Three more candidates have surfaced in the race for Oak Park trustee, bringing the total to 11 for three open seats on the April 2 ballot and making it one of the most hotly contested trustee elections in recent memory.
Another twist in recent additional crop of candidates is the introduction of Oak Park’s first candidate running as a Democrat in decades, breaking the custom of Oak Park trustee candidates running as non-partisan or independent to keep partisan politics out of the village.
The three final candidates include: James Thompson, a University of Illinois Chicago associate professor of public administration; Thomas Gary, a former member of the Triton College Board of Trustees; and Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who has established a group of women of color to run in local elections next year.
They will face eight other candidates vying for the three at-large board seats, two of which are being vacated by trustees Bob Tucker and Andrea Button. Trustee James Taglia is the only incumbent running.
They also face three candidates backed by the new political organization VOICE of Oak Park: VOICE founder Joshua Klayman; Tim Thomas, global production assistance coordinator for Ford Motor Company; and local business owner Christian Harris, who also serves on the Oak Park library board.
Another four are running as independents – Susan Buchanan, a physician and faculty member at the University of Illinois School of Public Health; Bridgett Baron, payroll accountant in the motion picture and television industry; former District 97 board member Graham Brisben, who owns a transportation and logistics consulting business; and Cory Wesley, who owns a software consulting firm.
The candidate hopefuls are busy gathering signatures for nominating petitions that equal 5 percent of the number of voters from the previous municipal election.
A total of 12,541 ballots were cast in the 5-way trustee race in 2017, where newcomers Simone Boutet, Dan Moroney and Deno Andrews ousted two incumbents and captured a third open seat. That means candidates this time around must gather 627 signatures from Oak Park voters in order to get on the ballot.
That’s more than double the 251 signatures needed in the 2017 election, but that is the benchmark for signatures for candidates running as non-partisan or independent.
The standard is different for those who run under the mantle of an established political party such as Republican or Democrat. Those candidates gather signatures for the primary election on February 26, while nonpartisan or independent candidates gather signatures to be included in the general election scheduled for April 2.
The signature requirement is practically nonexistent for trustee candidates running in a primary as a member of an established political party.
Those candidates must gather “0.5 percent of the total number of votes cast for the candidate of such political party who received the highest number of votes in the entire municipality at the last regular election which an officer was regularly scheduled to be elected from the entire municipality, divided by the number of wards or districts, but in any event not less than 25 qualified primary electors of his party in the ward or district,” according to state statute.
Thomas Gary is the only candidate who filed as a Democrat or under any established party. He turned in 30 signatures, five more than he needed to get his name on the ballot.
Gary, who works in the Illinois Treasurer’s Office, said he’s worked on economic development most of his civilian career. He serves as a co-chair of the Austin Coming Together, a network of nonprofits, churches, businesses, and others working to improve the quality of life in the Austin neighborhood.
He said the petition requirement is so different for partisan versus nonpartisan candidates to require “anybody running independently of those two parties to show a broader base of support.”
Gary said he understands the importance of wanting local government to not be partisan like state and national government, but he believes ballot access laws aim to ensure that the two-party system maintains control over who has access to the political marketplace.
“I think we’re better served with more voices and more contestation, rather than less,” he said. Gary asserts that the current system of nonpartisan candidates has allowed candidates to run as progressives but then fail to vote that way once they’ve taken office.
“I’m not going to tell you I’m a progressive but vote in ways that don’t reflect that,” he said.
Gary served six years on the Triton College Board of Trustees, but resigned from the position after being called away to active duty while serving in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2013.
Walker-Peddakotla said she’s running for the board to bring greater racial equity to the village. She created a group of women of color called Oak Park for Racial Equity with the goal of running women-of-color candidates on the school boards, library board, park board and village board of trustees.
“It’s not enough to push for racial equity, but we need to get on the board,” she said, noting that she has recruited candidates.
Walker-Peddakotla said she’s not a typical political candidate and would use racial equity as a framework for every decision she makes as a trustee. “What that framework does is ask how does that decision impact the most disenfranchised member of any community, and what is the impact and how do we avoid the impact; if there is any way to avoid it, what is the cost to avoiding it,” she said.
The current board is right of center, said Walker-Peddakotla, who describes herself as an activist by nature.
She said the signature-gathering process creates a barrier to accessing the ballot, and she will work to help get others in her group elected if she is unable to gather the requisite signatures.
Two of the biggest concerns on the minds of Oak Parkers Thompson has heard about while gathering signatures is the rising tax burden and the prevalence of high-rise buildings being erected in and around downtown Oak Park.
Thompson, who has served the last two years on the Oak Park Transportation Committee, said he plans to campaign on the idea of establishing a two-year moratorium on approving more high-rise buildings, giving developers time to complete the existing buildings and residents time to have a thoughtful conversation about the topic.
“I think we need some community dialogue on that issue,” he said. “I think people want to pause and say, ‘Where are we going with all of this?'”
He said blocking high-rise buildings doesn’t mean development will halt in the village. Smaller buildings, such as District House condominiums, 702 Lake St., and The Residence at Maple Place, 1133 Chicago Ave., have come in under eight stories and brought economic development to the village, he said.
Thompson said runaway taxes were front and center on people’s minds as he’s spoken with Oak Parkers. “I think the village is going to have to scrutinize their budget even more than they have, and they have to be more aggressive about finding new revenue,” he said.