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Bloomington Police Union Enters Council Races With Big Campaign Contributions

Sheila and Willie
Sheila Montney, left, will face Willie Holton Halbert in Bloomington's Ward 3 (east side). The incumbent is not seeking re-election.

The union that represents Bloomington Police officers has made two big-dollar campaign contributions to city council candidates, in the latest sign that local police reform efforts may hinge in part on the outcome of the April 6 election.

The Police Benevolent and Protective Association (PBPA) Unit 21, which represents Bloomington officers, recently endorsed Bloomington City Council candidates Sheila Montney (Ward 3, east side) and Nick Becker (Ward 5, near-east side). That came with $11,900 campaign contributions each from the Springfield-based PBPA political action committee (PAC), records show. Those are unusually large amounts for Twin City council races.

Nick and Patrick
Nick Becker, left, and Patrick Lawler are running for Bloomington City Council in Ward 5, representing the city's near-east side.

Montney and Becker’s opponents are Willie Holton Halbert and Patrick Lawler, respectively. Halbert and Lawler are both part of the progressive People First Coalition. Incumbents Mboka Mwilambwe (Ward 3) and Joni Painter (Ward 5) are not seeking re-election.

It’s unclear why exactly the police union endorsed Montney or Becker; WGLT has left union leaders messages seeking an interview. Becker was also endorsed by the Bloomington firefighters union.

In an interview, Montney pointed to WGLT’s own reporting about the additional scrutiny that police have faced since George Floyd’s killing in police custody in May 2020. 

“One of the things that struck me is the feelings of the police officers who are honorable people who’ve been painted with an incredibly bad, broad brush without any of their doing,” said Montney, a State Farm executive and first-time candidate. “That deeply concerns me.” 

Last summer after Floyd’s death, the Black Lives Matter BloNo group released a list of policy demands, including cutting local police budgets by 50% by 2023. That would free up millions of dollars, which BLM BloNo wanted to see reinvested into “preventive, supportive, and restorative social services,” such as a re-entry program for recently incarcerated black men.

Montney said additional funding can certainly be considered for things like behavioral health and other social services. 

“I don’t think relocating the money from the police force now to these other services is where we should start,” Montney said. She said there’s evidence to suggest public safety is actually under-resourced.

Her opponent in the race is Willie Holton Halbert, a Department of Corrections retiree who is a leader of the Bloomington-Normal branch of the NAACP. 

Halbert said she’s an advocate for public safety. Looking at policing “through a different lens” means involving more social workers and mental health professionals, she said. But that doesn’t have to come at the expense of existing police dollars; just add money to the budget overall, she said.

“Never has anyone ever heard me say anything about Defunding the Police. I don’t believe in that concept. That language is very negative,” Halbert said. “I do promote working together with our police.”

The next Bloomington City Council could face some difficult questions about policing. Some are pushing for the council to revisit the Welcoming City ordinance, which could alter how police interact with immigrants. And during Monday’s meeting, council member Jenn Carrillo—who is aligned with the People First Coalition—again raised the issue of police funding reform. While potentially too late for the next city budget that begins May 1, some council members agreed to revisit the topic later this year.

Other campaign contributions

The police union isn’t the only one making its voice heard through campaign contributions.

Montney and Becker also recently received $2,500 each from a new PAC called Common Sense McLean County, which appears most closely aligned with Republicans, state records show. Common Sense says it supports candidates who “forget party rhetoric and employ common sense in decision-making.” (City council races are nonpartisan.)

Normal Town Council candidate Scott Preston received a $5,000 campaign contribution from Jeff Tinervin, owner of the large apartment management company First Site, records show. Normal Mayor Chris Koos, who is seeking re-election, received $5,000 from the Peoria-based PAC for the North Central Illinois Laborers’ District Council. Koos was endorsed by the Bloomington-Normal Trades and Labor over his challenger, Marc Tiritilli.

Small-dollar donations—common in local races—are not so easily tracked; state election law doesn’t require them to be itemized or reported individually on campaign disclosures.

The four People First Coalition candidates share a website—where they accept campaign contributions that are split four ways—and branding materials. The others in the coalition are mayoral candidate Jackie Gunderson and Ward 7 candidate Kelby Cumpston. Between the four, the average donation has been about $35, said Carrillo.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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