“I want to win. Fundraising is an ongoing effort in any campaign and I’ve got to be able to compete and get my message out. I expect that this is going to be an expensive race."
In 2011 Jerry Schweighart and Don Gerard spent less than $50,000 in Champaign’s mayoral election.
Next year’s anticipated four-way race likely will blow those relatively ordinary numbers away.
Joe Petry, the Champaign Park Board president, already has more than $20,000 in his mayoral campaign fund, created less than five months ago. At least $5,000 is his own money, according to campaign disclosure reports filed with the State Board of Elections.
He’s already approaching the amounts that Schweighart (about $21,000) and Gerard (about $25,000) ended up spending in 2011 — and the election is 11 months away.
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Petry declined to say how much he intends to raise, but added, “We’re going to raise what we need to run a competitive campaign.”
His formal campaign kickoff will come soon, he said. His first fundraiser, a $125 per person affair, will be this week.
“We’re going full-bore,” Petry said. “A lot of generous family members and supporters have already stepped up for me.”
City councilwoman Deb Frank Feinen, who last reported $7,606 in her campaign fund, said she’ll likely spend $50,000 in the race for mayor.
“I want to win,” she said. “Fundraising is an ongoing effort in any campaign and I’ve got to be able to compete and get my message out.
“I expect that this is going to be an expensive race,” she said. “I think Joe’s going to push this. I’d prefer not to spend that but media is expensive and I’m going to have to be able to keep up with the others.”
In October 2003, when Feinen was considering running for state representative (which she ultimately did), Petry donated $5,000 to her campaign.
“I still consider Joe a good friend,” she said. “That’s what’s going to make this race so interesting. You’re going to have a lot of people who respect and like each other running for the same position.”
The other two contenders, who also are quite familiar with each other, are Mayor Don Gerard and councilwoman Karen Foster.
“Money doesn’t buy everything,” said Foster, who had $1,935 in her campaign fund on March 31. “I will be campaigning more door to door. I won’t be trying to keep up with (Petry).”
Her immediate fundraising goal, she said, is to have $10,000 by the end of August.
“I do think that being an incumbent will help. I’ve already run citywide campaigns (for at-large council seats in 2007 and 2011) so people know me,” she said.
Gerard, who reported $1,701 on hand on March 31, said he’s not concerned about campaign finances.
“I’m going to continue to spend my money on putting an ad in the program for the high school baseball team or the Ebertfest or things like that,” he said. “I think in my case it’s nice to have the luxury of being the mayor where I can talk about the successful things we’ve done or the work we’re doing for the Mahomet aquifer or Amtrak or Bristol Park.”
Asked if he intends to raise as much as he did in 2011, Gerard said, “I don’t know. I’m not from a wealthy family so if I raise $20,000 it won’t come from a few people but from 500 to 1,000 people.”
He said he wouldn’t be spending “on robo calls or TV ads. I’ll just keep spending my money and investing in community things. For example, I would have preferred to see those three Petry names (Joe, Joe and Timmothy) on the C-U at Home (a project for the homeless) donation list but people can spend money as they wish.”
The mayor’s job in Champaign is considered part-time. It pays $35,000 a year.
Not only is a high-spending mayoral race unusual in Champaign, but it’s out of the ordinary for other nearby cities. Last year in Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing spent about $22,400 winning another term. Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer spent less than $15,000 in his last campaign in 2011. In Normal the mayor spent less than $10,000 getting reelected; Bloomington’s mayor spent about $49,000. Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy spent a meager amount in 2011, but he was unopposed.
Only in Springfield, a political town where there is no city manager and the mayor makes more than $128,000 annually, did the last successful mayoral candidate spend more than $50,000. Springfield Mayor Mike Houston spent $131,558 on his mayoral race in 2011, although that included a primary and a general election.
Finally, although Champaign’s mayoral race is nonpartisan, all the candidates but Gerard could be considered Republican. Foster is a GOP precinct committeeman, Feinen ran as a Republican for county board and state representative and Petry voted Republican in primary elections between 2004 and 2014, although he did take a Democratic ballot in 1988.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .