Activists to Action: C-U’s New Progressives Make Primary Push

By Gavin Good

Champaign and Urbana have long been thought of as liberal outposts when compared to the surrounding area. In the presidential election in November, roughly 60% of Champaign County voters backed Joe Biden over Donald Trump. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that, like most cities with substantial population, most of the local elected positions are held by Democrats. Champaign has a non-partisan city government, but there is often a liberal tilt, even if its current iteration is particularly moderate. 

In the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary, Champaign County was the only county — out of 102 in the state — to back Bernie Sanders, a progressive, over the more moderate Joe Biden. There is a long history of local progressive activism in Champaign County, and that manifested in a new form last summer as thousands of people took to the streets to protest for racial and social justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police the beating and arrest of Aleyah Lewis by Urbana police in April.

As a natural extension of their activism, many who were involved in this summer’s protests began to see local politics as the only avenue through which they could enact meaningful change.

Now, after months of work, some of the same figures that have emerged from this summer’s protests are running for office, beginning with the Democratic Primary on February 23. 

But taking the movement from the streets to city government isn’t something that can happen overnight.

“We’re protestors, and we know the community better than the politicians”

For Rita Conerly, a single mother of eight who has been an organizer for years, it was time to take the next step in advocating for the well-being and representation of Champaign’s Black and Brown communities.

Conerly, who is running for Champaign Township Supervisor, believes that the township can do more to help struggling community members than it is currently. The township handles property tax assessment, but also manages and distributes general assistance to residents who are struggling financially and need aid.

“I want to create a space, or at least a government, that is just based on common sense, transparency and especially rebuilding the trust of our most vulnerable population and marginalized population of people,” Conerly said.

After numerous demonstrations over the summer, Conerly saw the power of a unified community at work. She was far from alone in that realization.

Justin Michael Hendrix, another Champaign resident and activist, found himself compelled to speak at many of the summer protests. Gradually, Hendrix began to form relationships with other organizers and concerned citizens, including Conerly.

As time went on, Conerly and Hendrix began to entertain the idea of running for positions through which to tangibly enact the changes they wanted to see.

“We had a serious conversation about it,” Conerly said, “and he was like, ‘Well, you run for township, I’ll do it.’”

“From there, I was like, ‘There comes a time we have to leave the streets of protest to make the sacrifices to get into the seats for the community,’” Hendrix recalled. “And that’s how I’ve looked at it since then, and even talking with Rita about (the) Township. She explained to me, it’s bigger than our names, these seats are for the community. And all we are is just a revolving door of access to the community. And if we can be that, we must make the sacrifices, win, lose or draw.”

Hendrix is running for Champaign city council in District 3, where he is facing attorney Matthew Sullard and personal trainer Danny Iniguez, who has the backing of Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen.

While Conerly’s election takes place on February 23, along with Urbana’s Democratic Primary for all of its city council seats and the mayoral race, the Champaign City Council races are set for the consolidated general election on April 6.

Conerly and Hendrix’s mutual aid and organizing efforts brought them into contact with Meghan McDonald, an Urbana resident and activist who became heavily involved in the local protest movement after Aleyah Lewis’ April arrest went viral and aroused anger from many community members.

McDonald had been regularly attending city council meetings on Zoom, voicing her concerns about police brutality and shortcomings of leadership. As she began to get to know Conerly and Hendrix through protesting, raising money for Lewis and speaking out on behalf of struggling community members, McDonald realized that there was power in their unified, community-centric front.

She announced her campaign for alderperson in Urbana’s Ward 5 in October, and shortly after, longtime Ward 5 councilman rep Dennis Roberts announced he would be running for Mayor against incumbent Diane Marlin.

Since, McDonald has worked with a growing number of progressive candidates running for municipal and township positions. She doesn’t identify as a politician, and neither do Conerly or Hendrix. They all want to show that everyday community members can provide a fruitful path for change when other options, especially those trusted in positions of power, fail.

“Young people and progressive people getting into politics, it’s not the only way we’re gonna change things,” McDonald told Champaign Showers. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Is electoral politics even the way to go?’ It’s definitely a way to try.”

Throughout the campaign, the trio has supported each other, pooling resources, knowledge and energy to make ends meet while taking on local politicians.

“This is a team effort,” McDonald said. “This is a coalition. I wouldn’t be doing it if I hadn’t gone to the protests that Rita had helped organize. I wouldn’t have the courage to speak up if I hadn’t heard Justin do it a million times at protests.”

“(Justin) is a great speaker, and they both are just fearless.”

What started as an initiative to gain representation and a seat at the table for struggling communities has now evolved into a full-fledged effort across both cities.

Local elections generally don’t feature high-spending campaigns, but incumbents who are already holding office (and other candidates they support) hold distinct advantages, like knowledge and support in filing their campaign petitions, gathering signatures and picking up endorsements.

Conerly, Hendrix and McDonald are just three of a swathe of progressive candidates that are attempting to shift the balance in local politics toward neglected populations. A dozen candidates, dubbing themselves “The People’s Council,” are running in all seven of Urbana’s city council races, the mayoral election and in Champaign’s respective elections.

Most of the campaigns are longshots, not being supplemented by the clout, connections and infrastructure that incumbents have access to. But the candidates, most of whom are young, digitally-adept, bold and determined, are testing the status quo that exists.

And, according to Hendrix, they’re starting to get people’s attention now.

“Going into this, I knew I was going to be challenged,” Hendrix said. “Because basically, we’re coming from off the streets. We’re protesters, and we know the community better than the politicians. So that’s a threat.”

“Injustice, unfairness and cruelty all around the world, and in Urbana”

Andy “Yinxi” Ma is just 22 years old, and he is campaigning to be the next mayor of Urbana.

Ma decided to throw his hat into the mayoral race in the fall as he completed his degree in political science at the University of Illinois.

Originally from Memphis, Ma was disturbed by the plight he saw in Champaign-Urbana, a bustling, self-described “micro-urban” community that is known because of the university it holds, but has so much more to it.

“There’s just so much injustice, unfairness and cruelty all around the world and in Urbana,” Ma said. “I just think somebody should do something, and being a mayor, you have a lot of power to help the community against the unfairness and cruelty of the world.”

Like every candidate on “The People’s Council,” Ma has adopted three priorities of issue to his platform.

Those core objectives are ending chronic homelessness, defunding the police and closing the gaps in domestic violence survivor support.

In addition to Ma, Conerly, Hendrix and McDonald, The People’s Council consists of a litany of candidates who have all committed to these core objectives:

  • Jake Fava (Urbana Ward 1 candidate) 
  • Christopher Hansen (Urbana Ward 2 candidate)
  • Colin Dodson (Urbana Ward 2 candidate)
  • Deborah Liu (Urbana Ward 3 candidate)
  • Jaya Kolisetty (Urbana Ward 4 candidate) 
  • Grace Wilken (Urbana Ward 6 candidate)
  • Jared Miller (Urbana Ward 7 incumbent) 
  • Clarissa Nickerson Fourman (Champaign District 1 incumbent)

“I think those are like some of the basic issues for a decent community,” Ma said. “Those are some basic things you should be supporting. It’s really great that there is a platform of candidates. There’s an actual path to getting all these things done.”

Ma, like several other candidates, is also making transparency in city government a priority. That is one area where he believes both Marlin, who was elected as mayor in 2017, and Roberts, who was the Ward 5 representative for more than 15 years, have failed.

“I think the easiest thing we could do is open up the city council meetings, shifting it to a date which is more accessible to people who have to work and can’t always show up because of work, and restoring the previous time for public participation,” Ma told Champaign Showers. “And then we could get into the bigger issue, defunding the police, that could really free up the resources to do the bold things Urbana can do, such as transitioning to a green energy system and ending homelessness in our community.”

At the root of all of these campaigns is a frustration that stems from perceived inaction and complicity by city officials in the wake of police brutality and a deadly pandemic, as well as an unwillingness to act in the best interest of struggling community members in general.

Many of the candidates have simple, concrete goals. 

More than concern with political norms and politeness, these candidates stress a need for immediate changes in city and township-level leadership to meet community needs.

For McDonald, the main objective is defunding the police, which at a local level means a significant reallocation of the funding for the Urbana Police Department. 

“I was showing up the city council meeting week after week after week after week, trying to explain how the police don’t actually make us safer and how we need to invest in other solutions,” McDonald said. 

Urbana police expenditures accounted for roughly 21% of the city’s annual budget last year, while other areas such as community development (12%) and general services (8%) received far lesser shares. 

“The way that you defund the police is you make budget amendments,” McDonald said. “How do you make budget amendments, how do you propose amendments? You get two people on the city council to agree to propose those amendments to get them to be discussed. Jared Miller was the only city council member that was progressive enough to talk about that stuff, and that’s not enough. One person isn’t enough, and so that’s why I’m running for city council. I’m trying to defund the police, and that’s it. That money is going to expand, ripple out and take care of so many other people and projects.”

But, before you’re on the ballot….

Hendrix knew when he announced his intentions to run that they would not be well-received by all parties. 

Through his work over the summer, organizing and speaking at protests, but also through a community pop-up food pantry initiative he launched, the City of Champaign became very familiar with Hendrix. 

Likely, far more familiar than it ever would have liked to be. 

Together with his friend Marshall Allston, Hendrix responded to increased needs for food and supplies for homeless and food insecure residents by building and then regularly stocking multiple food pantries. 

After an initial dispute with the City of Champaign about where the pantry could be stationed, resulting in confusion and several moves, Hendrix and Allston have opened two more sites. The first one is located at the Champaign City Building at 102 N. Neil Street, while the second and third are at 402 E. Park Street and 319 Louisiana Avenue. They hope to maintain the pantries as the pandemic wears on and needs for supplies remain high, with plans to potentially add even more locations.

But the difficulty with the city taught Hendrix an early lesson about how the response to his activism, and later his campaign, would be. 

“If they move it, they’re going to show the city they don’t want to feed (people),” Hendrix said. “And you see the pantry ain’t moved yet. It’s all about showing them and exposing them, that’s what I’m about. If we can do that while still making gains with the community, that’s what’s monumental about it.”

Unlike with community work, though, there were more subtle steps available to deny Hendrix further influence at the city level. 

After he filed his campaign petition, for which he purposely gathered his signatures from residents in underrepresented Black and Brown neighborhoods, former assistant city attorney for Champaign Rochelle Funderburg filed to challenge the legality of roughly 100 of Hendrix’s 170-plus signatures. 

Hendrix had approximately 72 hours to lawyer up and prepare to defend the signatures of the voters he had sought out. Eventually, a three-person board ruled 2-1 that Hendrix had narrowly missed the mark for valid signatures, falling less than 10 short. 

After the decision, which Hendrix blasted, he decided to remain in the race in District 3 as a write-in candidate.

“To know that I’m a Black man, and I’m educated and I’m also able to conduct myself accordingly is more of a threat to those people,” Hendrix said, “because I know that I can take charge in these areas, and they see it as a threat. So they tried everything possible to stop me by having me go and try to then expose me by saying, ‘Well, lets see if he can afford an attorney. Or let’s see if he can work under pressure by dealing in court.’ So that’s what pushed me to say I must get an attorney.”

Hendrix alleges that Funderburg, an associate of current city attorney Frederick Stavins, filed against him because of what he represents as a candidate who is advocating for major changes. His attorney, Ed Mullen, a Chicago-based lawyer at Bucktown Law, argued that the ballot challenge was an example of voter disenfranchisement.

Hendrix says the ballot challenge represents a modern-day Jim Crow standard to prevent Black people from gaining positions of power.

“They used a rule that was built in Jim Crow to win,” Hendrix said. “And that’s why I say constantly on city council, Mayor Feinen, you are Jim Crow. Literally, that’s exactly what you just did with Jim Crow.”

“It’s to the point that you knew that you are doing this, even when you put Black people in a position, they still too can be complicit in having to vote in a Jim Crow type of manner,” he continued. “And that’s one thing I don’t stand for. I don’t mind if you Black, white, blue, gay, straight, I call you out. That’s just me. I like to be on the right side of all people.”

Hendrix wasn’t the only candidate to face a ballot challenge that had ties to incumbent political leaders.

McDonald faced a challenge to her petition from Wayne Williams, Cunningham Township Assessor and partner of her opponent, Chaundra Bishop. 

After losing her campaign for Champaign County Coroner in November, Bishop entered the race in Ward 5 and has struck a softer, more conciliatory tone on many of the same issues McDonald has taken up. 

McDonald thought she might be running uncontested for a few weeks after her campaign announcement, but Bishop’s entry into the race changed the dynamic. 

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I might get this, there’s nobody else running,’” McDonald said. “And November 3 happened, those elections, and Chaundra Bishop was the only person on the Democratic ticket who lost.”

Representing herself because she couldn’t afford to retain an attorney, McDonald survived the ballot challenge. She said she had initially thought of dropping out of the race when Bishop, a more politically experienced opponent, entered. 

But then, without ever reaching out to her, Williams filed the challenge. 

“(Williams) challenged my petitions on a technicality two hours (after filing), and we had to go through this whole process,” McDonald said. “All this time and city money had to go into holding this hearing to see if I strayed away from Illinois election code, if my petitions were confusing to the voter, that could disqualify me. They weren’t.”

“So it’s just a transparency thing,” McDonald continued, “it’s just that nobody wants to make this an easier, more accessible process.”

Like with Hendrix, McDonald believes that Williams’ efforts — enabled by Bishop — represent an attempt to disenfranchise voters and residents.

“It was kind of demoralizing for people to question my integrity, was I trying to confuse voters? You know I wasn’t trying to confuse voters,” McDonald said. “This is just a waste of our time. You’re trying to win that badly that you’re willing to go to these lengths to waste our time.”

“Nobody was confused,” she continued. “If anything, you actually enraged some of the people that signed it. You’re telling them that who they want to endorse as a candidate doesn’t matter.”

While the effort to boot McDonald from the ballot failed, another of Marlin’s primary opponents, former Champaign Central and Indiana University basketball standout Verdell Jones III, was removed from the Urbana mayoral race due to a ballot challenge. Jones III had filed to run for mayor, but after his campaign was challenged, it was determined that he did not fully meet Urbana residency requirements.

Even though Hendrix was unable to win his challenge, he redoubled his efforts — just as McDonald did — when he saw how others would try to stop him from gaining a seat at the table.

“I just want to make sure this campaign is unlike any other write-in campaign they’ve seen,” Hendrix said. “To gain a win will be a bigger win for the community,  this will really show how privileged they were in their positions to say, ‘We’re going to stop this Black, queer male from running in this area so that we can save the mayor’s seat by putting certain people in position. That’s all it was about, (Feinen) trying to make a kingmakership.”

Mayor Marlin: “I appreciate being pushed”

In all likelihood, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin will win reelection to another term. 

As an incumbent facing two opponents in Ma and Roberts, it will be much more feasible for Marlin to retain her winning coalition from 2017, when she beat former mayor Laurel Prussing.

But elsewhere, further down the ballot, Urbana incumbents are under siege for what their opponents call an unwillingness to commit to progressive enough goals.

Besides councilman Jared Miller, who has allied himself more with the challengers despite his incumbency in Ward 7, the city council tends to see eye-to-eye on many issues.

“They’ve made it very clear, they’re not happy with how we responded,” Marlin told Champaign Showers. “All I can say is we are doing the best we can. It’s my belief that if you can make change, to make lasting change, you have to make sure you’ve got the systems and the structures in place to make it permanent.”

Marlin has straddled the line between pushing for incremental police reforms and the calls to defund the police from activists, and now, political opponents.

“One thing I’ve learned when people use the phrase defund the police is it has 100 different meanings,” Marlin said. “So you have to then explore, what exactly do you mean by that? I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that we all need to reevaluate the role of policing as part of our overall public safety and well being.”

She said that police have been asked to do too much, and while there may be other options, such as defunding and reallocating resources elsewhere, it will take time to find the answers.

“The question we now have to address as a community is who answers that call who is best suited to respond to that call for help?” Marlin said. “If it’s a question of checking on somebody because you haven’t seen them for a few days, maybe you don’t need a patrol officer to do that. You could have a community caretaking team, you could have a social service professional, somebody like that.”

“If you’re dealing with an act of gun battle, yeah, you need trained officers to respond,” Marlin continued. “So I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I know people are very frustrated. It may seem like we’re just not responding quickly enough, but we are also buried in a pandemic where our number one priority is keeping people healthy and getting through this.”

Marlin agrees that the issues the “People’s Council” candidates have taken up are crucially important, even though there isn’t consensus about how to solve them.

“I appreciate new points of view, I appreciate being pushed,” Marlin said. “I hope everyone, after this is over, will come together and work with us to move us forward. One of the things I’m excited about is that we are about to launch a rewrite of our comprehensive plans. So the last time that was published was in 2005, and a comp plan is basically a blueprint for what your city looks like, feels like and how it grows and develops.”

No matter who wins next week and in the general election in April, a message has been sent, Hendrix believes. 

“To me, in order to be in these positions, you have to be able to be in the streets, you have to engage in your communities,” Hendrix told Champaign Showers. “I do not see these people coming out here for these emergencies and the shootings, and everything like that. I mean, if a cat’s in the tree, they may come out, but I don’t see them coming out for what’s been out in the streets.”

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Featured photo by Johnathan Hettinger