Champaign council contest reverses roles
Editor's note: See Sunday's News-Gazette for a Q&A with both candidates.
CHAMPAIGN — Will Kyles' biggest supporter has become his biggest obstacle.
Four years ago, when she decided not to seek a second term for personal reasons, outgoing city council member Gina Jackson had a decision to make: Endorse a Democratic ally, Freddie Gordon, who was not showing up for caucuses and other meetings, or she could support then-26-year-old Kyles, a Republican.
Longtime residents of District 1 looked to Jackson for guidance. She endorsed Kyles, and he would go on to win the District 1 seat.
Former Mayor "Dannell McCollum supported him. I supported him," Jackson said. "He seemed eager, eager to learn, and we thought he would really support the neighborhood."
On the books, the Champaign City Council is non-partisan, but members' party affiliations are not secret. Jackson, a Democrat, stood by Kyles despite his Republican background — although Kyles points out that he is not an average Republican.
"Of course, I took all the flak in the world for that because he's a Republican," Jackson said.
Four years later, as Kyles is finishing up his first term and seeking a second, he's locked in a battle with the very person who deserves a lot of credit for his 2009 victory.
"I was 26 at the time," Kyles said. "It was not only an honor, it was something our community needed."
In an interview earlier this week, Kyles expressed respect for Jackson and appreciation for her support four years ago.
"It's a democratic system and everyone has the right to run," Kyles said. "She's using her right."
It wasn't until his closing statement during a candidate forum this week that he hinted at any resentment.
"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would be running against the very person that opened up the door for me to serve doing the very thing that I promised her I would do," Kyles said during that forum. "But this is what happens when self interest and politics enters the scenes. It takes two people that should be working together, it puts them against each other to divide the community instead of bringing it together."
He asked voters to stick with him and even hoped for support from residents outside of District 1.
"We must send a message to future politicians and candidates that these politics are unacceptable and will yield no progress if we are to live in a better district and the greater city of Champaign," Kyles said.
Both of the candidates say this spring's District 1 race is not about Democrat or Republican or even splintered alliances. They are friendly with each other, and they both say they want to see the district move in the right direction.
"When people need help, they don't care whether it comes from a Republican, a Democrat, a chicken or a hawk," Kyles said.
How that gets done is where they split. Jackson said she would not be running if she felt Kyles had delivered on his promise to move the district forward, and Kyles argues that it has moved — just not in the same direction as it did during Jackson's term.
Kyles trumpets one of his biggest successes as moving forward the North Fourth Street extension that had been in city plans for years, but did not become a reality until he continued pushing for it during his term.
He also says his leadership helped improve relations between residents and Champaign police officers, particularly as outrage among some residents followed the fatal police shooting of 15-year-old Kiwane Carrington in 2009, only months into his first term.
"This isn't an issue that was going to go away by just telling people that things are going to get better," Kyles said.
During the candidate forum on Wednesday, Jackson referred to the "stagnation" of the area and said Kyles has allowed the elder residents of District 1 — "the foundation of the district" — to feel neglected.
"You're doing good at what you're doing," Jackson said of Kyles. "But you're not doing enough, and you're neglecting the folks that got you there."
Jackson said Kyles has been distracted by pet projects, particularly as he is now president of the Champaign County Black Chamber of Commerce, and he should re-focus on the fundamentals of governing a diverse district.
"I guess this is his first real campaign against a real candidate," Jackson said. "And we have the same desires for the district, but he's not staying focused. You have to stay focused and not let other things distract you."