounding the future of transportation in C-U. He also used this question as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of infill development, specifically the expansion of high rise developments in the city in order to attract U of I students to Champaign as opposed to mega-plexes in Savoy and other neighboring towns. Gerard stressed that the development currently going up in campustown will reduce emissions from traffic as students recognize the advantages in living closer to campus.

Worst Answer

Question 8 – Missing Businesses in Champaign

Gerard missed a few opportunities to articulate his plans for Champaign in the years to come, including in the question about what kinds of businesses the city is currently lacking. Gerard used his answer to discuss the city’s successes in attracting local and successful businesses, but he wasn’t clear about what kind of development he wants to encourage if he wins the upcoming election. 

Deb Frank Feinen

Overall

Feinen frequently stressed her experience working not only on the Champaign City Council but also on the Champaign County Board. She also highlighted how her identity as a mother of a young family informs her political philosophy — a savvy choice given Chambanamoms’ role in co-hosting this event.

Best Answer

Question 7 – Potential Budget Cuts

Feinen had a number of studied and articulate answers throughout the debate, but in my view her strongest response came when she described the potential effects of the governor’s proposed budget cuts on local nonprofits as well as city government and the community’s institutions of higher education. Feinen used her answer to stress the fact that Rauner’s proposed budget cuts would negatively impact the city as a whole, but in particular the nonprofits that often serve the least privileged members of our community, an effect that could add further financial stress to city services as a whole.

Worst Answer

Question 4 – Marijuana

I get that this event was a collaboration between two rather ideologically disparate entities — Smile Politely and Chambanamoms — and that what each hosting body deems to be appropriate subject matter came across quite differently in the debate. That said, I didn’t think Seth Fein’s question about legalizing or smoking marijuana was that radical (in fact, most who know Seth would acknowledge it was fairly expected), so Feinen’s response — in which she stated that debate was “supposed to be a family friendly event” — came off as a bit condemnatory, in my view. However, she did get the strongest moment of vocal support of the entire evening from an audience member in response to this statement, so maybe I’m just too juvenile to appreciate the solemnity of the proceedings.

Joe Petry

Overall

Petry’s answers demonstrated that he’s been studying up on two things:

  1. Branding himself as a candidate who will “collaborate rather than just cooperate” and
  2. listening to people from Champaign about the direction they want the city to go in.

He frequently used his answers to stress how he listens to folks from the community in order to understand how they want Champaign to change.

Best Answer

Question 8 – Missing Businesses in Champaign

Petry had a specific message about the kinds of businesses he would like to welcome into Champaign: businesses that would be at home in Research Park, particularly those focused on IT big data and agriculture. This answer demonstrated that he has a well defined and well thought out vision for how Champaign should grow economically in the future by welcoming companies that would increase the number of living and high wage jobs in our community.

Worst Answer

Question 1 – Vision for Champaign

At a few key moments in the debate, Petry’s answers reeked of empty political rhetoric, and nowhere was this more evident than in his first answer, in which he threw around a number of overused buzzwords and phrases. I do appreciate that Petry maintained an upbeat tone in all of his answers, but fluffy phrases like the ones that checkered his first answer didn’t add much substance to what he had to say.

Karen Foster

Overall

Foster frequently mentioned her long-term career as an educator and stressed that as a soon-to-be-retiree, she will have plenty of time to meet with people from the community and conduct the business of the mayor should she win the April 7th election. Her answers were direct and down to earth; I appreciated that there wasn’t a time when she evaded the question she was asked.

Best Answer

Question 1 – Vision for Champaign

Foster kicked off the debate with a rhetorically shrewd answer about her work on recent storm water issues, her experience meeting with members of the community about issues that city government can actually influence through votes, and her view that the neighborhoods in Champaign are the lifeblood of the city. This answer demonstrated a persuasive balance of past experience and deep knowledge of citizen’s concerns.

Worst Answer

Question 15 – Candidate Compliments

One of the last questions of the evening invited the candidates to articulate what they most appreciate about each other, and in my view Foster’s answer epitomized the genre of the backhanded compliment when she praised Gerard’s sense of humor while simultaneously noting that it is often perceived to be inappropriate. On the one hand I understand that Foster was taking an opportunity for a subtle jab at an opponent (a strategy that Gerard himself frequently used himself throughout the debate), but this question didn’t seem like the time to call someone else out.

———

This debate featured several unconventional questions that offered the audience the chance to see a different side of the candidates than has been available in previous debates. That, plus the beer at Jupiter’s, made it a great Sunday afternoon. Despite the taciturnity of the audience — which barely let out a clap or a squeak for nearly two hours — this event provided an insightful final view of these mayoral candidates speaking to one another.

Miss the debate? Stream it above and check out our commentary on Twitter.

Photos courtesy of Sam Logan.