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Mwilambwe Comes Out On Top In 3-Way Bloomington Mayoral Race

Mboka Mwilambwe who works at Illinois State University on anti-harassment and non-discrimination issues.

UPDATED 12:55 p.m. | Mboka Mwilambwe claimed victory Tuesday night after defeating two less-experienced opponents in the Bloomington mayoral election. He will become the city's first Black mayor.

Mwilambwe campaigned on his experience—10 years on the city council—and a pledge to focus on updating the city’s roads and other infrastructure, and providing core services like public safety and recreation. He will succeed outgoing Mayor Tari Renner, who did not seek a third term.

Mwilambwe led with 38.7% of the vote over Mike Straza (36.9%) and Jackie Gunderson (24.1%), with all precincts reporting, according to the Bloomington Election Commission.

Mwilambwe was the only mayoral candidate with experience in elected office. He has represented Ward 3 on the city’s east side for the past decade.

"Going from resident to alderman is a pretty big leap. There's a pretty big learning curve," Mwilambwe told WGLT. "So going from resident to mayor is an even bigger leap. In my opinion, I think a number of the voters were able to recognize that."

During the campaign Mwilambwe pitched himself as a calm, fact-following, sensible candidate. Mwilambwe works at Illinois State University on anti-harassment and non-discrimination issues. 

He also has a unique background. He was born in Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) and immigrated to the U.S.

"I didn't decide to run to be the first Black mayor. I decided to run because I wanted to do something for the community, and to do the best that I could to serve the community," Mwilambwe said. "Now, I happen to be Black. It is inspiring for others. It shows that the community is open to having leadership from people who may be different from them, and it's a great message for the community. I think it'll be inspiring for others who will come behind me."

In the short term, Mwilambwe will face continued economic pressure from the pandemic, particularly on the leisure and hospitality sector that’s been hardest hit. Mwilambwe and other city leaders will have to decide what to do (or what they can do) with nearly $14 million in federal money included in the latest COVID relief package.

The city budget that kicks in May 1 includes millions of dollars in long-awaited street, water and parks projects, including the new O’Neil Pool. But the new mayor and council also will face decisions about other major city assets, such as the scope and funding for the library expansion project and the future of the downtown arena. That city has been managing the s arena in-house since the pandemic hit and most events were canceled, after years of outsourcing management duties to a private firm.

Mwilambwe, who has expressed support for the Bloomington Police Department during the campaign, also may face pressure to revisit police reform discussions that were rekindled last summer after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. The city will be hiring a new permanent police chief this year, after several back-to-back chief retirements.

Reaction from candidates

Coming up short in the race were Jackie Gunderson and Mike Straza.

Gunderson ran as part of the progressive People First Coalition, alongside three city council candidates who all lost Tuesday. The People First Coalition was guided by current city council member Jenn Carrillo, who was looking to elect a progressive majority to the council.

"While we wish the outcome of tonight’s election would have been different, we are deeply proud of what we have built-upon over the past several months—a people-powered and people-centered movement to claim power for everyday folks," Gunderson said in a statement late Tuesday. She did not make herself available for interviews.

"We’re just getting started," Gunderson said. "You have not seen the last of the People First Coalition."

Gunderson is a procurement manager at Illinois State University, overseeing capital projects. She and her spouse, who co-own a meal prep service, live on the city’s west side.

Straza did not return a WGLT request for comment. In a Facebook post Wednesday morning, Straza said he was "disappointed in the results. But I am not disappointed in the efforts made by so many to help with my campaign."

"Bloomington is stronger when everyone works together. I hope everyone will find ways to get involved to make our city an even better place to call home," Straza wrote.

Mwilambwe said he received concession calls from both Straza and Gunderson.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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