Tensions around racial inequality in Springfield flared at a candidate forum Wednesday night.
The candidates competing to represent some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods were asked at an event hosted by the State Journal-Register and 94.7 & 970 WMAY to react to an investigation into racial segregation in central Illinois.
Governing Magazine found that income inequality between white and African-American households was greater in Springfield than anywhere else in the country.
The candidates offered different explanations for why that is, and what city officials could do about it. Many suggested more and better jobs or economic development as solutions.
But John Thomas, candidate for Ward 4, questioned the findings.
“The minorities, the ones that I knew, I went to school with have been very successful,” he said. “And actually… minorities do have a chance to get in line a little bit before the Caucasians anymore.”
He didn't offer specific examples, and said he believed the problem was with parents. “I’m sorry to say, [in] the East Side… these kids are watching their parents do these crimes, and they think it's an easy way to do money. I think they need to kind of have a role model.”
Lakeisha Purchase, who is running for the Ward 5 seat, called the comments “disturbing” and “disrespectful.”
“It’s not just about the East Side. It is a dismantling systematic racism problem,” she said. “It's an uncomfortable conversation we're having, and you have to have uncomfortable conversations to have solutions.”
Purchase, who is a Capital Township trustee, said she wants to offer solutions. A newcomer to the race, she’s taking on Ald. Andrew Proctor and former alderman Sam Cahnman. In 2015, Proctor defeated Cahnman, an attorney who has had to answer for a series of controversies over the years, on issues as varied as his ethics as an attorney and allegations of sexual misconduct.
Cahnman called the magazine’s findings “shocking” and said more jobs could help. He suggested giving breaks on utility rates to new businesses to attract them to Springfield, an idea Mayor Jim Langfelder has put forth as well.
Proctor offered a different approach. He said the state of Illinois needs to improve the application process to make it easier for people to apply for those jobs. He also touted a mentoring program he helped sponsor.
Meanwhile, both candidates for Ward 6 — Ald. Kristin DiCenso and challenger Elizabeth Jones— said inequality is a long-standing problem in the city.
“We need opportunities given to people. It's not just a job, they need a career, they need a path,” said DiCenso, who won the seat in 2016 to finish Cory Jobe’s term.
Back in Ward 4, Thomas is one of three challengers to Ald. John Fulgenzi, who has been on the council for four years. Angel Sides, an activist who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2018, and Bill Eddington, a write-in candidate, round out that race.
Sides said affordable housing could address inequality, and suggested citywide broadband initiative to attract businesses, while Eddington suggested a special tax fund to address inequality.
Fulgenzi, meanwhile, touted recent city efforts to hire minority candidates for the police and fire departments.
“In my business, we're always looking for people,” said Fulgenzi, who owns Fulgenzi’s Pizza and Pasta on Sangamon Avenue. “And we'll take them (whether) they're black, white, or purple. We just need people who work.”
Crime in Springfield
Moderators also asked candidates how bad they think crime is in the city, and how to address it.
This question comes as mayoral candidate Frank Edwards has made reducing crime, which he says is out of control, a theme of his campaign.
Most candidates agreed major crime or violence is not a big problem, though they acknowledged there have been more car break-ins and theft.
“It's mostly just kind of disruption with kids going through cars just like kids usually do,” Eddington said.
Thomas said the problem in the Twin Lakes subdivision, where he heads the neighborhood group, is that people leave cars unlocked. He said he wanted to expand neighborhood watch program.
Fulgenzi said he has talked to the neighborhood police officer assigned to the North End about people leaving cars unlocked. He said the ward already has good neighborhood watch programs in place.
Sides said the city needs to address the opioid epidemic, which she said leads to crime, and she’d like to see more police patrols in the North End. She said she’s seen some reports of crime on the neighborhood app Nextdoor.
DiCenso, in ward 6, said she’s active on the site and other social media platforms, facilitating neighborhood watch programs.
“Neighborhood police officers are a huge part of successful elimination of crime in our neighborhoods. If it were up to me, we would double that program,” she said. “And the neighborhood police officer program would be by Ward.”
Jones, on the other hand, said there were pockets of crime throughout Springfield, correlated to impoverished places. She wanted to refocus on economic development to address the problem.
“What we need to do is look further and deeper and how we can help this epidemic, this crime. We need to bring good jobs, jobs that pay more than poverty wages,” she said. She suggested incentives for small businesses to hire young people.
In Ward 5, which covers much of downtown, Cahnman also said he’d like to see more neighborhood policing. Legalizing recreational marijuana on the state level could also help, he said.
“[That] would free up the police to have more time to go after the serious crimes, the violent crimes,” he said.
Proctor said crime is a problem for the ward. He said as city council members, they can address crime in two ways: Ensure the police department is properly funded, and give information the police on suspicious activity throughout the ward. He said he’s done both.
Purchase said she’s been handing out signs that say “We Call Police” for people to hang in their windows while she’s been going door-to-door.
“It takes each of us to be vigilant and communicate with the police officers,” she said.
Springfield voters will choose their city council members, mayor and other local officers on April 2. The last candidate forum is Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the State Journal Register building, featuring candidates for wards 7, 8 and 10.