BELLEVILLE — Candidates in the three-way mayoral race say their campaigns won't kick into "high gear" until after the holidays.
Still, they have started to forge and sever alliances of new and old.
So far there are two independent candidates -- Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden and Ward 7 Alderman Phil Elmore -- who will challenge two-term incumbent Mayor Mark Eckert.
Residents who want a change from Eckert and his Neighborhoods for Good Government Party say that though Eckert's heart is in the right place, he lacks vision and hasn't positioned the city to succeed economically.
But Eckert says he works closely with businesses that expanded during his term. He said the city has an economic development director but oftentimes businesses want to speak to him, too, because the mayor is seen as the city's lead salesperson.
The petition filing period starts Monday for anyone interested in running for office in the April 9 election. Applicants have until 5 p.m. Dec. 26 to file with the city clerk's office.
Eckert said he looks forward to the race -- the city's first three-way race for mayor since 1997.
In that election, two former Belleville aldermen, Mark Kern and Tom Mabry, ran against incumbent Rodger Cook.
Kern won and served until 2004, when he was elected chairman of the St. Clair County Board. He appointed Eckert, then an alderman. Eckert was elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2009, in an uncontested race.
Here's a look at the candidates and what their supporters and opponents have to say:
Mayor Mark Eckert
Eckert said he's worked closely with businesses such as Eckert's Country Store, Fischer Lumber, Allsup, DESCO, and the Wagner and Oliver C. Joseph car dealerships. The city has completed the 17th Street extension and expanded park space.
"Talk about vision for Illinois 15," Eckert said. "We've worked hard and we continue to ... Mark Kern set the foundation for a lot of our successes, but my administration took all the bumps and bruises and saw (the Belleville Crossing) project through."
Roger Wigginton, owner of Don Rodgers Ltd. clothing store on West Main Street in Belleville, previously supported Eckert but now he questions how the mayor addresses crime, economic growth and incentives for large retailers instead of small businesses.
"I think a lot of people see a lot of empty store fronts, a lot of homes for sale," said Wigginton, who noted his political views do not represent the West Belleville Promotional Committee, which he co-chairs. "These questions are asked every day: Am I safe in my own home? Why do we continue to let these things exist?"
Wigginton said Eckert is hard-working and has Belleville at heart, but is a micro-manager who tries to do the job of an economic development director. He also said Eckert doesn't work with independents on the City Council because he fears new ideas and the loss of power.
City Clerk Linda Fields, who is part of the Good Government Party and is running for re-election, said she has worked for five Belleville mayors and Eckert is the first to have an orientation for newly elected officials.
"He tried to include them," Fields said.
Eckert said Wigginton is still upset from the 2011 election, when Eckert did not ask Wigginton to run for alderman as part of Eckert's party.
"That is a bald-faced lie because I absolutely never had conversations with him about running for alderman," Wigginton said.
Wigginton did not run in 2011. He ran for Ward 8 alderman in 1997 with Belleville's Progressive Party and lost to a Good Government Party candidate.
Wigginton said if he were to run now, which he has no interest in doing because he is on six boards and works six days a week, he would be an independent.
Eckert also said Wigginton still has a grudge about the city's attempt in 2011 to bring Bucky's Express gas station to the west end.
Wigginton and Tim Gehrs, who owns the Splish Splash Car Wash on 59th Street, a block from where the project was proposed, were vocal opponents of the Bucky's project.
Gehrs said the market did not support two car washes. Other west-end residents cited concerns over traffic, crime and the safety of Althoff Catholic High School students across the street.
Gehrs' wife, Mona Monken-Gehrs, is now running for Ward 4 alderwoman on Elmore's ticket.
After hearing residents' concerns, the City Council reversed the zoning variance it granted Bucky's.
Eckert said Wigginton is never happy with what the city tries to do with the west end.
"I'm surprised and I'm hurt, but we (the Good Government Party) will be OK," Eckert said about the loss of Wigginton's support.
"There's a lot of neat things people are coming back to downtown Belleville for and we nurtured that," Eckert said. "If people don't like the things we've done here, I don't know why they're still living here."
Katie Geoppo, who owns Papa Vito's downtown on East Washington Street, said she returned to Belleville after some time in Waterloo, because of all the improvements to downtown Belleville -- there's a nightlife, more shoppers and a friendly business environment.
"Eight years ago, there wasn't really a whole lot downtown and businesses were going out of business constantly," Geoppo said. "I've seen it get better, not worse. He's really done a fantastic job in his term to take care of business owners."
Geoppo said the mayor checks in weekly with her business to see if everything's OK. When there was road construction in front of her business this summer, he made sure she knew what was going on.
"He pretty much devotes his entire life to this city," Geoppo said. "He's at every event that Belleville has ... He wants this city to succeed more than anyone."
Eckert said residents were not happy with the sales tax increase in 2011 but it brought in $1.2 million. He said if tax revenue remains steady, the money could be used to hire more police officers.
"Ask Joe Hayden if he will vote for an extension of the sales tax," Eckert said. "I'll have the guts to say it's worked well."
Alderman Joe Hayden
Hayden voted against the quarter-cent increase in sales tax -- and that's one reason why Belleville resident Joy Schreiber is supporting him.
"I wasn't the one to urge Joe (Hayden) to run for mayor, but I'm as happy as can be," she said.
Schreiber said she would have run for alderman herself in 2011 because of how Eckert handled the wheel tax, the purchase of the old Angler's Club and tax increment financing given to Eckert's County Store. But she supported Hayden for aldermen instead because he shares her perspective.
Hayden said that if Eckert and Elmore don't say that the biggest issue in the city is crime, then they are out of touch with residents.
"You can build the parks or spruce up the library all you want, but if people are afraid to come here, then you've got nothing," Hayden said.
Hayden served as Belleville alderman from 1993-97. Eckert beat Hayden in 1997 for Ward 5 alderman. Hayden was elected to the council again in 2011.
This year, Hayden started the Unified Independent Coalition for All of Belleville, a group of independents who are supporting each other. He plans to find candidates to challenge all incumbents.
"It just boils down to trust," Schreiber said. "He's so accessible and he's a man of his word. I can't speak enough about how educated he is in process of government and fairness in treating constituents."
Eckert led a group of "bobbleheads" on the City Council until six independents were elected in recent years, Schreiber said.
"In his baby steps, he was doing a good job, but even though I think his heart is in the right place, I think he's over his head in running the city and keeping a balance," Schreiber said about Eckert.
She also criticized Elmore, saying he's two-faced and he doesn't stand as an independent because he voted with the Good Government Party the majority of the time.
Schreiber said Elmore called a secret meeting of potential independent aldermanic candidates last election and then turned around and publicized himself.
"The only thing I've seen him do is Tour de Belleville and he started the thing for the dog park -- I'm ecstatic about that," Schreiber said. "But these are just little feel-good things. Elmore doesn't stand as an independent. These words came out of his mouth once, 'You have to play nice so they throw you a bone once in a while.' There's nothing independent about that, I'm sorry."
Alderman Phil Elmore
Wigginton is backing Elmore because he can work across the aisle and has new ideas, such as improving the city's technology infrastructure, which in turn will draw businesses to Belleville.
Elmore was elected alderman in 2009 when he was one of two independents to unseat a Good Government Party candidate.
Elmore said he's purposely not running with a full slate of candidates because he wants residents to vote based on issues, not along party lines.
"I look at something and I don't consider that it's coming from a certain party," Elmore said. "If it aggravates Joe (Hayden) that I agree with a Good Government person, that just proves my point."
Hayden was aligned with former mayor Cook under the Belleville Progressive Party in the 1997 election. Elmore said Cook and Eckert have party favoritism mentalities.
Cook's son, Dallas Cook, is now running for city clerk on Hayden's ticket precisely "to take the machine out of government."
Dallas Cook said Good Government Party candidates have run unopposed for far too long and it's crucial this election for an independent to win.
"Otherwise, you'd have a city where no one is going to run against them again," Cook said.
Elmore said three-way races tend to favor incumbents, and there's a chance neither he or Hayden will garner enough votes to beat Eckert. Elmore said Hayden is an effective alderman and wanted Hayden to join his ticket.
"Us supporting each other would have made a whole lot of sense," Elmore said. "In this instance, it's too bad there's no primary."
Hayden said he will not join Elmore's campaign because he questions Elmore's independence.
"Mr. Elmore has had 3 1/2 years on the City Council to address the issues that he now supports as a Johnny-come-lately," Hayden said. "He needs to really soul search what he wants."
Hayden believes Eckert's Good Government Party urged Elmore to run in order to take votes away from him.
"To me, the election comes down to whether people are happy with the status quo in the city," Hayden said. "I believe I put forward a strong and viable change. Mr. Elmore is putting forward the same."
Eckert also denies Elmore's affiliation with the Good Government Party and said Hayden's allegation doesn't make sense because Elmore announced he would run months before Hayden.
Elmore said he announced in April 2012, a full year before the election, because he does not have political backing and needed time to campaign. He said his early announcement might have confused residents who, because of all the early hype surrounding the mayor's race, believed the mayoral election was actually this past November.
"People have been screaming to have a choice for years," Elmore said. "Well, they can't scream about that anymore."
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at email@example.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.