Slate Of Black Candidates Wins Spots In Metro East Municipal Governments
Updated April 7 with election results
A slate of Black candidates across the Metro East notched victories in Tuesday's municipal elections.
Many of them were running for elected office for the first time and vying for spots that had mostly been held by white residents.
In the Madison/Venice area, nine candidates from a group of 10 won their races, including the Venice Township supervisor, three spots on the Township Board of Trustees and three races for aldermen in the City of Madison.
The only one who didn’t win was James Gardner Jr., who lost to John Hamm III, Madison’s current mayor of 24 years.
“Minorities want to be represented,” said Township Trustee-elect Dewanda Crochrell. “Minorities want a voice in the decision-making process in the communities that they live in. That’s all communities.”
She said her group’s significant success could serve as a blueprint for others who want to run for local positions.
Other candidates in the region broke barriers with their victories, becoming the first Black representatives in their respective positions. David Goins unseated two-term Mayor Brant Walker in Alton, Cary Lewis V won a spot on Swansea’s Village Board of Trustees, and Frazier Garner won his bid for Stookey Township Clerk.
Yolanda Crochrell, who ran in Edwardsville’s Ward 2, did not win her contest.
Original story from March 26:
Next month, voters in some Metro East communities will choose from a slate of candidates that is more diverse than in the past, as more Black residents run for local office for the first time.
The political newcomers see an opportunity to transform their locally elected councils and boards into ones that are more reflective of the people who reside in their communities.
“Our leaders don’t connect with the citizens, and that’s a big factor,” said Dewanda Crochrell, a Venice Township Board candidate. “Not that they don’t care or anything, I’m not saying that at all. It’s just that they don’t understand the needs of our citizens today.”
‘We just need more representation’
Crochrell is a candidate alongside nine others, all of whom are Black, who are running together for positions in the City of Madison and Venice Township, which share some voter overlap. These candidates share similar critical assessments of their local leaders, saying they’re disconnected from the residents in the communities they represent.
“Our government, in my opinion, is one that has been more to tell the people what they should want or should have instead of being reflective of the people,” said James Gardner, who’s running for mayor of Madison.
Gardner isn’t new to politics like most of the other people he’s running with; he currently sits on Madison’s city council representing Ward 4. The lifelong resident remembers a time when the city’s aldermen would traverse their neighborhoods and discuss policies and goals with residents.
“That doesn’t happen anymore,” Gardner said. “That’s one of the things we need to get back to.”
Gardner’s opponent, John Hamm III, who has been mayor for 24 years, said the city government functions well as it is.
“Our city is pretty calm. I don’t have a lot of requests from the aldermen as to anything they need to have done,” he said. “When you get close to election time, something gets perked up a bit by someone who’s running for office, but we don’t have controversies on the council.”
Gardner said that’s because aldermen aren’t encouraged to share differing viewpoints.
“You get accused of dividing the council,” he said. “You really can’t voice a different opinion and even if you do, you’re still outnumbered. It doesn’t matter.”
In the 20 years she’s lived in Madison, Cassandra Miller, a first-time candidate in Ward 2, said she’s noticed how elected leaders and government staff don’t mirror who she sees living in the community.
“We just need more representation, that’s how it is,” she said. “A lot of the people that still live in the city don’t feel like it’s their city. They feel like ‘we just live in the city.’”
Madison was majority Black in six of the past 10 years, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, but many of the city’s leaders and department heads are white.
The same is true of leadership in Venice, which is also a majority Black community.
“How can they understand the needs of the African American community if they don’t have staff to bring ideas to the council meetings?” Crochrell said. “They are not able to reach out to the community to meet their needs, especially the financial and emotional needs that citizens in underserved communities need.”
In the Madison-Venice area, many of the candidates want to fold community perspectives back into city and township decisions.
“It’s about a community and the people and the residents make the community,” Gardner said. “They should be the ones who are a part of the decision making.”
Miller agrees with Gardner.
“We have a genuine feel for the community and we have worked in the community each person over 20 years,” Miller said. “It’s not like we’ve shown up out of nowhere, we’ve been working and continue to work.”
Seeking Black representation in white communities
Elsewhere in the Metro East, first-time Black candidates for local leadership in majority white communities cite similar reasons for their candidacy as those in Madison and Venice.
“I want to see our board look like how our community is,” said Yolanda Crochrell, who’s running for city council in Edwardsville’s 2nd Ward. “Our community is diverse, but the board doesn’t look like that, it doesn’t represent our community.”
Crochrell, who is Dewanda’s sister-in-law, would be the city’s first elected Black woman in a community whose Black population has grown in the past decade to approximately 13%.
City leaders face challenges with racial equity, specifically how to address a prominently displayed bronze statue of Ninian Edwards, whom the city is named after.
Last summer the statue became the focus of local Black Lives Matter protests after activists learned Edwards owned enslaved people, killed indigenous people and led attacks on their villages.
In response, Edwardsville Mayor Hal Patton re-established a human relations commission and indicated he wanted more people of color in the city’s leadership, something Crochrell said motivated her to run for the council.
“I looked at that and said, ‘I would love to be in the leadership in our city,’” she said. “I live here, my kids went to school here. We grew up here.”
The opportunity to influence change in their home communities is drawing other first-time Black candidates to run too.
“It’s one thing to try and make change from the outside, it’s a whole different thing to try and make change from the inside,” said Fraizer Garner, a candidate for Stookey Township clerk.
Cary Lewis V, who’s running for a spot on the Swansea board of trustees, shares the sentiment of other Black candidates in the Metro East that residents are largely disconnected from the local government.
“In all honesty there has been the same type of person in city hall since its establishment,” he said.
But Lewis adds that he doesn’t want his racial identity to define his candidacy.
“Diversity is not code for, ‘OK, this is the Black guy,’” he said. “It’s new ideas, new perspectives.”
Lewis explained he wants his views on how the local government can support the community residents better to be the reason someone supports him.
"The greatest win for me would be for the ideas I have to be truly involved in policy," he said. "If my ideas get out there, I will be beyond ecstatic."
A national issue
The consistent thread of residents voicing disconnection from their governments across the Metro East represents a failure of who’s traditionally led locally, said Timothy Lewis, assistant professor of political science at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
“The reason you are seeing this increased diversity, is because the constituency is not satisfied with the old guard that … doesn’t share the same socioeconomic experiences as most of the people that they govern,” he said.
Lewis said this theme isn’t unique to the Metro East. He has tracked it across the country, particularly in the Midwest and South.
“A lot of these local communities, when they say they want something that reflects more of us, they’re literally wanting someone that knows the experiences of the citizenry in that community,” he said.
Shifting toward more diverse leadership can be transformative, especially for majority white communities, which make up the bulk of the Metro East, Lewis said.
“Diversity is more than just people of different colors, genders and sexual orientations, with those identities also come experience and knowledge,” he said. “You cannot, if you want to govern effectively, exclude the minority.”
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