The Story Behind the Story: The Lord Mayor of Urbana

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Ben Grosser’s article discusses the larger implications of introducing at-large seats in
Urbana’s city council elections. It raises
serious issues. However, there is also a subtext
to this story, the intriguing circumstances
leading to this proposal so ardently
supported by Tod Satterthwaite, the mayor
of Urbana. Until 2001, Satterthwaite virtually
controlled the council. He could usually
muster a majority vote for his own proposals
and veto the others that he didn’t like. Carolyn
Kearns was his strongest ally on the
council. He did not care much for the other
women on the council, namely Esther Patt,
Ruth Wyman, and Laura Huth. He has
referred to them as “ultra-liberals” in radio
interviews. However, there was a silver lining
for the mayor: Patt, Wyman, and Huth
could be outvoted on the seven-person council,
even when joined by the only African-
American alderman, Jim Hayes.
The status quo was upset in 2001.
Danielle Chynoweth successfully challenged
Kearns in the February Democratic primary.
What was the mayor to do? Satterthwaite
waxed strategic. If he had to endure
Chynoweth on the council, maybe he could
eliminate one of the other troublesome
women. Wyman and Patt were both strongly
entrenched in their wards, which were liberal
and had lots of students. He targeted Huth,
possibly hoping that she would bemore vulnerable
because she represented a ward in
East Urbana where most of the constituents
are not affiliated with the university. Howeve
r, there was one thing needed to get rid of
Huth, an opponent. Since the Republicans
w e r e n ’t running a candidate, the Democratic
mayor chose to recruit an independent,
Chuck McCaff r e y, to run against Democrat
Huth. As Satterthwaite’s good buddy, how
could McCaffrey refuse? And how could he
lose with the mayor on his side?
There was one thing that McCaffrey and
Satterthwaite didn’t anticipate. Huth’s constituents
were actually impressed by her
record. She’d stood up for them on many
occasions, including the fight against Illinois
Power’s abuse of our trees. Also, union
members appreciated her strong support for
the Urbana firefighters when the mayor was
giving them a rough time. Huth won, and
Satterthwaite then had to contend with
Chynoweth, Huth, Patt, and Wyman. Moreover,
he can never take Hayes for granted.
Satterthwaite still gets along very well with
Milton Otto, and doesn’t get much trouble
from the sole Republican on the council, Joe
Whelan. However, they are only two white
councilmen who are left to contend with the
four out-of-favor females and Jim Hayes
who is too close to them on too many votes.
Michael Moore notwithstanding, not all
white men, even white men in politics, are
stupid. Some are imaginative and when
pushed too far, can even display strokes of
genius. Satterthwaite’s last straw was the
redistricting map drawn up by the women on
the council. The mayor proposed his own
map, but the women would not accept his in
place of theirs. To veto their map, Satterthwaite
needed Jim Hayes’s vote. He thought
he had it, but when it was time to vote,
Hayes voted with the women. This made
their map veto proof.
Satterthwaite and Otto continued to exercise
their imaginations. If you cannot win
elections and policy changes according to the
rules, then simply change the rules. Change
the form of governance! Introduce at-larg e
seats so that the mayor can try to recruit likeminded
people to run in citywide elections
along with him. If the “ultra-liberals” think
that they can play with radical ideas, the
mayor will show them a thing or two about
revolutionary ideas and practices. Like
Charles de Gaulle introducing the Fifth
French Republic, he will “appeal to the people.”
With their support he will transform the
formof representative government inUrbana.
Voters of Urbana Arise! You have nothing to
lose but the door-to-door relationship with all
council candidates and affordable elections
for all council seats. What you have to gain is
a more powerful mayor, perhaps who will
once again be able to control the council. In
subsequent elections, maybe we could propose
a referendum to change the name of the
mayor to Lord Mayor.

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