Bloomington voters this spring will choose their first new mayor in eight years. The choice is between a low-key veteran city council member and two political newcomers with very different backgrounds. One of them will replace Tari Renner, who is not seeking a third term.
Mboka Mwilambwe, who joined the city council in 2011, said his focus would be on updating the city’s roads and other infrastructure and providing core services like public safety and recreation.
“The streets are the thing that people actually see. When we have some that are in a state of disrepair, I don’t think it makes the public trust what we’re doing. If we do focus on that, we’ll be able to generate a lot more trust from the generic public. Because what we don’t want is the public to look at us engaging in other endeavors, and yet the street in front of their house has a pothole that hasn’t been fixed in a couple years.”
Mwilambwe said he was glad the city has increased its spending on streets and sidewalks to around $7 million per year, funded by local sales and gas taxes. One reason why it’s been able to do that is because the council raised the local gas tax, from 4 to 8 cents, in 2019.
Mwilambwe voted against that. He later told WGLT he was concerned at the time about the “cumulative effect of various fees and taxes within the community,” and whether the state and town would also be increasing their gas tax. He noted that he also supports a plan to use more general revenue dollars to keep street funding at around $7 million, despite a decline in local gas tax revenue due to the pandemic.
Mwilambwe has kept a relatively low profile in his 10 years representing the city’s east side on the council. He would likely bring a different style to the job than Renner—whose online behavior earned him criticism and who once compared the former arena managers to those running a Soviet Gulag.
As he runs for nonpartisan office, Mwilambwe declined to describe where he fits on the traditional right-middle-left political spectrum, and he may not fit neatly in any one place. He made regular contributions to Democrat Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, records show. In January, he announced that Chuck Erickson, a former McLean County Republican Party chair, had joined his mayoral campaign team.
“I go where the facts lead me. Wherever they lead me, that’s where I’ll go,” he said.
When asked for evidence of vocal leadership, Mwilambwe pointed to his opposition to the catalyst project pitched in 2017-18 for downtown Bloomington. The idea, which never gained traction, would have combined both a library expansion and transit transfer center.
“I felt that we had promised that the library was going to expand in place at its current location,” he said. “For me, trust with the public is something that’s extremely important. I felt that pursuing the catalyst project would have diminished the trust the public had in us because we would be doing something completely different than what we said we’d do.”
The library is now headed toward a slimmed-down expansion at its current location.
Mwilambwe is an African immigrant who works at Illinois State University on anti-harassment and non-discrimination issues. Mwilambwe recently spearheaded an effort to make Juneteenth an official city holiday each June, in recognition of the end of slavery. He pointed to various economic equity accomplishments, such as the city's discounted garbage collection fee for low-income users.
“Certainly, there’s always room for social justice issues,” Mwilambwe said. “But I do think that generally we have to be careful that it does not detract from the core things that the public wants us to address. They want us to fix their streets. They want us to address public safety and sewers and some level of recreation and things like that.”
Fellow mayoral candidate Jackie Gunderson was more explicit with her intentions to center equity and justice across her priority list, if elected.
Gunderson ran unsuccessfully for McLean County Board in 2020 as a Democrat. She’s never held elected office.
“Everybody who’s ever held office didn’t hold office before they held office, right? I’m young. I get that,” said Gunderson. “But I’ve been working full-time since I was 16. I didn’t have the opportunity to have parents who could put them through college, so I did it myself.”
Gunderson is now a procurement manager at ISU, overseeing capital projects. She said her professional experience in male-dominated fields informs her view on the importance of collaboration and hearing different voices. She joins three progressive Bloomington City Council candidates in the People First Coalition.
“I do live in a way that if, one big emergency comes around, we might be looking at things differently,” she said. “Over time, we’ve often been represented by people that maybe haven’t lived that experience, that don’t take into consideration the people that are left on the margins.”
Gunderson would also be Bloomington’s first openly queer mayor. She and her spouse, who co-own a meal prep service, live on the city’s west side.
Gunderson said the long economic recovery from COVID would also be a top priority, if elected. She praised the city’s early relief efforts, particularly direct aid programs.
But making sure Bloomington’s needs are met may require tapping into the city’s reserves if necessary, she said.
“The City of Bloomington does have reserves that are for a rainy day, and I would consider a global pandemic that’s being going on for a year to be a rainy day,” she said. “So, the reallocation of some of those funds to make sure the people that we’re most concerned about are not falling through the cracks. I also think economic recovery is important and making sure that businesses stay afloat. Obviously, the safety and health of my neighbors is more important to me than that. But I think there’s a way to prioritize both.”
The third mayoral candidate, Mike Straza, also sees connections between the two.
Straza, an entrepreneur and business consultant, said his top priority will be accelerating economic growth, which he says affects everything else. Straza said expanding the tax base would allow the city to lessen the tax burden on existing residents and businesses, while also creating more revenue for street repairs and core services, as well as social services.
“I feel like there’s people who think people have been ignored, and that we’re always talking about business, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, they’re both important. We have to figure out how to meld them together,’” Straza said. “And I feel like we’re swinging the pendulum opposite ends all the time. And I’m gonna be the person that’s going to bring it to the middle and say, ‘These are very important things. We’re gonna do some things. But also, we cannot get caught in the weeds and lose sight of what needs to happen for the betterment of the community.”
Straza is operations director at Vale Church in Bloomington. One of the church’s beliefs is that “God has established marriage as a lifelong exclusive relationship between one man and one woman and all intimate sexual activity outside the marriage relationship is immoral and therefore sin,” according to its website.
When asked if he personally believed that, Straza said his faith and beliefs were a big part of his life. He downplayed how they would impact a city leadership position, and he stressed that he would “love and care for everyone no matter what.”
“The state and federal takes care of marriage and that side of things. And that’s fine. I don’t weigh in on that. I don’t sit there and disagree with what the state and federal (governments) have decided. This is what they’ve decided. This is what happens. I’m gonna take care of people. I’m going to work with people. And I think that’s something people need to understand—that is my heart. My heart is people,” Straza said.
As for how to actually accelerate economic growth, Straza said he wants the city to even more explicitly ask businesses what they need—and not just money. He says that survey approach could be instructive.
Straza also said re-starting the service sector will be critical coming out of the pandemic. The city’s leisure and hospitality sector has been decimated, with thousands of jobs lost.
As COVID cases surged in November, the City of Bloomington faced open defiance from bar and restaurant owners who refused to follow state mitigation rules. Many were fined through the Liquor Commission. Bloomington’s mayor is also the city’s liquor commissioner.
In November, Straza said on Facebook that the lack of government assistance for businesses “forces them to disregard the health measures put in place by our officials.” That’s despite most businesses following the rules, as painful as they may be.
In a recent interview, Straza didn’t back away from his remark. He suggested some businesses were confused as to what the rules were and who would enforce them.
“That’s what it came down to, was really sitting down with those restaurants or places that refused to close and say, ‘OK, let me understand more.’ And instead, they just said, ‘Close,’ and then they have no choice. And they’re like, ‘Why?’ I don’t think the ‘why’ was explained well enough,” Straza said.
Like Gunderson, Straza has never held elected office. He serves on the Bloomington Zoning Board of Appeals and previously was a member of the Town of Normal’s Vision 2040 committee. He also worked on Normal Mayor Chris Koos’ re-election campaign in 2017. Straza was the founding treasurer of the Responsible Cities political action committee (PAC) last year but has since left that role. The PAC looks to recruit and support candidates for nonpartisan offices like city councils, preferring those who take a collaborative and less ideological approach and avoiding the extremes on either side. It has since endorsed him.
In the past, he’s contributed to Republican candidates for state and federal office, including former state Sen. Bill Brady and the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004.
Mwilambwe, Gunderson and Straza will appear at WGLT’s live debate at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 2. Listen live on 89.1 FM or watch on WGLT’s Facebook Page. The event is co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of McLean County, the NAACP Bloomington-Normal branch, and ISU’s Center for Civic Engagement.
The election is April 6. Early voting begins March 12.
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