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Thursday, March 28, 2019 12:08 am

A crowded field

Four candidates vie for Ward 2 seat

Shawn Gregory, Gail Simpson, Tom Shafer, Herman Senor


Among myriad issues, aldermanic candidates in Ward 2 face a common issue in the April 2 election: voter apathy.

Four years ago, Ward 2 had the lowest turnout of any ward, with 20 percent of registered voters casting ballots and more than 400 of the 1,828 voters who did go to the polls not expressing a choice in the aldermanic race that Herman Senor won handily.

Even as Ward 2 voters stay home, they face some of the biggest  challenges in the city, including poverty, crumbling infrastructure and a lack of commercial development that could provide jobs.

Why do so many Ward 2 voters skip municipal elections?

“I attribute that to people who don’t see change,” answers Gail Simpson, a retired state worker who is seeking her old seat after serving two terms as Ward 2 alderman before running for mayor four years ago and capturing less than 5 percent of the vote in the primary. “When people don’t see change, they get frustrated, they say ‘Why should I vote?’”

Simpson didn’t do well as a mayoral candidate, but she’s enjoyed success in Ward 2, where she won a seat on the city council by a comfortable margin in 2007 and ran unopposed four years later. She’s been endorsed by Inner City Older Neighborhoods, a coalition of neighborhood groups, but otherwise has struggled to get endorsements. She’s a Democrat in a race that is officially nonpartisan, but hasn’t won party support this time around. Instead, Democrats have endorsed Shawn Gregory, a political newcomer who counts as a mentor Frank McNeil, a three-term alderman who is his adoptive uncle. Like Simpson, Gregory, who works for Green Family Stores and has won support from organized labor, says that voter apathy is a symptom of lost hope. “The thought is, ‘Why vote – don’t waste your time,’” he says. He says his chances improve with every voter who goes to the polls, and he predicts he’ll win if turnout is higher than in past years.

Gregory says he’s the candidate who can produce change, and he criticizes Senor and Simpson for not changing anything for constituents during their years on the city council.

Simpson says that experience and knowledge count, and she has both. “Frustrations don’t get jobs done,” she says. “My feeling is, as alderman for Ward 2, I am uniquely positioned to know what’s best. I know my constituent base. I know what they want, what they need.” During her prior tenure on the council, Simpson gained a reputation for saying “no” to new liquor licenses and convenience stores, but she also pushed to allow Magro’s Meat and Produce, a grocery store and meat processing company, to move into the ward. She also sponsored a successful measure to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Senor, a Republican who works for the Illinois Department of Transportation, says that the ward, and the city as a whole, have seen progress during the past four years. Railroad relocation work has improved access between the east and west sides of town via rail overpasses on the 11th Street rail corridor, he said. The Salvation Army’s move to the Gold’s Gym building on Clear Lake Avenue with financial help from the city has proven a good thing, he said, although communication about the city’s intentions and goals could have been better early in the process, when the move, pushed by Mayor Jim Langfelder, surprised many and sparked opposition from neighbors, who were worried about a planned homeless shelter that never came to fruition.

All three candidates say they support legalization of recreational marijuana. Gregory stands alone in opposition to Hunter Lake, a proposed backup water supply for the city. Gregory and Simpson agree that the city needs to do more to fight poverty and provide employment for ward residents. Senor, however, says that folks need to work for what they want.

“There are opportunities out there, but people have to be motivated from within,” the alderman said at a recent candidate forum sponsored by the State Journal-Register.  “No job is going to come to your door and come knock on your door. You just have to get out and motivate yourself to get better.”

Gregory said no one wants a handout, but the deck often is stacked. “A lot of times, they know who they’re going to hire before you even get there,” he said. Simpson says Senor “absolutely does not have a point.” Minorities, she said, aren’t given sufficient consideration in city hiring.

Tom Shafer, who’s run for Sangamon County Board, county coroner, Springfield School District 186 board and Lincoln Land Community College board of trustees, also is running for the Ward 2 seat. He did not respond to an interview request and indicated at the State Journal-Register candidate forum that he did not wish to speak with Illinois Times.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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