Though we are still dealing with the aftermath of the November 3rd election, it’s already time to think about municipal elections in Champaign-Urbana. In 2021, Champaign is holding elections for city council district positions, as well as township supervisor. Urbana will have mayoral and city council candidates on their ballots. While city politics may seem mundane when compared to the drama that is playing out on the national stage, these are the races we need to pay the most attention. Those who hold office at the city level have great power to affect our lives.
Right now, we should be paying close attention to what’s brewing in the Champaign District 3 race. Champaign city offices are non-partisan, so we aren’t dealing with an explicit Republican versus Democrat divide, but it’s clear that those politics are still in play.
This seat is currently held by Angie Brix, who is not running for reelection. There are three candidates vying for the seat: attorney Matthew Sullard, owner of Raw Fitness Daniel Iniguez, and activist Justin Hendrix, founder of the organization HITNHOMEBOY. Hendrix’s petition is being challenged by attorney Rochelle Funderburg. Challenging petitions is not unusual; it’s a part of the political process. Funderburg is questioning many of the signatures on Hendrix’s petition, alleging the signatures aren’t legible, aren’t registered to vote at the address listed, or aren’t residents of District 3.
The issue is the insider politics that seem to be at play here. Mayor Deb Feinen, who helped collect signatures for Iniguez, sits on the electoral board — alongside council member-at-large (and Deputy Mayor) Tom Bruno, and Champaign City Clerk Marilyn Banks — that will hear the complaint and decide whether Hendrix has a valid petition. So, Funderburg, a former city attorney, is appealing to the Mayor who helped get Hendrix’s opponent on the ballot. Feinen told The News-Gazette that she didn’t plan to recuse herself, since no one formally asked her to. Ultimately, Mayor Feinen reluctantly stepped down, and the 6th circuit court approved council member Will Kyles as her replacement.* At the time of publishing, the hearing has been completed, and a verdict has not yet been announced.
Here is a portion of Hendrix’s statement on the matter, written prior to the hearing:
“Historically, the Black and brown votes from African-Americans and people of color have always been challenged. Today, in Champaign, we are seeing this same threat to people of color wanting to vote. The collected signatures from those living in District 3 have been questioned using techniques from 1960’s voting elections where Blacks were allowed to vote. These racial disparities have been present over 150 years and Champaign leaders are trying to deny African-Americans their 15th and 19th Amendment rights. This is yet one avenue where Rochelle Funderberg, Meyer Capel alongside Champaign officials are trying to invoke their white privilege over African-Americans.The Mayor of Champaign, Deb Feinen, has yet to recuse herself, even when an official motion is not required to do so, in a clear attempt to suppress and intimidate Black voices and Black votes through this process to question the truth and deprive the most vulnerable of justice and inclusion. Further, this is a true depiction of the forgotten people and population in Champaign. Our communities will never forget that these officials would much rather have the simplicity of a quiet and disenfranchising election than one reflective of truth.”
Hendrix is a leader in the racial justice movement in Champaign County, having led or mentored leaders in the various protests and marches of the summer as part of the Champaign County Anti-Racist Coaltion. It’s no secret that the city has been obtuse in their response to the coalition’s efforts, choosing to complain about chalk and the placement of a food pantry rather bringing the group into a conversation about making changes toward racial justice and equity. Hendrix and his cohort advocate for things like defunding the police, community control over police complaint reviews, and getting cops out of schools. And though the city government in Champaign is non-partisan, it has a decidedly conservative bent in its current makeup. While city officials might march in Pride parades and black out their profile pictures, they are not progressive, and having Hendrix on the city council might bring about some uncomfortable conversations, which is exactly what needs to happen.
Are we making assumptions here? Yes. Could Hendrix be making assumptions about the reasoning behind the petition challenges? Sure, though he has experience to back up those assumptions. He even has current events to point to, as the Republican party at all levels continues to question votes cast in areas with high percentages of Black voters. There’s another opponent in this race; did Funderburg dig into his petition? Or does his brand, as a fellow lawyer and “good citizen” fit more neatly into a city council seat? Do the names on Sullard's petition carry more value?
So while it might be impossible to truly know the motives here, it’s not a good look. It’s a problem that Mayor Feinen was prepared to play a role in deciding the fate of one candidate, while actively campaigning for another. City officials are perpetuating an elitist insider’s game that discourages someone like Justin Hendrix, a young, Black activist who understands how the system works against the people in his community, who wants to create real change.
What is the city so afraid of?
*Editor's note: There has been conflicting information regarding the nature of Mayor Feinen's recusal. It now appears that the official story is she voluntarily recused herself, due to informal requests to do so.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.