Big Money, New PACs, More Slates: High-Stakes Local Election Cycle Nears Finish Line | WGLT

Big Money, New PACs, More Slates: High-Stakes Local Election Cycle Nears Finish Line

Apr 1, 2021

We’re nearing the end of a local election cycle unlike any other in recent history.

The pandemic has limited the personal contact that’s typically the foundation of Bloomington-Normal city council elections. That’s been partially replaced by a barrage of social media ads and campaign mailers funded by unusually large campaign contributions from outside groups. And candidates themselves are bunching up in larger ideology-driven slates than we’ve seen recently.

The sense among those interviewed by WGLT is that there is simply more at stake.

“It’s fascinating to see how seriously some groups and some individuals are taking this election,” said Joseph Zompetti, an Illinois State University professor and expert in political communication.

A look at the various endorsements, alliances, and histories between candidates and local influencers.
Credit Ryan Denham / Gephi

One indicator is the money. Sure, it’s always cost money to run for city council—typically several thousand dollars—and a bit more for mayoral runs. But this cycle has attracted multiple five-figure contributions to council-level candidates, which is unusual for Bloomington-Normal.

The union that represents Bloomington Police officers gave $11,900 each to council candidates Nick Becker (Ward 3) and Sheila Montney (Ward 5). Jeff Tinervin and his apartment management company, First Site, gave Normal council candidate Scott Preston $10,000 for his re-election bid, state records show. And the Illinois Realtors has done at least $12,600 in mailings this month for Preston, fellow Normal candidate Kevin McCarthy, and Mayor Chris Koos, records show.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this high of a dollar amount get thrown around (until) this election,” said Justin Boyd, who was campaign manager for Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner’s successful 2017 re-election. “In the case of Montney and Becker … for a ward race, 200 votes are going to win that race. And to think about spending that money to get 200 votes, it seems like so much.”

It’s unprecedented, he said, but that doesn’t make it necessarily bad. 

“It shows that people are paying attention to local politics. That’s exciting,” Boyd said. 

So why are they paying attention? In Bloomington, police-backed Montney and Becker are facing Willie Holton Halbert and Patrick Lawler, respectively. Halbert and Lawler are part of the progressive People First Coalition, which is guided by Bloomington City Council member Jenn Carrillo. Carrillo, in turn, has been a vocal proponent of police reforms and the Defund The Police concept

In Normal, the Illinois Realtors are active in a race where Rivian has been a key issue. Campaign ads for incumbents Koos, McCarthy and Preston prominently feature their support for the incentives that helped land Rivian. Koos has criticized his opponent, Marc Tiritilli, for his criticism of the deal

The electric automaker is nearing 1,000 local employees—a hiring surge that’s bolstered the local housing market. Is that why Illinois Realtors are now supporting Koos, McCarthy and Preston? 

“We choose candidates based on who champions homeownership, consumer protections, and private property rights. We’re nonpartisan,” said Anthony Hebron with Illinois Realtors. “If a candidate supports those things, that’s why we support them.” 

Other factors in the housing market are demand for larger homes due to stuck-at-home pandemic needs, as well as low interest rates, said Koos. 

“The last leg of that stool is that Rivian is bringing many residents to the community,” he said. 

The Illinois Realtors Fund paid for many of the mailers hitting Normal mailboxes in recent weeks. The Realtors also did over $17,000 in mailings for Bloomington mayoral candidate Mboka Mwilambwe, who faces Jackie Gunderson and Mike Straza. It's been a little choppy: One Realtor-funded mailer misspelled Mwilambwe's last name, and another suggested Scott Preston was running in Peoria, not Normal.

Turns out mailers are a pretty good way to reach people during a pandemic that’s stripped away events like the Uptown Normal St. Patrick’s Day parade. 

“We’ve had a massive resurgence of mail pieces being vital because it’s one of the ways you can reach out,” said Erik Rankin, a former chair of the McLean County Democrats who also works in Illinois State University’s Department of Politics and Government. “In one week at home I had two mailers from Straza, two mailers from Mboka, and one mailer from Jackie.”

Other groups, while not new, are still in the game. That includes the McLean County Chamber of Commerce’s political action committee (PAC), which endorses candidates based on their responses to a questionnaire and interview. This year the PAC endorsed Straza for mayor, noting his background as an entrepreneur and business consultant. Mwilambwe “didn’t seem to really understand any of the business issues at hand, which given his years on the council was a little disappointing,” said real estate agent Meghan O’Neal-Rogozinski, chair of the Chamber PAC’s board. (Gunderson did not submit her questionnaire responses in time to be considered, O’Neal-Rogozinski said. A person connected with Gunderson's campaign said Friday she initially did not plan to seek the Chamber PAC's endorsement and only submitted the questionnaire because "several Chamber members requested that she do so.")

Notably, the Chamber PAC did not endorse in the Normal mayoral race. Koos is a small-business owner himself and a member of the Chamber. 

“In the most recent years, his policies have been more narrowly focused. There’s a little bit of that tunnel vision that occurs the longer a person holds office. There seems to be a lack of a true understanding of what’s occurring in the community. The community speaks, but the town doesn’t always listen,” said O’Neal-Rogozinski. “There’s this false sense of reality within the government center of the Town of Normal.” 

So why didn’t the Chamber PAC endorse Tiritilli then? 

“Unfortunately, Mr. Tiritilli didn’t have the understanding we were hoping for. He might be there in the future, but he’s not there yet,” O’Neal-Rogozinski said.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos, right, and challenger Marc Tiritilli at the WGLT debate on March 9, 2021.
Credit Emily Bollinger / WGLT

In past cycles, city council candidates only really did a few cattle calls—the Chamber PAC and the Laborers. But this cycle two new political action committees—Responsible Cities and Common Sense—have formed and endorsed candidates. Responsible Cities, which spurns anyone on the ideological extremes, sent voters a list of its endorsements. The conservative-leaning Common Sense PAC has doled out money too. 

It’s not uncommon for PACs from outside Bloomington-Normal to inject money into local races. Renner, the outgoing Bloomington mayor, said he benefited from that in past races. 

“But to have them be primarily local PACs, and to see local slating, that is absolutely something new,” said Renner, a political scientist by trade who is not seeking a third term. 

Another novel element this year is that so many candidates are running as an informal slate or formal coalition. Bloomington mayoral candidate Jackie Gunderson is running alongside three council candidates in the progressive People First Coalition, which aims to elect a progressive majority to the city council. They’re essentially sharing branded marketing materials and campaign together, and they evenly split donations that come in online

Bloomington mayoral candidates, from left, Mike Straza, Mboka Mwilambwe, and Jackie Gunderson, at WGLT's debate March 2.
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT

In Normal, several anti-establishment, more conservative candidates (Steve Harsh, David Paul Blumenshine, and Karl Sila) have banded together to run for the three open seats alongside Tiritilli. They are also allied with Stan Nord, who was elected in 2019. 

“This is what nonpartisan elections should’ve been doing long ago. When there’s no real party support for a specific person, candidates who are likeminded should join together and not try to re-invent the wheel. They’re all speaking from a similar mindset. They’re all talking about the same issues,” Rankin said. “It’s smart. It does benefit all candidates.” 

But it could backfire, he said, if one of the candidates in a slate does something questionable. Blumenshine has faced criticism for leading a conservative talk radio station’s bus trip to Washington, D.C., for the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that later turned into a full-fledged deadly assault on the Capitol. Blumenshine has not answered WGLT questions about the incident, but he told ISU student radio station WZND that he was not involved in violence and condemns anyone who broke the law on Jan. 6.

“There may be some residual blowback that would affect the others,” Rankin said, not specifically referring to Blumenshine. “That could cast doubt and suspicion on everyone.”

Rankin has a theory: Trump engaged a fringe element of society that’s now eyeing local elected office, from a perspective outside of contemporary, mainstream municipal thought. It’s unclear how that will translate into the business of city government, where history points to issue-by-issue problem-solving, outside the confines of a single ideology. 

“Before, most people who ran for municipal office didn’t run for deeply partisan issues or cultural issues. They ran because they wanted to make difference. They wanted to help in certain areas,” Rankin said. “Trump has sort of opened Pandora’s box. And we have a lot of people who now believe the way to continue his legacy is to run for public office.” 

One of Koos’ recent mailers tries to tie Tiritilli to Trump. With photos of the two men (plus Blumenshine), it says: “Our country barely survived 4 years of Trump. Normal can’t risk 4 years of Marc Tiritilli.” 

Tiritilli laughed off that comparison in a recent Facebook video

“I’m an independent,” he said. “I voted Libertarian in the national election.” 

Indeed, city council races are technically nonpartisan. No “D” or “R” or “L” on the ballot. 

Regardless, the McLean County Republican Party has been engaged in this and past council elections, including hosting candidate forums. That’s been a priority for local party chair Connie Beard since she took over in 2018. In a recent email blast, the McLean County GOP encouraged its members to vote for its preferred candidates based on their past “solid Republican voting records.” That includes Straza and Tiritilli.

For proof of just how wild local elections can be, look no further than the three-way Bloomington mayoral race between Straza, Gunderson and Mwilambwe.

Straza’s coalition of support includes the McLean County GOP, the Chamber of Commerce, the local laborers union, and both the Responsible Cities and Common Sense PACs. Mwilambwe, with his focus on core services and restraint, is seemingly the preferred candidate of those further to the ideological right. Mwilambwe has been endorsed by Stan Nord in Normal, and his campaign team includes former McLean County GOP chair Chuck Erickson. That’s despite his past support for Democrats and a reluctance to be categorized along party lines. Mwilambwe is also backed by former Mayor Steve Stockton, current council member Joni Painter, and former council member Karen Schmidt.

“If (Gunderson) can turn out her voters, she may actually pull this off if Mboka and Straza end up splitting their votes,” Rankin said.

The election is April 6, when all the noise surrounding social media posts, yard signs and letters to the editor fade away and winners emerge. Rankin said this year’s races are especially unpredictable.

“It’s a good thing I’m not a betting person, because I’m certain I’d lose this. I have no idea how to handicap it,” he said.

Early voting is now underway. Learn more at our Voter Guide at WGLT.org/Election.

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