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Judy Markowitz, Bloomington's Groundbreaking Mayor, Dies

Judy Markowitz
WGLT file photo
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Judy Markowitz was Bloomington's first female mayor and first Jewish mayor.

Former Bloomington Mayor Judy Markowitz, a groundbreaking leader whose passion for downtown helped bring a controversial arena and performing arts center to the city's core, has died.Markowitz, 82, was the first of many things. Bloomington's first female mayor and first Jewish mayor. Decades before, Markowitz was the first person from Bloomington-Normal to represent the Sister Cities program in Asahikawa, Japan, in 1962. She recalled the trip with Charlie Schlenker in a 2012 interview.

“They treated me like royalty,” Markowitz recalled. “Here I was this red-headed, 24-year-old, I’m very outgoing and so (I) embrace them the same way they embrace me.”

Markowitz presented an American flag to the Japanese mayor and they discussed how they could develop a friendship in the post not long after World War II. They started a foreign exchange program for students.

“When you get to know somebody it’s like a marriage, a good marriage. When you get to know somebody and understand where they are coming from and why they do what they do and what their plans are for next year.”

Nearly 60 years later, the Sister Cities foreign exchange program is still going strong.

Current Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said inclusion was important to Markowitz. He recalled Markowitz claimed her proudest achievement as mayor was signing a human rights amendment banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 2002.

“She was very proud of that, that we were on the vanguard of promoting human rights,”  said Renner. “Much of the news coverage beyond our region said ‘gay rights in the heartland’ or ‘human rights in the heartland.’”

Jim Fruin was relatively new on the city council when Markowitz was first elected mayor in 1997. He said Markowitz was a mentor to him, helping him to understand the issues and the people involved, adding she had a way with people, always keeping an open-door policy at city hall.

“I remember her ‘Pie Days’ at city hall where one day a year where she encouraged employees and friends and so forth to come in and have a piece of pie with her,” Fruin said.

Paul Harmon was mayor of Normal when Markowitz served on the Bloomington City Council. Harmon recalled it as a time when the Twin Cities had a better working relationship because of people like Markowitz.

“You just had to like Judy. She was a very likeable person, easy to get along with,” Harmon said. “She could be stubborn when she made up her mind on something, but who can’t?”

Some of Markowtiz's relationships weren't always great with her colleagues in Bloomington. She ran for mayor and ousted incumbent Jesse Smart in 1997 after she served eight years on the council. Smart said during that time, their relationship was tense.

“During the time she was on the city council and mayor, she was (acting) like we were still competing,” said, adding after their time in office, he and Markowitz became good friends.

Markowitz's legacy as Bloomington mayor likely will be tied to two downtown projects--the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and the city's downtown arena. In 2001, the city approved a quarter-cent sales tax to pay for renovations to the former Scottish Rite Temple so it could host concerts, plays and other cultural events.

Renner said Markowitz showed gumption and leadership to make the BCPA a reality.

“In order to get a specific revenue stream that was dedicated to the BCPA, she had to work that very hard and make the case that this wasn’t just an amenity for the city, it wasn’t just something we could have to give to future generations,” Renner said.

In 2003, Markowitz cast the tie-breaking vote to build what would become U.S. Cellular Coliseum, now known as Grossinger Motors Arena.

The arena brought minor league hockey, basketball and indoor football to the city, along with big name musical artists, including Kenny Rogers, Sheryl Crow and Kenny Chesney. But the arena never became the money generator city leaders had promised. Its first managers were implicated in a fraud scandal, though most charges were later dropped. The arena remains a divisive issue in the city to this day.

Harmon said he admired Markowitz for doing what she thought was best for the city, even when others opposed her.

“Judy was convinced it was in the best long-term interest of Bloomington to build the arena and she made that tough vote and a lot of people criticized her for it, but she thought it was the right thing to do and stuck to her guns,” Harmon said.

Smart recalled one conversation he had with Markowitz years after she retired from public life. He said Markowitz understood how much the arena had divided the city.

“She was very determined she was going to do that and I think she said she wish(ed) (it) hadn’t have been,” Smart said. “She and I never discussed it after that.”

Fruin never supported the arena, but he said Markowitz's legacy goes far beyond that one vote.

“I think unfairly people will think of that as one of the key issues during Judy’s tenure, but I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that she was a dedicated servant, dedicated to the public, very accessible,” Fruin said.

Markowitz battled health issues later in life, including dementia. Renner said that stole a remarkable memory of people and places that Markowitz would use to share stories with her unique personal touch.

“Before you had a lot of email, she used to carry letters she used to receive and she would read them in public just to illustrate a particular point,” Renner said. “She had an impressive style that was all her own.”

Harmon said dementia also took away one of Markowitz's great pleasures: connecting with others.

“Judy’s illness is such that it interfered with her being the social butterfly that she was and that’s really sad,” Harmon said.

Renner said he will fondly recall her "infectious enthusiam" for the city she called home. 

Carmondy-Flynn Funeral Home in Bloomington said the Markowitz family plans to hold a private memorial service. According to her obituary, the family suggests memorials be made to Moses Montefiore Temple in Bloomington, the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois or the Bloomington Public Library, in lieu of flowers. 

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Eric Stock is a reporter at WGLT.