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Bloomington Mayoral Candidates Tackle COVID, Police Reform, Welcoming Cities

Bloomington mayoral candidates stand at podiums
Ryan Denham
Bloomington mayoral candidates, from left, Mike Straza, Mboka Mwilambwe and Jackie Gunderson appeared Tuesday night at a candidates forum hosted by WGLT.

The three Bloomington mayoral candidates in the April 6 election were asked Tuesday night to address many of the same topics that have been dominating the national conversation for months. 

As the country continues to grapple with the effects of the global pandemic, questions related to COVID-19 relief and recovery figured strongly during the candidates forum hosted by WGLT. 

Asked what concrete steps should be taken to support people who’ve experienced job loss or economic instability due to COVID, Mboka Mwilambwe said the city should focus on growing the local economy. 

“I do know that people have lost a lot of jobs and I do think that we need to focus on providing more jobs, investing in not only our infrastructure--which will bring ... jobs locally--but also working to bring new businesses to Bloomington,” said Mwilambwe, who is a current member of the Bloomington City Council. 

Jackie Gunderson said the city’s efforts should focus on supporting existing businesses-- specifically those that are small and locally-owned. 

“I believe the city should be advocating for aid from federal and state government to help businesses weather the storm without compromising the health and safety of their residents,” she said. 

Gunderson, a procurement manager at Illinois State University, said in terms of individuals and families, providing direct aid was “key” to long-term economic recovery. 

Mike Straza said the city needs to bring more jobs to the community and work to develop more skilled labor. Citing an unemployment rate of 5.2%, Straza said the city has enjoyed an economic bubble that is in danger of bursting. 

WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker, who moderated the forum, asked Straza how a 5.2% unemployment rate could represent a bubble when it is among the lowest of any metropolitan area in the state.  

Straza, an entrepreneur and business consultant, answered that Bloomington has long benefited from “key companies” that have helped the city avoid economic downturns. 

“We can’t always count on that,” he said, adding business development is the most important issue facing the community. 

“Why I continue to go back to why we need business development is because the business development is going to help keep taxes at bay. It’s going to help repair the roads. It’s going to help bring new people to this community and help the people that are currently here,”  said Straza. 

Social issues

To Mwilambwe, polarization is the community’s most pressing concern. He said issues like economic development--while not easy--were still easier to address than the divisions that have developed on both the national and local levels.  

Mwilambwe, who works at ISU on anti-harassment and non-discrimination issues, touted his recent efforts to make Juneteenth an official city holiday as an example of the kind of work he would do to foster understanding across cultural and political lines. 

“I do think that once people have an opportunity to talk with one another and spend time with one another, we are no longer strangers,” he said.

Gunderson said the economic fallout from the pandemic has heightened existing social issues. 

“The housing crisis that we have in Bloomington-Normal is only going to worsen as our most vulnerable neighbors continue to slip further into poverty, and struggle to afford not just a place to live, but a stable home that supports their health and well being,” she said. 

Gunderson said Bloomington and Normal need to work to find creative ways to address homelessness and housing insecurity. She said elected officials need to do more to support local agencies like PATH that have been “tapped out” in their efforts  to help the homeless during the pandemic. 

“Housing is a human right and I believe it should be prioritized,” she said. 

Asked what the city’s role should be in addressing homelessness, Gunderson said her entire campaign is focused on putting people first. She said the city should focus on solutions like improving the quality of housing stock by rehabbing distressed properties and spreading public housing throughout the city. 

Gunderson the city also should apply for federal grants to fund rapid rehousing programs. 

Mwilambwe argued for more scaled back municipal involvement, saying the city has to be careful not to stretch itself too thin in addressing homelessness. 

“We have a number of local partners who are very effective in this area and so we should take advantage of that,” Mwilambwe said. 

Straza said though the city “plays an important part in housing and helping people that aren’t fortunate enough to have homes,” that role should be limited. He said the bulk of the effort should be carried out by nonprofits and business leaders. 

“I don’t feel like the city should be heavily involved in it. I think they should be there to guide and to get people together and make sure people understand why it is important that people have a place to live,” Straza said. 

Welcoming Cities

The candidates also addressed the role of the city in immigration issues. The Welcoming City ordinance, which would limit police cooperation with federal immigration authorities, has been a topic of debate in Bloomington since 2017. 

The city council halted efforts to bring the ordinance to a vote in 2018. A new version of the ordinance was submitted to the council earlier this year. 

Straza said the Welcoming City ordinance was developed around a desire for every resident to feel safe and welcome, which is a good thing. But he believes aspects of the measure need to be more clearly defined. Specifically, he would like more clarity on how different agencies would be guided to interact with one another. 

“How does it help or hinder people’s jobs?” he asked, adding he wanted to make sure the ordinance was not “overstepping.”

Gunderson said she’s been a supporter of the ordinance since the original version was introduced in 2018. 

“I fully support our community having this as an option,” she said of the new version. “I think it’s a creative way to make sure that public safety is reimagined.” 

Gunderson said there’s a lot of polarization around the ordinance, noting some members of the council wouldn’t even vote to further discuss the new proposal.

Mwilambwe acknowledged he wasn’t initially in favor of further discussion of the proposal. Given the changes to immigration being made by the Biden administration, he thinks it would be better to wait to see how those new policies unfolded. 

Despite those reservations, Mwilambwe said he looks forward to a larger conversation about the ordinance with community stakeholders, including the Bloomington Police Department. 

“I do have some strong reservations about tying the police’s hands in terms of what it is they can do,” he said. 

Police reform

On the issue of police reform, Mwilambwe said BPD has done a good job over the years. He said many of the provisions in the criminal justice reform bill recently passed by state legislature already are being implemented by the department. 

Mwilambwe lauded the department’s use of body cams, mental health training, and its efforts to promote diversity within its ranks. He said continued dialogue between the police department and the community is critical.

“To me, what police reform means, it means just working together,” he said.

Straza said the role of the government is to protect its citizens. To do so, he said, the police need to be equipped to do their job. 

He agreed  the Bloomington Police Department has done a good job over the years and has “excellent” education and training in place. That education and training needs to continue, Straza said, so the department is “equipped for cross-cultural experience in high-stress situations.” 

Gunderson said that when it comes to questions of police reform, people let their imaginations get the best of them. For her, Gunderson said reform means “talking about using personnel in the ways that take advantage of their tools, training, and interests.”

Gunderson said there are many existing models on which to base potential reforms, citing programs like CAHOOTS and STAR, that draw on a network of agencies to assist in emergency response. Gunderson said Bloomington already involves organizations like Project Oz and Stepping Stones on certain calls. 

“If we could expand that to make sure the needs of all of our community is met, then we see better public safety,” Gunderson said. 

Besides WGLT, the forum was sponsored by the McLean County League of Women Voters, the B-N chapter of the NAACP and ISU's Center for Civic Engagement.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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