Mr. Smith topples Mayor Bob

by Mike Kroll

After two terms as Galesburg mayor Bob Sheehan was defeated by political newcomer Gary Smith by 821 votes or roughly 20 percent. Smith, president and CEO of NAEIR, ran a unabashedly single issue campaign, "jobs are my number one priority," at a time when this community is reeling from the closure of major local employers Maytag and Butler. Jobs are undoubtedly a major concern for most citizens as is the future of the local economy and Smith told everyone who would listen that he would dedicate himself to bringing jobs back to Galesburg while Sheehan's low-key campaign had no single overriding theme.

Heading into Tuesday's election it was becoming clear that Sheehan was in trouble after easily winning reelection four years ago in a three-way race. An unassuming, approachable and universally acknowledged "nice guy" who himself defeated a two-term incumbent eight years ago; Sheehan paid the price for offering more compassion than hope to the voters.

"I ran to open up Galesburg government to more citizens and to make it easier and more attractive for people to get involved or volunteer to serve on local boards and commissions," explained Sheehan Tuesday night. "I am proud of what we have accomplished in the last eight years. For the most part I feel city council meetings went well and we maintained plenty of healthy discussion and offered just about anyone the opportunity to address the council on an issue of interest. I have been faulted by some for permitting too much discussion and involvement but a major reason I was first elected was because opposing viewpoints weren't being represented in council meetings. I feel we were responsive to citizen problems but we just couldn't fix them all."

Smith celebrated his victory amongst a large crowd at Legends Cafe Tuesday night. Although all but one municipal candidate supported the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association (GREDA) during the campaign, including Sheehan, it was clear that Smith was GREDA's mayoral candidate. Most of the GREDA activists and many Galesburg business leaders were celebrating with Smith. While I interviewed Smith GREDA president Eric Voyles interrupted to introduce "the new mayor" to a Chinese businessman visiting Galesburg as a guest of Vern Stisser and GREDA.

"The first thing I want to do is assess who I need to talk with to learn about the city," said Smith. "I expect to sit down individually with each of the aldermen, including both Tony [Gerk] and Lomac [Payton], the city manager and Bob [Sheehan] as soon as possible. I also want to meet with other city officials and employees and concerned citizens. I want to meet with as many people as possible so I can learn quickly-- there's a lot I need to learn quickly to succeed at this new job. Throughout this campaign I have made a point of soliciting advice from anyone including those who disagree with me. I have learned much more from discussions with those of competing views than from those who always see eye-to-eye with me. I will continue to be a very open mayor."

Smith ran a one-note campaign and never deviated from his message, he sees his commitment to the voters as working to bring jobs to Galesburg. But he also acknowledged that in the past there has been insufficient accountability for economic development. "Not only do I want to be accountable for bringing jobs to Galesburg I want the citizens to be better informed throughout the process of what is being done. I will share not only what I am doing but how and why I'm doing it so the voters can determine for themselves if I have lived up to my promise. At the end of my four-year term I would hope that we can replace all of the jobs that were lost, but that may be too ambitious a goal. At the very least we need to show that this city is moving in the right direction."

While he promises to make lots of calls on potential new businesses and to meet with every prospect where his involvement might make a difference Smith wants to take his businessman's perspective to the role of mayor and is confident that he can lead the city council toward addressing many other issues. One difference between Smith and Sheehan is that while the latter liked to keep everything on an even keel minimizing dissent the former says he isn't afraid to challenge the status quo. "I'm a loner who doesn't have a lot to lose by pushing for more accountability. I am big on accountability in my business and expect to do the same as mayor, even if it ruffles some feathers or worse. I want to get the job done and will work to change things that aren't succeeding. I like to ask pointed questions and expect the council to do so as well and I expect direct truthful answers."

One local organization that should be concerned about how closely Smith lives up to that promise is GREDA. The economic development group has long avoided any accountability by insisting that total secrecy was essential. The existing quarterly reports by Voyles have been devoid of any real data on the number or kinds of leads GREDA has pursued nor has GREDA been held accountable for its total lack of success to this point. Smith's focus and commitment to jobs could well be a double-edged sword for GREDA. They undoubtedly expect him to provide them with even more economic development funds than currently but they must also recognize that Smith now has a personal stake in GREDA finally delivering a real success.

The only other newcomer to the Galesburg city council is Lomac Payton who easily defeated Doug Wall for the Fourth Ward aldermanic seat. Incumbent alderman Tony Gerk was very popular in this ward and when he announced that he would not seek reelection he also through his support behind Wall. This was critical because, as one election night observer pointed out, what support Wall garnered had much more to do with loyalty to Gerk than Wall's appeal to the voters. Payton 212-78 victory makes him a new wildcard for the city council. As a 30-year veteran of Knox County politics Payton has never been shy to speak his mind and recognizes that there are a lot more issues than just jobs that the council needs to address.

"I'm really excited about the chance to serve on the city council. I am sure that with my experience and leadership skills I will do a good job. Just from my campaigning is seems that many of the streets and sidewalks in this ward have been neglected. There are also streets without enough streetlights or with many lights not working. These issues fit with my plan to work to cleanup the ward and fight drugs too." Payton has already made clear that another one of his goals is to address the multitude of empty buildings that now sit in his ward.

Incumbent aldermen from the second and sixth wards easily won reelection. Bill Kendall of the second ward was unopposed for his second term but quipped that he "campaigned his ass off nonetheless." Wayne Allen was also seeking his second term in the sixth ward as he easily defeated challenger Deborah Dalton (519-247) and openly supported the election of Smith. "The next four years are going to be challenging years and we need to get down to business," said Allen. "Jobs are only one of many issues facing Galesburg, but they are the most important. I will work hard to bring jobs back to Galesburg. I will also devote myself toward making this a more attractive and clean community."