Two Black candidates for city council cite racial bias in removal from ballot

Calvin Pitts to run as write-in candidate for Ward 5

Calvin Pitts speaks to the Springfield Electoral Board on Dec. 22 before the board ruled in favor of a challenge to his nominating petitions and voted to remove his name as a candidate for Ward 5 alderman on the Springfield City Council for the April 4 municipal election.
One of the two candidates for Springfield City Council whose names were knocked off the April 4 ballot because of an insufficient number of valid signatures on nominating papers has launched a write-in campaign.

“It’s more of a long shot,” Ward 5 candidate Calvin Pitts told Illinois Times. “But just because they wanted me out doesn’t mean I have to quit. I really want to be a part of the growth and development of the city.”

Both Pitts and Ward 7 candidate Jaleesa Davis, whose name was also removed from the ballot, said during a Dec. 22 meeting of the Springfield Electoral Board that they were being unfairly targeted because of their race.

“This challenge of the signatures is a modern-day version of the Jim Crow laws,” Davis said.

The board voted unanimously to remove Pitts and Davis from the ballot, ruling that Pitts was six signatures short and Davis was 21 signatures short on their nominating petitions.

Pitts, 54, is a union electrician and the owner of B.O.N.E. LLC, a construction and investment company. Davis, 33, is the owner of Glaze Nail Salon and operator of the nonprofit group Girls Glory.

Pitts, who was up against incumbent Ald. Lakeisha Purchase and former alderman Sam Cahnman in the Ward 5 race, said after the vote: “It’s a clear sign of continuous voter suppression. It’s obvious, and it’s terrible. … My fate is decided by a group of white men.”

Pitts said he collected 402 voter signatures, which is more than the 252 required for ward candidates to secure a place on the ballot.

Members of the three-person board – consisting of Mayor Jim Langfelder, City Clerk Frank Lesko and Ward 4 Ald. John Fulgenzi – said they regretted having to decide whether to remove the names of Davis and Pitts, who are Black and the only council candidates whose petitions were challenged among the five contested races for council seats.

Pitts filed the necessary documents on Dec. 27 to be a write-in candidate, Sangamon County Clerk Don Gray said. For Pitts to receive votes, Ward 5 voters will have to darken an oval and write his name on a blank line that will appear under Purchase’s and Cahnman’s names, Gray said.

No one has been elected to municipal office in Springfield as a write-in candidate in recent memory, Gray said, though there were write-in candidates for ward representatives in 2019, 2015, 2011 and 2007, and for mayor in 2007.

After deciding on Pitts’ and Davis’ ballot status, the Electoral Board formally requested that city officials look into the possibility of reducing the number of required voter signatures that will be needed for valid nominating petitions for future ward candidates.

Langfelder noted that the requirement for 252 valid signatures in ward races also applies to citywide races for mayor, clerk and treasurer – putting an unfair, higher burden on ward candidates than on citywide candidates, who have more limited areas to collect valid signatures.

The number, based on 1% of the total votes cast for mayor in the preceding election, is required in the city’s 1987 consent decree that resulted from a federal Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the city. The ruling supersedes state law, and so the city would have to go to federal court to modify the signature requirements.

John Mehlick, a retired Sangamon County judge whom the city asked to be the hearing officer evaluating evidence and making a recommendation to the board on the challenges, denied racial bias.

Anthony Schuering, an attorney with Brown, Hay & Stephens who represented Ward 7 resident Nicholas Austin and Ward 5 resident Jason Mendonca in their challenges of the Davis and Pitts’ candidacies, said the challenges had “nothing to do with race.”

He said his clients wanted to preserve the integrity of the upcoming municipal election by making sure state and Springfield laws were followed. Schuering denied allegations by Davis and Pitts that the Democratic and Republican parties were behind the challenges to the candidates’ signatures. Springfield’s municipal races are officially nonpartisan.

Schuering, who has volunteered for the Democratic Party in the past, said that “to the best of my knowledge,” neither party was funding or otherwise orchestrating the challenge.

Mendonca is an analyst on the staff of Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside. Mendonca declined comment.

Austin also declined comment. He voted in Democratic primaries in 2008, 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022, according to Gray’s office.

Davis said both Republican and Democratic officials tried to intimidate her into not running or running for another office.

Pitts, who considers himself a Democrat, said he believed the Democratic Party was behind the effort to kick him off the ballot. Purchase and Cahnman are Democrats.

Out of the 274 names that Davis filed, seven weren’t registered to vote, 15 weren’t registered at the address they listed on the petitions, two had signatures that may not have been genuine, 16 didn’t live in the new ward boundaries that take effect in 2023, and one signed twice, Mehlick said.

With 41 signatures that shouldn’t be counted, Davis had 231 valid signatures, or 21 fewer than the 252 required, he said.

Mehlick said Pitts filed 401 signatures, but that 155 of those signatures didn’t comply with the election code, which requires signatures to come from registered voters in the ward and match the signatures on file with county election officials. As a result, Mehlick said Pitts had 246 valid signatures, or six fewer than the required 252 threshold.

Langfelder and the other board members considered postponing a decision on Pitts’ candidacy and allowing Pitts to attempt to obtain affidavits from six people whose signatures weren’t counted because they didn’t resemble signatures on file with the county clerk’s office.

But board members, after conducting a brief closed-door session with Corporation Counsel Jim Zerkle, eventually decided against that option. Langfelder said that if the board later decided to count as valid the signatures of the six, the board would have had to give Schuering the opportunity to challenge signatures Mehlick deemed valid, and the process would become even more acrimonious.

“It becomes a terrible back-and-forth that nobody wants,” Langfelder said. Cahnman said he was “very disappointed to see our neighbor, Calvin Pitts, thrown off the ballot.” Cahnman said he believed Purchase and Schuering were behind the challenge. Purchase also denied any involvement in the challenge of Pitts’ signatures.

“There are rules we have to follow,” she said. The former high school and college sprinter said Pitts’ removal from the ballot won’t change the way she campaigns. “I will stay focused in my lane,” she said.

In Ward 7, candidate Brad Carlson, a Republican, said it was “unfortunate for someone to challenge” Davis’ signatures. “She would have brought a good perspective to the debate,” Carlson said.

Ward 7’s other candidate, John Houlihan, a member of the Illinois Senate Democratic staff and son of Sangamon County Democratic Chairman Bill Houlihan, said he wasn’t behind the challenge to Davis’ signatures and said, “Everyone has to abide by the same rules.”

One candidate – Dan Pittman in Ward 6 – withdrew his candidacy on Dec. 20. He was facing Alyssa Haaker and Jennifer Notariano in the race to replace incumbent alderwoman Kristin DiCenso, who decided not to seek reelection.

Pittman, a Democrat who lost to Republican Joe Aiello in the November 2022 race for Sangamon County treasurer, said he resigned from the Springfield ward race after fellow Democrats asked him to withdraw and make it more likely for another Democrat, Notariano, to be elected.

“I want to be a team player,” Pittman said. “If the outcome for the ward is better with me out of the race, it’s a small sacrifice I could make.”

About The Author

Dean Olsen

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer for Illinois Times. He can be reached at:
[email protected], 217-679-7810 or @DeanOlsenIT.

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