Council race looks like 1999 election

By Jennifer Davis and Molly Parker
Published March 5th 2007 in Peoria Journal Star

Get ready, everyone, for the battle over the bullet - bullet voting, that is.

With Tuesday's primary election just behind us and the April 17 general election just ahead, it's a perfect time to ponder both.

At-large Councilman Gary Sandberg blew away all his challengers, getting 5,518 votes, or 17 percent, of what was, admittedly, a pretty poor voter turnout at 9.8 percent.

Ryan Spain, public policy manager at The Heartland Partnership, came in second with 4,575 votes, or 14 percent. Following very closely behind were incumbents George Jacob with 4,541 votes and Eric Turner with 4,371 votes.

The fact that Spain, a 24-year-old unknown running for his first public office, bested two incumbents and 10 other challengers surprised many. But eight years ago - the last time the city had an at-large primary - the same exact thing happened.

In February 1999, John Morris, a 30-year-old unknown running for his first public office, came in first place in the city's at-large primary, besting three incumbents. Morris went on to place second in the city's general election.

The similarities between Morris and Spain are interesting. Both are Richwoods High School graduates. Morris interned with then-U.S. Rep. Bob Michel; Spain interned with Michel's successor, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood. Morris interned with the Economic Development Council; Spain now works there.

Moreover, Morris says he's talked with Spain and the two share philosophies about local government.

"I have been, I hope, the leading spokesman on the council for growing the economic pie, for making a better business climate. Here, you've got a young guy, Ryan Spain, who seems to be very much the same. I think Ryan Spain seems to sing out of my same songbook," says Morris. "I would be very proud to have him coming up behind me on the council."

One difference is that Morris, while he had local business leaders supporting him, did not have the heavy backing from the Chamber of Commerce that Spain has. Spain had raised $10,475 as of the end of January, with $1,000 checks coming from retired Caterpillar Inc. CEO Glen Barton, Methodist Medical Center CEO Michael Bryant and Spain's boss, Jim McConoughey, president of The Heartland Partnership. LaHood donated $500 and Mary Ardapple, chairwoman of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, gave $250. (More complete campaign finance records won't be filed until July.)

Spain also has Mayor Jim Ardis helping him, appearing on his campaign literature. Which is another boost Morris lacked.

"My own opinion is, when there are open seats, the public looks around at all the newcomers and there's a collective, 'Let's give this new face a chance,'" says Morris. "And I was fortunate enough eight years ago, I was 30 years old and from Peoria and the public sort of said, 'Let's give this guy a shot.'"

Then, as now, there were two open at-large seats. Another similarity: 10th place finisher Bill O'Brien withdrew in 1999 and ninth place finisher Charles Schierer withdrew from this election last week.

So, does Morris predict the same success for Spain?

"I think he is going to be in excellent shape for the general election."

Nothing can be taken for granted, though, especially with bullet voting in the mix. (Cumulative or "bullet" voting allows voters to cast five votes for one candidate or spread those votes among several candidates.)

All the candidates are definitely trying to get voters to only vote for them. Spain even had a catchy slogan, "Vote 5 for 5 - 5 votes for candidate #5."

Voter turnout will likely double in the general election so nothing is for certain.

Again, for reference, in 1999 another newcomer, Jim Ardis, placed sixth in the primary but went on to place third in the general election.

Another example of the interesting dynamics of bullet voting: Incumbent Leonard Unes placed third in the 1999 primary, but lost by 82 votes to Gary Sandberg in the general election. Afterward, many people were quoted as saying they thought Unes was safe so they gave their vote to other candidates.

Just goes to show you, that bullet has bite. (J.D.)