In their own words: Candidates for Bloomington mayor respond to our questions – Bloomington Pantagraph

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In their own words: Candidates for Bloomington mayor respond to our questions




Central Illinois Editor Chris Coates hosts a debate with candidates for Bloomington mayor.


The Pantagraph sent questions to those on the April 6 ballot. Below are responses from those who submitted answers. They have not been edited. 

BLOOMINGTON MAYOR 

Jackie Gunderson

Name three reasons you are running 

1. Before I ever considered running for office, my personal mission has always been to contribute positively to my community, to roll up my sleeves to build it up, and to leave it better than I found it for future generations. I have lived out this mission in my personal and professional life, and now I want to lead with this mission from City Hall. It is time to approach city hall with a more proactive lens, full of elected officials who communicate with their community, and bring impactful and equitable solutions.

2. I decided to run for mayor as an average, every day working person, because I believe in transforming our government to be more transparent and accessible, making our city more welcoming and equitable and most importantly, in putting people first. One of my guiding principles is the need to always challenge the status quo and think outside the box, especially when it comes to people, the bare minimum should never be good enough. I want this community to reflect the amazing individuals that call this city home. I’m running for Mayor of the City of Bloomington because I want to bring a fresh perspective of continuous improvement and forward progress, with everyday working people, at the center. As a leader, I am empathetic, service-centered, inclusive, and results-driven, all key elements of the City of Bloomington’s vision and mission. As an active member of this community, I am uniquely positioned to serve and represent Bloomington residents in this capacity, with a focus on putting people first.

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3. I truly believe that we can’t continue to ignore the lived realities of people in our community just because those realities might make us uncomfortable, or because they are different than our lived experience in the “Happiest City in America”. Elected officials have a responsibility to acknowledge our community’s shortcomings and work towards solving problems.

If you win, what do you expect will be the three most pressing issues you will face? 

1. My priority is to lead, serve and uplift the City of Bloomington with a people-centered approach as we continue to navigate the pandemic. Community COVID response and recovery plans should be comprehensive and accessible as the economic and social fallout of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. COVID recovery will impact most, if not all, facets of municipal government, small business owners, residents, education, and economic development. When we think about long-term COVID-19 recovery, direct aid to individuals and families will be key to helping our community recover from the long-term effects of their unmet needs throughout the pandemic. Another focus will need to be on supporting our locally owned small businesses as they struggle to keep their doors open. We are all navigating a pandemic for the first time, and no one has all the right answers, but the City should be advocating for aid from the federal and state government to help the businesses weather the storm without compromising the health and safety of residents. I think there needs to be a collaborative effort with all of the local government bodies to implement a gradual return to normalcy to ensure people don’t have a false sense of security until the vaccine is widely available and it is safe to return to “normal”. This complex issue needs a comprehensive approach, but it is going to require a leader that can bring all of the important players to the table to problem solve together.

2. Public Safety improvement, with an intentional focus on reevaluating our community’s needs, investing in our community and our people. It should be made clear that public safety is an absolute priority for the city and will continue to be so, but we need to continue to evaluate how we are keeping our friends and neighbors safe, secure, healthy and constantly look for ways to make it better for everyone.

3. Equity and Justice across many community issues, and for all of my neighbors. This includes affordable housing, neighbors experiencing homelessness, the ongoing mental health crisis, unemployment, accessibility, and the systems that are in place that keep people in cycles of poverty.

What do you hope to accomplish if you win? 

As I have learned more about how our local government works, and I could not help but notice how each entity operates in their own silos when it comes to decisions that might affect people all across the community. I would like to see how intergovernmental collaboration could become a part of how our local government works, especially in places where the silos could really overlap for continuous improvement for the community as a whole. Issues like mental health, public transportation, affordable housing, economic development, social services, and tax revenue usage could be handled on a more collaborative effort for a greater impact, but until there is a mindset shift with the people in power in each silo, collaboration will not happen effectively. Part of my reason for running includes the need for continuous improvement and a fresh perspective on issues that have become stagnant due to the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset. No one is successful on their own, and our local government bodies should be working together to elevate our community to a place of collaboration.

A successful and inclusive community also requires the collective contributions of its members in order to thrive. I would like to continue to encourage civic engagement through continuous feedback surveys. This kind of collaborative effort will be essential in achieving a more equitable community. The only way we know what the community needs is through collecting feedback data and through an overall informed decision-making. This is a democratic way to see our community grow for everyday, working-class people.

I also want to focus on the collaboration on the City Council, I would like to see a comprehensive review of our current investment in services and where services are lacking, working with each council member on the needs of each ward, listening to the unique needs across the city, and encouraging each department to conduct a needs/efficiency review to see what services could be added, removed, or improved. I would like to see the investment in infrastructure be focused especially on our overlooked and under-invested neighborhoods, as the needs vary neighborhood to neighborhood. My focus will be on helping move the Council past commissioning more studies and taking votes on the recommendations that have resulted from the hard work of folks in our community, especially the work that the Boards and Commissions do for the City.

What has prepared you for this position?   

I consider myself fortunate to live in a community that values individuals and the unique light they shine in the world. I have had the opportunity to grow and develop through my involvement in many great community organizations, and have met many compassionate people working to leave this place a little better than we found it. I consider it my duty to pour my energy back into the community that has blessed me. My focus is reaching people who have traditionally been on the margins of our community and making sure that they are included, celebrated, and they are represented.

I moved to McLean County 10 years ago to attend Illinois State University. My undergraduate coursework was in Special Education, and I am almost finished with my degree in Organizational Leadership. My first job when I moved here was serving as a Job Coach for adults with developmental disabilities at Marcfirst, and I learned so much in that role that shaped my community service and advocacy focus. Since then, I have had the honor of serving as the Director of The Penguin Project of McLean County, a non-profit organization creating unrestricted access to the performing arts for young people with developmental disabilities since 2014. Both of these experiences have truly opened my eyes to all the places that our society prioritizes ability and changed my personal view of how inclusivity should actually look.

Presently, I am a Procurement Manager at ISU, responsible for all construction and facilities purchases, public bidding and solicitation processes, evaluating proposals, securing contracts, and reporting to the State of Illinois. I have previous leadership experience in environmental, health, safety, and risk management in a manufacturing setting. Both of these careers have been compliance focused leadership positions, and I have learned how to lead a group of people while fostering an ethical culture of always doing what is right. My spouse and I are also proud small business owners.

I believe a thriving community requires the collective contributions of its members, and I know my success as a leader is a reflection of the ways I have been able to bring groups of people together. As mayor, I will do everything in my power to break past politics-as-usual to move us towards collaborative governing that is effective and equitable. 

Mboka Mwilambwe

Name three reasons you are running 

 I am running because I believe Bloomington because I would like to address our infrastructure issues. Over the years, I have heard many residents complain about infrastructure issues in their areas of town and while not all can be solved immediately, I would like to make significant progress on those issues so as to enhance the trust residents have in the city’s ability to take care of the things they are most concerned about. Another reason why I am running is because I noted that social unrest and the pandemic created a level of unease that requires us to have careful, thoughtful decision making at the municipal level to address if we are going to maintain our way of life in Bloomington. The pandemic has caused many businesses to allow their employees to work remotely and Bloomington could be impacted for better or worse. It is therefore important for us to unite as a community and reflect on how we may address those threats or opportunities.

If you win, what do you expect will be the three most pressing issues you will face? 

 My top three priorities are:

1.Community Building. The most successful communities find ways get most everyone pulling together in the same direction. To accomplish that, people need to recognize how the City’s broad goals will help them. It is said that “a rising tide lifts all boats, but the emphasis must be on the “all”. Given the possibility of a direct or indirect benefit, people will more likely work together.

To do this, we need to understand our strengths and weaknesses and what fixes hold the best value, considering both cost and benefits. The main function of a government is to improve quality of life among its residents. If we can offer a superior quality of life, it will not only improve the lives of current residents but also attract new residents.

My experience as the senior member of the city council, along with my ability to calmly mediate disagreements and willingness to listen will be assets in consensus and community building. My skills have been demonstrated by my election as mayor pro tem by my fellow council members and when, on occasion, I have chaired council meetings in Mayor Renner’s absence.

2.Focus on basic municipal services. My experience has shown me that our residents’ first priority is basic city services, including roads, basic recreation, utilities, refuse collection and public safety. With the basics secured, we can add the icing to the cake by continuing the successes that have led to the many awards given to the city during the first two decades of the 21st century, the most recent being recognized as the “happiest city in America”.

With a strong cake and careful attention to the right icing, we can keep our Bloomington-Normal community a delightful place to live.

3.Bring robust economic development. Bringing the world’s dollars into McLean County through a successful business community – our “economic engine” – enables us to afford a better quality of life. Attracting and retaining businesses and jobs must coordinate with attracting and retaining able workers – they go hand-in-hand. Just as we seek a good quality-of-life for our residents, we must seek a good quality-of-life for our businesses.

Recent changes favoring distributed (at home or mobile) over centralized workplace models present both challenges and opportunities. But regardless of which model applies, quality-of-life remains important because we want to be the preferred location for people to live. We have the opportunity to attract workers who may enjoy moving into a place that is “happy” but still affords convenient highway, rail and air access for occasional trips to their business hubs that cannot be in Bloomington-Normal.

Our property tax base may be impacted by a loss of commercial buildings. Combating this may require seeking out businesses that require a physical presence within a certain market area and cannot operate over the Internet, such as distribution centers. Our sales tax revenues may be impacted by e-commerce. We should investigate changes in state and federal law allowing an increased levy of sales taxes on interstate commerce with a bigger share going to the local community. We must also use our central location to draw in commerce from other Central Illinois places, rather than allowing surrounding areas to pull out our commerce to them. The recent loss of a number of retail stores here has created a situation that may draw our shoppers to other communities and must not be allowed to continue.

What do you hope to accomplish if you win? 

I am hoping to address the issues that I have identified as the three most pressing issues, which are providing core services for the community (infrastructure, public safety and basic recreation). I am also hoping to grow our economy in order to reduce the tax burden on taxpayers and I am hoping to be able to unite our community. 

What has prepared you for this position?     

As I have stated before, I have been a council member for Ward 3 for the past 10 years and served as Mayor Pro Tem since 2019. I have been able to chair meetings of the council in the absence of the mayor, and also represent the mayor at various functions. I have a thorough knowledge of how the city functions and know how to work with staff and council members to get things done. Over the years, I have also shown that I have the ability to listen to and balance competing points of view. In a city of nearly 80,000, we will not always find agreement, but how we disagree is very important and I have a demonstrated record of being able to reach consensus even with some of the most difficult issues, and many of my decisions, whether related to infrastructure, budgets, community relations or economic developmentt projects have led to the city making forward progress.

Mike Straza

Name three reasons you are running 

There are many reasons I decided to run for mayor of Bloomington. One reason I’m running for mayor is to give back to the community that has shaped my life in so many ways. I’ve spent practically my whole life here. I went to Bloomington Junior High as well as Bloomington High School (that’s where I met my wife), and I graduated from ISU with a degree in economics. I love this city, and I love the people here. I feel personally indebted to this community for making me who I am, and I want to give back. I want to leave Bloomington better than when I found it, so that future generations will fall in love with it just like I did. For me, being mayor has everything to do with serving.

Another reason is that new leadership is now required. Over the past few years, I began dreaming about someday running for mayor, if the timing were right. At this moment for our city, I believe my experience and expertise are needed. Our city needs less divisiveness and more action. I am committed to providing nonpartisan leadership—as I have already demonstrated the past few years. And I am excited to collaborate with other leaders to initiate and execute measurable results that improve the everyday lives of Bloomington residents.

Finally, I believe that my business experience and collaboration skills are needed to boost our local economy that is struggling due to the pandemic. Strong economic solutions will be needed to revive our businesses. This is my expertise. I am excited to cast and execute a vision for Building Bloomington Together in collaboration with others. I have many ideas for initiating growth in our community. And a key part of the mayor’s role is pulling people together from different perspectives, ideals, neighborhoods, and values. This is something I enjoy and have been successful with in my professional career. I want to help our community grow and thrive by drawing people together.

I am truly excited for the opportunity to serve our community as Bloomington’s mayor.

If you win, what do you expect will be the three most pressing issues you will face? 

The biggest challenge for Bloomington’s next mayor is creating economic stability in the wake of COVID. Many factors contribute to this challenge, but the mayor must be skilled in developing a vision for recovery and growth, collaborating with various leaders and entities to execute the plan, and applying specific know-how when faced with roadblocks along the way.

It’s no secret that businesses are struggling due to COVID regulations. We need to do everything we can do—safely—to open the service sector and stimulate recovery. Our small businesses and service businesses have found some creative solutions to serve customers, such as providing curbside food service. But the financial impact will be heavy on small businesses for the next 12-plus months. As mayor, I will advocate for support for these businesses to keep them stable until the pandemic subsides, which will also grow job opportunities.

New business development will be key for our city’s growth and prosperity. We need to bring in new developments to major locations, like downtown Bloomington, Eastland Mall, and west of Main Street. Investing in development is an investment in the whole city, bringing in tax dollars, providing new job opportunities, and enhancing our quality of life. In addition, I want to make broadband accessible to everyone so there are opportunities for growth in businesses and at home. It’s also important to streamline the process for gaining building permits and help create market-based incentives to aid small business growth.

Retaining talent and workforce development is also crucial for our long-term sustainability. We need to develop talent through our schools, universities, and training centers, and then keep that talent local. My involvement to launch the Illinois State University Incubator & Makerspace is an example of how my leadership directly impacts the welfare of our community.

While these ideas look clear on paper, I know the reality on the ground is much more complex. Bloomington needs a mayor that is skilled in solving problems. Bloomington needs a mayor with high energy and an abundance of ideas to keep progress moving. Bloomington needs a mayor who is able to connect the dots in the big picture and foster the collaboration needed between groups, entities, and ideals. I am up to the challenge, and I have these skills. 

What do you hope to accomplish if you win? 

 My vision is to make Bloomington the entrepreneurial capital of the Midwest. Rest assured, this vision is all about the benefits a vibrant community can deliver to Bloomington’s families and business owners. I’ve always seen businesses, both large and small, as the avenue for good jobs that support families and sustain the amenities and community life we all enjoy. Bloomington’s residents deserve more of that.

That’s why, as mayor, I will accelerate economic growth by supporting businesses as the true backbone of our economy, and I work with state and local leaders to ensure their security and prosperity. COVID-19 has left many of our small businesses struggling. As a result, more and more of our favorite businesses are shutting their doors, or permanently closing. Now, more than ever, our city needs sound, economic thinking leadership. We need to bolster the services and businesses that make our city a great place to call home. New business development will be key for our city’s overall growth and prosperity. We need new developments for major locations, like downtown Bloomington, Eastland Mall, and the west of Main Street.

The people of Bloomington also deserve an excellent quality of life. Recently, this has been somewhat diminished by decaying infrastructure. As we all know, winter weather is never kind to our roads, so repairs will always be at the top of our list. Our city also has aging water and sewer lines. While maintenance of roads and pipes may not be flashy, these contribute to our city’s overall aesthetic and enhance our quality of life. We also need to expand internet access throughout the city so no one is left behind or hindered in school or business ventures.

The Pantagraph sent questions to those on the April 6 ballot. Here are their responses. 

Finally, I believe in balanced representation and leadership for our diverse community. Our community is filled with a great variety of people; people who have helped make this city such a wonderful community to live in. Each one of them deserves a mayor who will seriously listen to each of their voices. Of course, diversity comes with a host of differing viewpoints and opinions. But these differences, I believe, are a good thing. It means that no one political party can dominate the other; and, given balanced representatives, it leads to amazing collaboration and the best decisions for all.

What has prepared you for this position? 

One of the greatest experiences preparing me to be Bloomington’s mayor is being a business owner and entrepreneur. I’m intimately familiar with the needs and wants of the local business community and what roadblocks hamper growth. I’ve helped more than a dozen owners grow their businesses, and I myself have launched and grown businesses locally, including ZDI (now Room Ready), Presto Media, Immanuel Health Center, Prairie Emergency Group, Primus Trauma Care, Skin in the Game, and QikPix. I’ve worked with local leaders, labor unions, hospital administrations, universities, city officials, and nonprofits. These have given me experience in contract negotiations, insurance coverage, legal proceedings, human resources, strategic financial management, and marketing. I can see the big picture by noting how all the pieces contribute to the success of the whole. Bloomington needs a mayor with the ability to see the big picture, the creative knack for solving problems, and the skill to jumpstart our local economy. All this positions me as the most qualified candidate for mayor.

The Pantagraph sent questions to those on the April 6 ballot. Here are their responses. 

Another key experience preparing me to be Bloomington’s mayor is my commitment to serve the community and especially those in need. A few places I’ve served include: Bloomington Zoning Board of Appeals; SBDC board; BN Economic Development Council OneVoice Trip in Washington D.C.; Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) Entrepreneurship/Corporate Engagement Committee; Vision 2040 Committee and Race & Law Enforcement Committee; Comprehensive Plan Development – Economic Vitality; TEDxNormal Planning Team; and HSHM Big Give initiative. I want to highlight my decade on the board of American Red Cross of Central Illinois. I loved being part of an organization that cares for our community in times of great need. While on the board, I helped shape policies to improve program effectiveness and boost programmatic funding. One standard called board members to take a leading role in growing the bottom line of our local chapter. I also volunteered on disaster teams, including a three-week stint in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. I processed cases for 10 hours a day, listening to people’s stories and helped distribute financial aid. These experiences shaped my belief that when one person suffers or has needs, we each have a responsibility to help. I want to help our city better serve its residents with my skills in leadership, strategic thinking, and problem solving.   

Meet the candidates for Bloomington mayor

Jackie Gunderson is banking on residents across Bloomington agreeing with her campaign platform’s focus on equity and accessibility, both points she says underpin issues like infrastructure, public safety and economic development. 

Mboka Mwilambwe is campaigning on a platform rooted in providing core services like infrastructure and recreation, while also prioritizing practical leadership.  

A Bloomington tax base expanded through new development, mayoral candidate Mike Straza says, would reduce the city’s dependency on taxing residents and small businesses, but also generate money to fund infrastructure, and core and social services. 

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