At-large City Council member Rita Ali is looking to become Peoria's first woman and first person of color to serve as mayor.
Ali is running against fellow council member Jim Montelongo in the April 6 general election. She led the way with 38% of the vote in last month’s five-way primary. Four-term Mayor Jim Ardis chose not to run again.
Both Ali and Montelongo recently spoke with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon; our conversation with Montelongo comes tomorrow. In her interview, Ali explains why she feels she is the most qualified candidate for the job.
Joe Deacon: Why are you the best and most qualified candidate to become the next mayor of Peoria?
Rita Ali: Peoria has been my home for most of my life. We moved here when I was 6 years old, and it was in Peoria where I began to take a leadership role in my community, initially as a teenager when I was in high school, being involved not just at the school but in the community, getting involved on Peoria commissions. I was the first youth to serve on the Peoria Police Community Relations Commission as a 14-year-old. At the same time, I served as the only youth on the Community Action Agency Board.
I really grew up in Peoria in various leadership roles that I began to assume. I served on numerous commissions: the Human Resources Commission, the overall Economic Development Commission. I have served on the boards of very many community based organizations here, and really have been a part of Peoria’s fabric for so many years. I'm familiar with all the culture of the various five city districts; I have lived in all of the city’s districts. I have been, I would say, a good volunteer for many, many years. So I'm very familiar with the operations (and) the people, very familiar with the people.
I've ran a number of workforce initiatives and programs, education initiatives, throughout the city, over my adult life. I've worked at some very important institutions, and over the past 17 years I've worked for the largest workforce development organization in central Illinois, and that's the community college, Illinois Central College, I've been the Vice President of Workforce and Diversity, having been there for almost 17 years now and it's been a great part of my life, a great contributor to the community in terms of really changing people's lives for the better.
So, I feel like I'm the best candidate because I have led large-scale organizations, both government and private sector organizations. I've been very successful in the work, very successful in terms of bringing not just new opportunities but new funding to our area. That's one of the talents that I have and one of the talents that I want to use is to build our capacity as a city to leverage external funding so we don't just have to rely on what’s in the kitty of the city budget.
Over the past year, COVID-19 took a heavy toll on the city's budget and forced many cutbacks, particularly in the area of public services. How do you plan to address Peoria’s problematic financial situation specifically, and recover from COVID-19?
Rita Ali: We have to stabilize, and part of that stabilization means bringing some experts to the table. I think too much we've worked in silos, we've worked within government to solve our problems. Yet we have some experts out there in the finance area, our banks. I want to bring bank leaders to the table to help us put together a plan to stabilize our financing, and to maybe restructure our finances so that we're able to again, stabilize and then begin to position ourselves to generate income.
We've focused on the cut area, but we haven't focused on the income generation area. Well, that's what we have to do now. We have to bring in external funds, we have to find ways to raise funds without overtaxing our citizens. I’m not for increasing property taxes; we have one of the highest and in the state and, of course, Illinois has one of the highest in the nation, so that's not the direction that we need to go. We have to be creative and we have to bring additional partners to the table. I'm all about collaboration; that's the way that I've worked, that's the way that I've been successful in my work for most of my adult life.
Also with budgeting matters, the escalating pension obligations loom large over the city's finances for the next several years. What specific solutions will you seek to overcome this dilemma?
Rita Ali: Of course, it's a local issue, but it's also as a statewide issue. We have to work with our state representatives, both in the House and in the Senate. We have to work with our partners and in public safety. There are some changes that have to be made. One, we have to keep our promise to the people that we've made promises to, the people that we owe pensions to.
We kind of kicked the can down the road for many years (and) we borrowed money from funds that we should not have taken. So we have to, again, work with our state partners, because some of this is out of our hands, out of our reach in terms of change. But in working with state legislators and also working, again, with our public safety partners to begin to address and make some real changes to the pension issue. We have to work together on this.
You’ve mentioned that economic development holds the key to improving the city's finances. Can you elaborate on how you propose to make Peoria a better place for businesses to locate and develop and expand?
Rita Ali: For one, we have to prepare a workforce that will attract employers to our area. That's how other cities have drawn new companies to their area: they have a prepared workforce. Right now, only 40% of the adults in our region have a credential beyond high school. We really have to get to at least 60% to have a strong, viable economy. So there's a lot of people here that are working two and three jobs, kind of dead-end jobs because they're still on the lower end: they're not family sustaining wage jobs or, in some cases, not living wage jobs.
We have companies here, organizations – I'll say OSF (HealthCare) and UnityPoint, for one – that have good number of well-paying jobs that are available, but we don't have the people here to be able to fill those jobs because they don't have the education or credentials. So one thing is to work with our education partners, to continue to get more funding, to support preparing our workforce. It's what Des Moines, Iowa, did when they attracted Facebook to their area. Once they got Facebook, they attracted more information technology companies. I think that we could be a hub for IT just like we're a hub for healthcare.
So again, preparing a workforce, becoming a smart city … transportation is also key to attracting young people, to attracting companies to the area. So I want to bring passenger rail to Peoria. Amtrak passenger rail would be great for us to bring here so we don't have to drive to Bloomington or to Galesburg to go to Chicago, St. Louis, Memphis and other cities. We should have that convenience right here in Peoria, and it will be attractive to our residents but it will also be attractive to companies.
If I may, I think that we have to get back in the business of economic development within the city. We have pretty much left those real initiatives to the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, and it's great, the work that they do for the region, and Peoria of course is a part of that region. But we have to have a focus within the city to develop the city's economic development. The mayor should be a part of that plan; the mayor should be a champion for helping to bring new businesses to the area, and that's what I intend to do.
Peoria still sees vast racial disparity and inequity on many levels such as employment, housing, justice. As mayor, how will you work to eliminate these disparities? What steps will be taken?
Rita Ali: I worked with a number of key stakeholders around the city, including the current mayor, the county board chair, business leaders, faith leaders, community-based organization leaders – it was about 25 of us following the George Floyd murder. We came together to talk about what Peoria can do, and we had a lot of quick wins, but then we wanted a long-term strategy.
So I reintroduced what I had shared a couple years ago, what I had shared publicly, what I had shared with the council: is to look at the work at King County, Wash., who had been on a pathway for racial justice and equity initiatives within their county for 11 years, keeping track of the progress and focusing on eight different areas, including the ones that you just named: including justice and housing and employment and all those different areas, health, where we find disparities based upon race.
We created the first City-County Commission on Racial Justice and Equity. The commission will focus on addressing disparities based upon race in those key areas, but using data to drive decisions and activities, looking at baseline data and then producing an annual report, as well as some interim reports along the way, showing how we're doing, so that we're not caught off guard when issues come up related to racial justice and equity; that we're taking a proactive approach in addressing these issues.
I do want to say that Peoria’s 61605 ZIP code is one of the most distressed areas in our state, and one of the most distressed ZIP code areas in our entire country. What happens in that ZIP code affects what happens in other ZIP codes around our city, because we are only as strong as our weakest link. There's almost 45% of the adults in that ZIP code area are not working. We have a workforce shortage; we need to prepare people to work and address those inequities, and I intend to make that a priority.
It seems that we are turning a bit of a corner on COVID-19 now, but we may not entirely be out of the woods yet. What will be your approach to dealing with the pandemic and aiding recovery from it?
Rita Ali: I think that we have taken a somewhat conservative approach and I'm very pleased with that. I think that there was an article that came out in a major publication just the other day, on March 8, that showed Peoria being one of the leaders in the state at keeping people safe and keeping the infections down. I'm really proud of that; I'm proud that we've taken a more conservative approach. I think that we have to continue to follow the guidelines, pace ourselves, just continue to keep our citizens safe.
Across the country, we've seen the political divide expand in recent years. How do you intend to govern for all the people of Peoria and collaborate with the entire city council to get your work accomplished?
Rita Ali: Well, I certainly intend to be a mayor for all the people. I'm so happy that the mayor's race, the City Council race, that they're all nonpartisan positions; they're not a Republican or Democratic position, and they should not be, and I think that there are some other positions that are partisan that probably should not be, on a local as well as a national level. So, I will be that mayor that represents all the people: I have Republican supporters and Democratic supporters, independent and those that don't claim any affiliation to any party.
And as it should be, you want the best qualified person – regardless of their personal, political, or other affiliations – you want the best person to do the job. So I am very good at working with people that have differences of opinion, different races, gender, all those positions of diversity. I like bringing people of different minds to the table to collaborate on a common goal or common mission, and that's what I plan to do.
One of the areas of interest that seems to come up in municipal elections everywhere is the quality of the roads, and Peoria is definitely no exception there. Given the current budget restrictions, how can the city go about improving the conditions of the streets?
Rita Ali: That's a $100 million question, especially considering budget. We are going to get some funding from the federal government through the stimulus, and it’s estimated around $47 million that the city of Peoria would get out of the stimulus package. I'm not sure that roads will be a part of that; I do know if roads are a part of that, that it could also put some people to work and make a lot of people happy in terms of our road issues. I think we have to be creative in terms of how we can position ourselves to get funding to support our road projects.
With where the city is today and the potential for the coming years, where do you see Peoria in two, five, 10 years?
Rita Ali: I'm very optimistic about Peoria's future. I think that Peoria has a lot of people that want to be involved in moving Peoria forward, and believe me, I'm going to open up those opportunities for those that want to be involved that those, that have the talents and skills and they can bring more to the table to get involved in helping fewer to move forward. I think for too long, again, we've worked from within, and we haven't engaged the citizens to be more involved.
I want to make Peoria a national model. We recently, through a partnership, a collaboration of over 32 organizations, submitted a $30 million grant to the Department of Education to focus on a certain area of our city to try to lift that area up, and there was at least a $30 million in-kind match, actually it was a $49 million local in-kind match, to support that initiative. So I hope that we're successful in that grant opportunity.
Something like that will help to bring national attention to our city, and bringing national attention to our city actually puts us on the radar of other companies and other organizations that want to be a part of Peoria’s progress.
So I'm very excited. I think that we will come back, I know we will come back. How fast that happens, you know, it’s going to happen over a period of time, but I do want to fast-track Peoria’s progress.
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