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Same City, Different Visions: Springfield Mayoral Candidates Square Off In First Public Meeting

Mayor Jim Langfelder is facing challenger Frank Edwards in Springfield city elections this spring. The candidates met on Friday in the campaign’s first forum.

At the Citizens Club of Springfield, Langfelder highlighted what he believes are his successes: overhauling infrastructure, creating more transparency in city council, and what he says are millions of dollars in economic development activity.

“As we have done since 2015, we will continue the momentum by building on our community strengths and work together so all of Springfield will be improved and our community thrives together," he told the crowd gathered at Springfield's Hoogland Center for the Arts.

Langfelder was the city’s treasurer for three terms before that. His family name is well known: his father Ossie was mayor between 1987 and 1995 and his brother, Josh, is the Sangamon County Recorder of Deeds. He’s cast himself as a capable leader who brought the city back from a financial abyss.

Langfelder’s challenger - Frank Edwards - is no stranger to Springfield city government either. A former alderman and fire chief, Edwards touts himself as a no-nonsense problem solver ready to turn the city away from the wrong direction he says it’s headed in.

“The city on our part has to get crime under control, has to get our utility rates down, has to get infrastructure moving so that economic development has something to sell,” he argued.

Edwards presents a formidable challenge - he’s gotten backing from labor groups and another former mayor - Karen Hasara.

Hasara announced her support for Edwards in a full-page ad in the State Journal-Register, calling out his leadership and experience. She also said he’s not “warm and fuzzy” - an apparent dig at the always chipper Langfelder.

And Edwards wears it like a badge of honor.

“You can be warm and fuzzy," Edwards said, referring to Langfelder. "I get that. People are looking for leadership. They’re looking for encouragement, they’re looking for the vision, and I think just ‘cuz I don’t smile is not something to hold against me.”

Overall, Langfelder told the forum crowd his administration has improved everything from the police force to public parks. The laundry list of accomplishments, he says, will grow only longer if he’s given another term.

Edwards, on the other hand, says residents are fleeing the city by the thousands. He says job opportunities and property values have plummeted and crime is on the rise. Like any political challenger, he’s cast Langfelder as the wrong man for the job.

But both candidates emphasized economic development as key to Springfield’s success, and that future development should be focused in Springfield’s downtown. Naturally, they offered different paths to get there.

Langfelder’s administration argued for a park on the long-discussed Y-block, a move supported by former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner. Though that’s landed him in some hot water with labor groups, he’s still a firm believer.

“I didn’t like it originally, but it did offer us the opportunity for development on that block, that’s how I had it structured," he said of the park. "That’s the real key for development; you have to bring the numbers downtown with regards to that.”

Edwards says the city’s current problems make marketing Springfield to developers and homeowners a tough job.

Langfelder says he understands economic development as a former banker, but admits has been a bit lacking recently.

“We haven’t done an efficient job in telling our story, and that’s what we need to do when we’re out visiting," he said. "You [the citizens] should always have passion for your city like I do and promote Springfield with regard to tourism and economic development because business is all about personal relationship. If they trust you, they will relocate or build here.”

State Senator Andy Manar recently filed a proposal to put $50 million dollars from Illinois’ next capital program toward a new university building in downtown Springfield. Edwards likes that idea, but says the money could go into a private trust instead.

“You’re not gonna generate the tax dollars because it’s gonna be owned by a university," he suggested. "I’d like to see this with a private partnership university development so we can recapture some of the taxes for downtown.”

Edwards painted a dire situation when it came to crime. He pointed to some statistics that rate Springfield as dangerous, saying residents in crime-prone areas can't wait for that problem to solve itself.

“Those people are in crisis today.," he said. "They’re not worried at roads at Poplar Street. They’re worried about, ‘can I survive through the day?’

Langfelder pushed back on that characterization, citing a good relationship between residents and the city’s police department.

“When people call for help, they call our police officers because they trust them, and we have our full faith and confidence," he assured voters. "We’ll do everything in our power to give them the technology they need and the support that they need so that they can respond appropriately and effectively for our citizenry.”

The candidates diverge on another perennial issue in Springfield - Hunter Lake. Langfelder revived the proposal for a secondary water source - another man-made lake - by restarting the federal permitting process. And he stands by the move - mentioning that he’s sought help from Congressman Rodney Davis on the permit.

Edwards on the other hand says it’s a pipe dream.

“It’s time we closed that fantasy down and move on. We’ve spent a lot of money [on Hunter Lake]. I was 16 years old when we started that project. Today I’m 68, and we still haven’t finalized all the property.”

At the end of their first public meeting, the two candidates offered voters the arguments they’ll be hammering from now until Election Day.

Langfelder as the self-described reigning champion of progress:

“Do we go back to the same old Springfield, or continue the progress we have made together to a better tomorrow for all of us?”

And Edwards as the no-nonsense go-getter:

“Our city’s facing some challenges. We can blame others, pretend they don’t exist, or we can face these challenges with skilled leadership and determination to overcome them.”

Springfield’s municipal election is April 2nd.

Sam is a Public Affairs Reporting intern for spring 2018, working out the NPR Illinois Statehouse bureau.
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