Smile Politely

A recap of Smile Politely’s Mayoral Contender Q&A

This past Friday, three potential candidates in Champaign’s mayoral race — Deb Feinen, Karen Foster, and Joe Petry — joined Smile Politely for a Q&A at Mike ‘N Molly’s. The weather was great, the atmosphere was friendly and collegial, and the beer made everything better. Best of all, each of the potential candidates gave intelligent, well-informed answers and brought their personalities and senses of humor to our questions.

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Here’s what we asked:

  1. Obviously, Mayor Gerard is not here with us today. How do you feel he has served as Mayor, and how would you manage the position differently?
  2. The issue of the Chief is still a difficult one in Champaign-Urbana. What is your position on its place in our culture?
  3. What’s your perfect day look like in Champaign? Please be specific with bars, restaurants, parks, events, people.
  4. Taxes are part of what it means to live in a democratic society. Are local taxes good for the populace? And if so, which ones can be most effective?
  5. What is your position on parking fees in Downtown Champaign?
  6. Medicinal Marijuana use is now legal in the State of Illinois. Would you be open to a dispensary in Downtown Champaign? Frankly, do you think smoking weed is awesome?
  7. In order to prevent the continued sprawl of Champaign, how will you work with the city council to insure that the economic development remains within the current boundaries of the city?
  8. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but segregation is sadly still thriving in Champaign. We recently lost Illini basketball Darius Paul to transfer after his arrest for public intoxication and resisting arrest. Was this a clear cut case of racial profiling, and if so, how do we combat that?
  9. As a major source of news within the Champaign-Urbana area, what are your thoughts on the News-Gazette and their focus as a publication representing the area?
  10. With the plans to develop the new site for Champaign Central High School, what are your thoughts regarding the placement and execution of this education development in the area, as the site is located far north of the current location?

And here’s how the conversation panned out.

Joe Petry

Petry seemed relaxed and knowledgeable in all of his answers. Because he’s not a councilmember (he’s the Champaign Park District Commissioner), he is, relatively speaking, an “outsider” to Champaign’s city government, and he tried to use this point to his advantage in a couple moments by distancing himself from some of the current council’s more controversial decisions. He frequently mentioned Champaign’s parks (unsurprisingly), but also used several of his answers to talk about his ideas for Champaign’s economic development.

Best Answer

Petry offered a lot of articulate, substantive sound bites, but the highlight was his thoughtful answer to the debate over the new location for Central High School. He said he disagrees with the northern site for the new high school because when we invest money, “it needs to go in the core of our community.” He used part of his answer to state that he thinks of the new site for the school as an opportunity for the community to teach its children what it values about environmental impact, sustainability, walkability, etc. His answer showed that he has carefully considered this issue, and it reflected his larger concern of revitalizing the core of Champaign.

Bonus points for Petry’s clever response to the inimitable Mr. Seth Fein badgering him about his stance on marijuana, which you can hear near minute 40.

Worst Answer

The question about segregation in our community and Darius Paul’s arrest was a difficult one, understandably, but in my view Petry gaffed by stating he thinks discrimination is “part of the human condition.” Call me a naïve idealist, but I like to think we can do better than bigotry, and I worry that claiming discrimination is “part of the human condition” provides an excuse for why we can’t do better. That said, Petry’s tone turned around when he emphasized the importance of multicultural “place-making” in Champaign at the end of his answer.

Karen Foster

Foster, who has served on city council since 2007, seemed like she was in her element during the Q&A, perhaps because her way of communicating her political philosophy and ideas seems effortlessly conversational and down-to-earth. She mostly skipped political rhetoric in favor of direct, pragmatic answers about her views and what she would do were she elected to the office of mayor. She frequently invoked her deep Champaign roots (she was born and bred here), as well as her interest in keeping an open mind about her stance on issues by continuing to learn from experts and affected parties.

Best Answer

Foster showed off her knack for getting down to brass tacks throughout the Q&A, but she was especially strong in her first answer, which she used to give a clear picture of what she would do differently from Mayor Gerard should she be elected to the position. She said she is ready to be a full-time mayor, mentioning how she would hold daily office hours to meet with citizens and continue to attend as many neighborhood or other local meetings as she could. This answer showed she has given a lot of thought to the specifics of how she would represent the city.

Bonus points for her final answer, in which she described her perfect day in Champaign with hilarious and touchingly intimate details, which you can hear near minute 73.

Worst Answer

Foster was up-front about the fact that the Chief question was a complicated one for her. Having grown up in the area, and being a big sports fan, she said she has many fond memories of the former Chief mascot. While she said that she has ultimately changed her views regarding the Chief and supports its retirement as the mascot of U of I, she closed her answer by noting that her uncle, a “full-blooded Sioux Indian,” and is “not offended” by the Chief. Be that as it may, to my way of thinking, that part of her answer sounded too close for comfort to this infamous excuse: “I can say that because my best friend is black.”

Deb Feinen

Feinen exuded professionalism, experience, and deep knowledge about the issues throughout the Q&A. She seemed to be positioning herself as a well-informed insider to the world of Champaign politics, and for good reason: she’s currently an attorney and current councilmember (since 2006), and her mother, Linda Frank, ran for County Board and has been the Champaign County Circuit Clerk. Feinen frequently used her answers to reference decisions and policies she has been part of during her time on council or during her former tenure on the County Board.

Best Answer

Feinen response to the segregation/Darius Paul question showcased her experience and ties to other leaders in the community. She began by noting how officers have difficulty jobs and praised Chief Cobb for his efforts in improving police and community relations, especially in the wake of the Kiwane Carrington shooting. She also referenced the efforts council has made regarding this issue, including the creation of a stipend for officers who live in the city of Champaign. “Living with the people you are policing makes a difference,” Feinen stated, and her answer hinted at the role she has already played as a councilmember in making this a reality.

Bonus points for Feinen’s witty sidestep of Fein’s marijuana question, which you can hear near minute 42.

Worst Answer

Feinen has lots to offer in terms of leadership, but I think this was most apparent when she provided specific details about her experience during the Q&A and least apparent in her answer to the first question, which she used to outline the qualities that she thinks make a strong leader. The answer didn’t sound insincere, but it did sound canned, which is too bad because there’s nothing artificial about what Feinen would bring to the mayor’s office were she to win the election.


Stay tuned for more from Smile Politely as we approach the mayoral election, including a mayoral candidate debate. We assume the Mayor will join us next time around.

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