Smile Politely

A profile of Joseph Petry

Joseph Petry is dressed in blue jeans and a blue sweater, bundled appropriately for the cold, snowy weather of the last day of January. He has thick gray hair, almost white in translucence, and when he smiles, it’s like you’ve told him the first joke on Earth. Yes, he’s that charming. But with just forty dollars in his campaign war chest and an ambition of Mayor of Champaign in his sights, he’s about to get the grilling of his life. From me, you humble interviewer. This is how the story goes.

Smile Politely: So, Joe, tell me a little bit about yourself before we start. Why did you decide to run for mayor?

[He pauses and his eyes dart a little to the side. “I’ve got him already,” I think.]

Petry: Well, we have a great opportunity in this city. We have the University of Illinois, which is an economic engine, a strong bunch of local businesses, and the city government. We have the resources. What we need is someone that can unite all three parts behind a common set of economic goals.

SP: Mmm-hmm, and you’re the man to do it, huh?

[He smiles, that same charming, disarming smile. It’s about the voters, he says. It’s their election. By the people, for the people, right? That’s what it’s all about.]

And so it goes. See the thing is, in spite of my inherent skepticism of people running for public office — in other words, politicians — Joe Petry has me charmed. He’s a smart guy, articulate, good with words, and genuine. Warm too. It’s a rare combination of traits.

The thing is, Joe Petry has a plan and it’s not just all about raising money and winning votes. He’s got a PhD from the University of Illinois and has worked in the private sector as an economic development guy for heavyweights like Citigroup and GM. He’s toured Latin America and advised the advisors of those countries regarding economic development and job creation. He knows his stuff.

So, I test him, bit by bit. But it starts to become less like an interrogation and more of a conversation.

SP: With your experience, what is your economic plan for Champaign?

[He laughs.]

Petry: That’s a good question. A very good question. It is important to understand that it isn’t mine. It’s not “Joe’s Plan.” It’s about what the community wants. One thing I think a leader does is listen. It’s not about one person’s vision. It’s about us talking about these things and coming up with what we think.

SP: But, but, you must have specifics in mind.

[He smiles again, like he knew what I would say that.]

Petry: One idea would be a children’s museum downtown. The question is, do we have some individuals within the community that we can work with for the development of a high-quality children’s museum?

He has other ideas too, like studio art spots for emerging artists and affordable housing downtown for younger people still getting established. He wants people to look at downtown Champaign as more than just bars and restaurants. He wants to create a stronger sense of community. And he wants communities to take control of their environments, to create a sense of identity for them.

He seems to care about the community. “How long have you lived here?” I ask:

Petry: My family has been here for 150 years. I was born and raised here. When we moved to New York City and toured Latin America, my wife and I made a conscious decision to see how other people lived. But our family, our friends, our community is here. We love this community.

Against all odds, I’m losing my skepticism. A politician has charmed me. But there’s still one problem — Joe Petry hasn’t much of a political record. The closest thing to mayor that he has done is run the Parks District as commissioner. I almost don’t want to ask, but I have to.

SP: How has your experience as commissioner of the Parks District prepared you for mayor?

He pauses and ponders. He seems deep in thought. Then he responds.

Petry: It’s a form of local government just like the city. The Parks District is especially good, a great organization with a great staff. The emphasis is on teamwork and collaboration and on getting things done.

He leans forward and looks me in the eye.

Petry: When I first started as commissioner, the first thing we did was survey about 900 people from the community all across Champaign. People said they wanted four things: more trails, open landscape, renovation of Virginia Theatre, and a new recreation center.

So what did we do? We gave them more trails, more open landscape, a renovation of Virginia Theatre, and a new recreation center that will be finished in March. And we’ve never gone to the taxpayer for a referendum.

Alright then, I think. I’m sort of stumped at this point. So I just start throwing questions at him.

SP: What’s your stance on abortion?

Petry: I don’t feel it’s my place to make that decision for anyone else.

SP: Gay marriage?

Petry: I support it. It feels like discrimination if you don’t. Someone can marry someone of the opposite sex but not the same sex? That doesn’t seem right.

SP: Legalization of marijuana?

Petry: I’m not going to lead the charge but to me it’s a lot like alcohol. It needs to be regulated so people don’t abuse it, but if police busted down a door and arrested someone for smoking marijuana in their own home, I wouldn’t support that.

SP: How will you improve the job market in Champaign?

Petry: I think by getting students more internships with local businesses, we can build connections from the university to the business community, from students to local businesses.

SP: How will you win the hearts and minds of voters?

He laughs here at the audacity of the question, then says:

Petry: By listening to them. That’s what this campaign is really going to be all about. I wish my competitors the best of luck. Each and every one of them is devoting time and resources to the community and I want to thank them for that.

I thank him for his time. We shake hands and he departs into the cold air. He will officially roll out his campaign platform in spring of 2014, but I have a feeling his campaign just started.

Joseph Petry for Mayor of Champaign? Start thinking about it.

Photos by Joanna Strauss Photography.

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