What influence will Kern have on Belleville City Council?

Belleville residents and aldermen are still waiting to see what kind of political influence St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern will have over the Belleville City Council, which he once presided over as mayor before he won the chairman’s position in 2004.

The rivalry between Kern and Mayor Mark Eckert was laid bare when Kern and his mother donated $15,600 to the Friends and Families for Belleville political action committee formed to support Bryan Whitaker, Randy Randolph and Chris Rothweiler, who sent out glossy campaign fliers that criticized Eckert and Ward 6 Alderman Andy Gaa.

The county clerk’s office on Tuesday will count the mail-in ballots in the two races too close to call after the April 2 election. In the Ward 6 race separated by seven votes, Gaa, who was backed by Eckert, had 306 votes while 299 votes were cast for Rothweiler, who was supported by the Friends and Families for Belleville group that Kern supported with a $5,600 donation. Kern’s mother donated $10,000 to the group.

Carmen Duco had a 19-vote lead in the Ward 2 race over Randolph. Duco, who had 129 votes, was endorsed by Eckert, and Randolph, who had 110 votes, was backed by the Friends and Families for Belleville political action committee.

County Clerk Tom Holbrook said that based on the size of Duco’s lead and the number of mail-in ballots returned, it would be unlikely that Randolph would overcome his deficit. That would leave Rothweiler as the only candidate backed by Kern with a chance to win on Tuesday since Whitaker and Lillian Schneider lost the Ward 1 race to Alderman Joe Hazel, who was endorsed by Eckert.

Kern could not be reached for comment about why he supported the slate of anti-Eckert candidates. The News-Democrat left messages with Kern’s office on March 20, March 26, April 3 and April 10. He attended the County Board meeting on March 25 but could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

Eckert, who said he donated a total of about $300 to Gaa, Duco and Hazel, was upset by attacks from candidates of the Friends and Families for Belleville political action committee funded by the Kern family but said he has “respect” for the support Kern has provided the Belleville community in previous years.

“Chairman Kern’s done a lot of good things in Belleville,” said Eckert, who was appointed mayor by Kern after Kern was elected County Board chairman in 2004. “I don’t understand how we got here.”

A ‘puzzling’ dispute

Phil Elmore, who was unopposed in his re-election bid on April 2 to return as the Ward 7 alderman, has dealt with both Kern and Eckert over the years.

In 1995, he unsuccessfully ran for alderman on the now-defunct Good Government Party ticket when he said Kern was leader of the party. Then in 2013, he ran for mayor as an independent against Eckert and lost that race.

Elmore said he wasn’t surprised to see the split between Kern and Eckert but he doesn’t know details of the cause.

“There’s no question, the whole thing is very puzzling; again not surprised because I kind of saw this brewing for a while, but it does not remain any less puzzling. It is still puzzling,” Elmore said.

“Sometimes it just comes down to these are two guys, myself included, when you love Belleville as much as we do, and I know it sounds hokey, but when you love Belleville like we do and we’ve all been born and raised here, families here, businesses here, you’ll fight tooth and nail to do what you think is right…

“I’d much rather have a bunch of people with this kind of passion than a bunch of people who don’t give a hoot,” Elmore said. “Now do we have to get ugly with other? No. But passion for the good of Belleville is all right with me.”

In the April 2 election, Elmore supported Hazel, who defeated Whitaker and Lillian Schneider. Hazel was endorsed by Eckert while Whitaker was backed by the Friends and Families for Belleville.

However, Elmore said he did not campaign for Gaa and Duco, the other two candidates endorsed by Eckert.

In commenting on the three candidates fielded by the Friends and Families for Belleville, Elmore said, “I don’t know if they tried to find eight aldermen to run in every ward, one in every ward and they only came up with three and went for it, I don’t know. I don’t think just only having three is probably the goal.”

And will they field a candidate against him in four years?

“We’ll see,” he said. “Anything’s possible.”

Political outlook

Ward 8 Alderman Roger Wigginton, who like Elmore also ran unopposed in his re-election bid on April 2, said it appears that Duco will hold onto to her lead but the mail-in balloting will determine if Gaa retains his seat or if Rothweiler wins as a challenger.

Wigginton said he doesn’t want City Council members to ostracize a candidate based upon whether they were supported by Kern or Eckert before the election.

“I think whoever gets on there, it’s going to be very workable for the council,” Wigginton said. “I don’t want to pit one against the other. The worst thing that you can do is turn your back on somebody when we should actually work hard to incorporate them into the system.”

Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science with the University of Illinois at Springfield, said he did not know the specifics of the divide between Kern and Eckert but raised concerns about a community where the chairman of a county board is not on the same page as the mayor of its largest city.

“In general, … local government in Illinois is very fragmented so you have to work very hard to make sure that you’re not duplicating, that you’re being efficient and effective in terms of services in areas where things might overlap and if you’ve got partisan conflicts or personal conflicts, then that just makes it all the more difficult to be efficient and effective and that impacts citizens negatively,” Redfield said.

“So it’s not a good situation to have a political war going on or a personal conflict going on between the County Board chairman and the mayor of the largest city of the county.”

Campaign fliers

On his Facebook page, Kern posted a low-key message about reminding people to vote on April 2 but didn’t bring up the complaints cited by Whitaker, Randolph and Rothweiler.

However, the glossy campaign fliers produced by Friends and Families for Belleville lobbed barbs at Eckert over a variety of issues, including St. Elizabeth’s Hospital moving to O’Fallon.

Eckert, Elmore and Wigginton all said the criticism that the city did not do enough to stop St. Elizabeth’s from moving is unfounded.

“Not a one of these candidates wrote a letter, came to a public hearing, or dared showed up in Springfield or Chicago to help us fight to keep St. Elizabeth’s,” Eckert said. “But they criticize me and the City Council for not doing enough.

“I think the average person knows that we did try to save St. Elizabeth’s,” he said.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital relocated to a site off Interstate 64 in O’Fallon in 2017 and since then most of the hospital complex in downtown Belleville has been torn down. Eckert has asked the hospital to donate the vacant land to the city.

“When anybody says that the city did not fight, that is absolutely ludicrous,” Wigginton said.

A campaign flier from Rothweiler called Gaa the “hand-picked yes-man” for Eckert.

“The current members of this administration are asleep at the wheel, standing idly by while other communities blow right past us,” Rothweiler said in the flier.

Lori Powell, who is a Ward 6 resident on South Jackson Street, said she was turned off by the fliers from Rothweiler.

“I thought they were negative,” Powell said. “It really was disappointing. Andy Gaa is a good man.”

Powell said she first met Gaa about a year ago when she started a community garden off South Jackson Street and he offered to help.

Looming vote count

Holbrook said 18 mail-in ballots have been received by his office as of Wednesday in the Ward 6 race between Gaa and Rothweiler. There were 29 mail-in ballots that had been requested in the race, which leaves 11 still outstanding.

Since Gaa’s lead is only seven votes, Rothweiler remains in the picture.

However in Ward 2, Randolph trailed Duco by 19 votes and only five mail-in ballots from Ward 2 had been sent to the county since April 2, Holbrook said. Ward 2 voters had requested 37 mail-in ballots that had not been received before April 2. Ward 2 Alderman Mike Buettner finished in third place in this race.

The state requires local election officials to wait 14 days to give all mail-in ballots a chance to arrive.

The clerk’s office will begin tabulating the mail-in ballots for candidates from across the county at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Holbrook said he will try to get the results of the close races as soon as possible.

The vote totals tabulated on Tuesday will be forwarded to the state and results will be certified on April 23. If a candidate wants a recount, the request must be made within five days after the results are certified.

Mike Koziatek joined the Belleville News-Democrat in 1998 as an assistant editor and is now a reporter covering the Belleville area. He graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee and grew up in St. Louis.