Almost all of Strom’s sentences begin with a pause. When it comes to his public relationship with Davlin, Strom is the least combative of the five Republicans on the council, seldom letting his voice climb or even becoming visibly agitated. Strom is at his most animated — and appears most comfortable, not to mention confident — when he speaks of Lois, his wife of 42 years, and, albeit reluctantly at first, about the effort he led last year to make Springfield a smoke-free city. Strom is challenging Davlin in the Springfield mayor’s race, to be decided in April — but the challenger faces formidable obstacles.
The biggest: Davlin’s campaign fund is at least seven times larger than Strom’s, according to the most recent information provided by the state elections board (Strom has said that Davlin’s financial advantage is 10-to-1). Aside from funding, Davlin has the organization and the endorsement of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, and he belongs to the same party as Gov. Rod Blagojevich and every other state constitutional officer-holder. The 64-year-old Strom has the support of Republican leaders in Sangamon County, where Republicans control all but four seats on the County Board, but he has yet to lock down any major endorsements and is without other necessary campaign accoutrements: headquarters, Web site, or paid staff. But Davlin, 49, has made his share of missteps during his term — and Strom is banking on the fact that Springfield’s citizens are ready for a change. The contrast between the two men involves more than personality and party affiliation. Although they seem to share a common vision for a better Springfield, the two have very different political values and modi operandi. Whereas Strom holds his cards close to the vest, Davlin — whose party also holds a majority on the council — has a reputation among critics for playing fast and loose. Coming on the heels of last year’s brutal gubernatorial campaign, the city election is likely to have a low turnout, in the range of 30 to 40 percent, says Kent Redfield, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. That, Redfield says, works to the advantage of incumbency or party organization. “You’ve got a situation where the Sangamon County Republicans aren’t as strong as they once were, although they’re certainly better organized than the local Democratic Party,” Redfield says. As well liked and well financed as Davlin is, his opponent will have to do something to excite people, to catch people’s attention, Redfield says. “Right now, you have to say [Davlin] is in pretty good shape.”
It came as a surprise to few when Strom, who can’t seek another term on the City Council because of term limits, began circulating petitions in December. On Jan. 25, he formally announced his candidacy with a press conference at City Hall. Save for Ward 5 Ald. Joe Bartolomucci, who made the introduction, no Republican officeholders were present when Strom kicked off his campaign. Sangamon County Circuit Clerk Tony Libri, chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Party, says he couldn’t make it to the announcement but that he is behind Strom. “I think he has a better grasp of the issues — but people are going to say I’m one-sided because I’m backing him up as opposed to the mayor,” Libri says. “We very much need to feel good about our government, and right now we don’t feel good about it.”
Libri, who lost to Davlin four years ago, concedes that the mayor is affable and charismatic but says that Strom is just as likable. “Let’s just say this: He’s more of a thinker than a personality — and right now I think we need somebody with brains and honesty more than we need somebody who’s a glad-hander. Glad-handing got us into this mess that we’re in now,” Libri says. The “mess” to which Libri refers includes ongoing litigation and controversy surrounding the Springfield Police Department, tax and electric-rate increases, and a still-controversial agreement between the city and Sierra Club to implement more stringent environmental controls on the new 200-megawatt power plant. Davlin, in an interview, says that the handling of negotiations between the Sierra Club and City Water, Light & Power was his biggest mistake during his first term as mayor but also says that he has no regrets. “There’s nothing to apologize for,” he says. “Even after that, we still debated it for six months before we voted on it. But that was a decision that was made by the management, and ultimately it stops here.”
Detractors also criticize Davlin for reneging on a pledge, made during his first campaign, not to raise taxes. To balance the budget in 2004, the City Council approved, at Davlin’s request, a temporary half-percentage-point increase in the sales-tax rate. The provision was to expire after two years, but Davlin persuaded the aldermen to make the increase permanent, adding about $8 million to the city’s coffers. This time, the mayor isn’t pledging not to raise taxes: “If 75 tornadoes come through here, what? What are we gonna do? That’s my question.”
Davlin boasts that the city is in the best financial shape it’s been in years. As proof he points to the latest budget he’s submitted, now under review by the City Council, which contains several items long clamored for by the aldermen, including a $1.2 million street-overlay program, 40 new police cruisers, four new fire trucks, and beefy salary increases for several members of his staff. Some question Davlin’s timing, however. “I think it’s awful funny that you’re doing it at election time,” says Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards, a Republican. As for how the city handled a lawsuit by African-American police officers against the city, a case that recently ended in a mistrial, Davlin says, he can’t talk. “What would you like me to comment on,” he asks, “to say we’re right, they’re wrong? Something somebody in a black robe told us, ‘You don’t talk about negotiations,’ so to me you just wait and see how it plays it out. Those are all pending lawsuits, and right now somebody in a black robe is telling us what we can and can’t say. “Besides that, anything I did say could come back and harm the city — so I’m just gonna keep my mouth closed and not cost anybody any money.”
Because of the secrecy under which Davlin’s administration sometimes operates, Strom is making openness and accessibility key issues in his campaign. “We see too many examples of when the current administration is not being open, is doing things behind closed doors, is not sharing information with the public or the aldermen to help them with the issues that they have interest in,” Strom says. He points to the agreement reached with the Sierra Club, with which city officials negotiated in secret for five months to reduce air pollution from the coal-fired power plant. “Regardless of the merits of the ultimate agreement, the responsibility of the aldermen is to make a good judgment, and I don’t think the mayor and his staff allowed us the opportunity to exercise the judgment that we’re supposed to be exercising on behalf of the public,” Strom says. “The aldermen have a great enough responsibility to the public that they should have been given more notice; they should have been given more information so that they could make the assessment that was needed.”
Asked whether he’d push to change any part of the deal, Strom says, “The part that’s missing in your question is, we’ve never been given the information to make that judgment.”
Despite his opposition to Davlin’s sales-tax increase, though, Strom won’t say whether he would repeal the hike. “I’m not going to address that question that directly. I was opposed to the sales tax when it was going to be temporary. I objected to it because most organizations get accustomed to having a certain amount of money available — they’ll find a way to spend to it, particularly governmental agencies — they tend to do this,” Strom says. “If they have enough money, they find a way to spend it, and there’s never any going back, so to speak, so I was concerned with the temporary nature of it — it was two years, a 24-month cycle. It wasn’t very long after that [that] the mayor and others were proposing to make it permanent, and I was opposed to that.”
Strom also says that the police department “will continue to be an issue” in terms of its need to increase racial diversity and how it addresses the controversy raised by the conduct of two former detectives, Jim Graham and Paul Carpenter. A 2,300-page report by the Illinois State Police that reviews the conduct of the two detectives is still being reviewed by SPD Chief Don Kliment, but Strom says he wants the report made available to the City Council and the public. “It tells us, I suspect, what’s going on in the police department and makes recommendations on what improvements can be made. I think the police department, in the absence of significant change, will continue to be a problem until we understand what’s going on in the department and what can be done to make it better,” he says. Strom feels that there may be unnecessary expenditures, possibly reflecting a lack of accessibility. Although he believes that having a mayoral assistant is “probably reasonable” and he’s still weighing the value of the city’s educational liaison, a position held now by Sheila Stocks-Smith, he says that the city probably doesn’t need a communications director.
Instead, he says, the mayor should make himself available to the media and citizens and not answer questions through a spokesman. “Too often you don’t get the right answers, or you don’t get answers that are consistent with what you find out about later,” Strom says. “In other words, the spokesman says one thing and then there’s a public reaction to it and then the mayor or some other spokesman says something else . . . so I really think that to have a sort of public-relations spokesperson speaking on behalf of the mayor is probably not appropriate.”
Where the campaign will mostly be fought, and ultimately decided, is in Springfield’s neighborhoods, many of whose residents, regardless of neighborhood, share concerns over garbage collection, fly-dumping, branch and lawn-waste pickup, and improvements to the city’s thoroughfares. “You could draw a line down Fifth Street, and, everything to the east of it, this city has forgotten about it,” says Polly Poskin, president of the Harvard Park Neighborhood Association. She wants candidates to address the implementation of a comprehensive waste-management system. Such a system would include mandatory garbage service, for which property owners would be held responsible, as well as central billing for garbage service, the elimination of lawn-clipping stickers, and a more efficient schedule for limb and yard-waste collection.
Strom says he shares her concerns but isn’t ready to talk details: “Having served on the council for 12 years, I know that from time to time people are concerned about branch pickup, people are concerned about trash pickup, people are concerned about whether their neighbors or nearby property owners are taking care of their property and cutting their grass and all sorts of things like that. “Those are ongoing types of issues. I’m not here to start drilling down into those details today, but what we need to do is make sure that the services that are being provided, are being provided as effectively as they can be.”
Davlin says that he and Ward 6 Ald. Mahoney are working on a plan that, he thinks, will end much of the trash talk: “I think you’re going to see baby steps. One of the things that’s on the drawing board right now . . . is to put the mandate on the property owner and not the person living in the home. “Right now, the ambiguity is, we’re not sure if it’s the owner of that home or the person that’s there, so we’re going to take that ambiguity away and say it’s going to go to that landowner.”
In Bunn Park, near Poskin’s neighborhood, neighborhood-association president Jamie Adaire says that the city needs to step up efforts to demolish abandoned homes and find a way to fund the installation of more sidewalks. Currently the city has a program that splits the cost of building sidewalks with property owners, but Adaire says that elderly people of limited means can’t even afford to pay half. “Make the city more pedestrian-friendly,” Adaire says. “I mean, how can a neighborhood be viable if people can’t get around? I can’t get to know my neighbors if I can’t get out in the streets.”
West-side neighborhoods, currently represented on the council by Strom, have their problems, too. Mike Landess, president of the White Oaks Homeowners Association, says he wants the candidates to address the need to stick to the city’s long-term plan for development. He says that westward expansion and development is occurring too rapidly and that developers too often get their way with the aldermen. Recently Landess’ group fought unsuccessfully to halt the construction of a shopping center at Koke Mill Road and Iles Avenue. Strom and Ward 7 Ald. Judy Yeager sided with the homeowners. Strom is also opposed to granting a zoning variance for a Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed for Wabash Avenue. Davlin doesn’t think the Wal-Mart request will ever come up for a vote. Strom has proposed opening satellite offices in various neighborhoods and holding regular office hours. Davlin calls that idea a waste of taxpayer money that could be better spent on a sidewalk program.
If there’s one issue that has distinguished Strom during his career on the council, it’s his involvement with the Smoke Free Springfield campaign and his leadership in enacting the comprehensive ban on indoor smoking in the city. He’s now lobbying the Legislature to pass a statewide ban, acknowledging that the next council could face an effort to alter the ban or get rid of it altogether. Though he counts the city ban among his legislative victories, he doesn’t want to be known simply as the smoking-ban guy. Other achievements during his tenure as an alderman include passing an ordinance to cap the amount of cash the city can use from the fund set aside expressly for CWLP. Other points of pride for Strom: Under Davlin’s predecessor, Mayor Karen Hasara, he was appointed to head a task force on waste management, during which time the city’s collection program for bulky items was implemented. As a co-founder of the Council of Neighborhood Associations and president of the Downtown Springfield Rotary Club and with his work in several local charities, Strom believes that he has a better understanding of Springfield’s neighborhood associations and the types of issues they face. Davlin, meanwhile, says that he wants his record to speak for itself. “Schoolkids will ask me, ‘When you’re done, what do you want Springfield to be, what do you want people to remember you for?’ ” he says “I’d like to think Springfield is cleaner and greener than the way I found it four years ago, and, boy, I hope it’s cleaner and greener than it is now. “Sometimes you have to look at the past and say take a look at what happened in times of controversy, in times of tornadoes, and times of storms and all. I stand on my track record.”
Contact R.L. Nave at email@example.com