You don’t have to look to Washington, D.C., to find policymakers who just don’t seem to get along politically or personally.
There have been some tense, emotional moments and raised voices during Bloomington City Council meetings in recent years. To be sure, those are the exceptions rather than the rule, as one candidate noted. But those episodes are reminders of how important it is for council members to build good working relationships with one another. You can pack City Hall, organize demonstrations, or send emails all day. If you can’t get to five votes on the Bloomington City Council, it’s a moot point.
And there's going to be a lot of churn. Four of the nine seats could go to new council members, as well as a guaranteed new mayor.
Mboka Mwilambwe is the only mayoral candidate with experience on the council, with 10 years representing Ward 3 on the east side. The No. 1 issue he sees in the community?
“I think it’s the polarization I have seen,” Mwilambwe said during a recent WGLT debate. (Striking a similar campaign message, Normal mayoral challenger Marc Tiritilli says political division is the No. 1 issue in the community.)
Mwilambwe has pitched himself as a calm, fact-following, sensible candidate.
He successfully pushed to make Juneteenth a city holiday. He says he would like to find similar ways to publicly celebrate other cultures and bring people together.
“Once people have an opportunity to talk with one another and spend time with one another, we’re no longer strangers,” Mwilambwe said.
Neither of Mwilambwe’s opponents, Mike Straza and Jackie Gunderson, have any experience as an elected official.
Straza, an entrepreneur and business consultant who now works at a church, said council relations have improved since City Manager Tim Gleason took over almost three years ago.
“He’s done his part,” Straza said. “So the city council and mayor have to do their part. We have to work together for the city. Yes, we’ll have things that are our own personal thing. And we have to acknowledge that. But we also have to know we sometimes have to put our own personal feelings away.”
Gunderson, an ISU procurement manager, said her experience on various nonprofit boards were a training ground for working with people.
“There will be times when the city council disagrees on things,” Gunderson said. “We all know that the city council is full of passionate people, those who want the city to do better. I don’t think anyone gets into this job wanting the city to do worse. So it’s understanding that we’re all doing this together, and we have to show each other grace.”
Working across wards
There are head-to-head matchups in four wards throughout the city. (Unlike in Normal where council members are elected townwide and therefore share all the same voters, Bloomington has nine wards. With low-turnout local elections, those wards often flip on less than a hundred votes.)
In Ward 3 on Bloomington's east side, Sheila Montney will face Willie Holton Halbert.
Montney is a State Farm executive. But she said that doesn't define her life experience. She grew up in rural Arkansas. Her family wasn't rich. She has previously volunteered to teach English as a second language to undocumented immigrants.
“I will respect everyone for their points of view, because all of us bring our own history and our own experiences,” said Montney.
Halbert is a Department of Corrections retiree and NAACP leader. Just because she's in an east-side ward, Halbert said that doesn't mean she doesn't care about the west-side food desert or O'Neil Pool's future.
Halbert said she tries not to make politics personal.
“I don’t assume that when someone says something I don’t agree with, that they mean ill. I give people that benefit of the doubt,” Halbert said.
In Ward 5 on the city's near-east side, Nick Becker and Patrick Lawler are vying for an open seat.
Lawler is a high school teacher. He said there are places where common ground is likely, such as ways to improve downtown. But Lawler said the council needs to have some tough conversations — about police reforms, or about the way immigrants are treated.
“We should not shy away from those conversations,” Lawler said. “Just because we are willing to engage in those conversations, that doesn’t mean we’re creating that tension or stress. We’re merely bringing it to the fore.”
Becker said, in his career in business, he's often played the role of peacemaker.
“If you really dive in and understand not just what the opposing view is, but why they have that opinion, and what is the lens they’re looking through to get that opinion, then you’ll find that if both sides do that, we’re generally closer to the right answer,” said Becker, a vice president for a data services firm.
In Ward 7 on the west side, Mollie Ward is the only incumbent in a contested race, and she's only been in the seat since November.
Ward is director of spiritual services at Carle BroMenn Medical Center and Carle Eureka Hospital. She said there’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth.
“The more that I can listen and foster that safer environment, a brave space for listening, the more our community can come together,” Ward said.
Her opponent in the race is Kelby Cumpston, a project manager overseeing affordable housing construction.
Cumpston said working productively with those who don't see eye-to-eye with him politically is par for the course, after a career on construction sites.
Cumpston said he met with every current council member 1-on-1 when he applied for the Ward 7 vacancy last fall. That vacancy ultimately went to Ward.
“I did that. I sat down for an hour and talked to all of them. There’s nobody on that council right now that I don’t feel like I could talk with and work together on any type of plans and ideas,” Cumpston said.
In Ward 9 on Bloomington's northeast side, Jim Fruin will face Tom Crumpler.
Fruin isn't an incumbent, but close to it. He served on the council from 1995 through 2017. Now he's trying to get his old seat back.
Fruin said building relationships with other council members is key. Small Open Meetings Act-friendly meetings help. Just going to the full council meetings isn't enough, he said.
“We can’t spend our time as a group with one person or one issue if it doesn’t have the support of the rest of the group,” Fruin said.
His Ward 9 opponent is Illinois State University professor Tom Crumpler. He said civility and professional courtesy are vital to the council's working relationship.
“When you’re talking about issues that are important, people can get passionate. And there appears to be some divisiveness. From what I see, though, that tends to be the exception and not the rule. I think most of the council members, from what I’ve observed at meetings, want to do what’s best for Bloomington, want to get things done,” Crumpler said.
Another wrinkle is that four of the candidates—Jackie Gunderson, Willie Halbert, Patrick Lawler, and Kelby Cumpston—are running together as the progressive People First Coalition, which is organized in part by current council member Jenn Carrillo. Sheila Montney and Nick Becker have attracted a similar support base within their campaigns. The others have their own constituencies.
Whatever the winning mix is, they'll have some work to do to get along.
The election is April 6. Early voting is now underway.
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