DeKalb Mayoral Race Comes Down To Final Days

Apr 2, 2017

Three candidates are challenging an incumbent in the DeKalb mayor's race.  They all have roots in the city and personal connections with DeKalb's largest employer: Northern Illinois University. A major driver to see their name on the ballot is a quest to bring jobs and economic stability to the city.

As host of a recent candidate forum, The House Cafe in downtown DeKalb is often used as an example of an ideal "town and gown" venue.  It has live music and coffee to draw in both students and residents. But it's seen some turnover in ownership in recent years.

Not too far down the row of aging buildings is the former Otto's Nightclub. After being neglected for years, the city has given the go-ahead to tear it down and build luxury apartments in a venture known as the Cornerstone project.

Then, there's the Egyptian Theatre.

Credit Jenna Dooley

"The Egyptian Theatre is a community treasure, there's no doubt about it," said Jerry Smith. Now retired from the DeKalb County Community Foundation, he is running to be the city's next mayor.

The auditorium was built back when vaudeville filled the seats -- and it still doesn't have air conditioning. A feasibility study commissioned by the city of DeKalb drew mixed reviews, with some skeptical of its conclusions to draw in more revenue.

Smith says the city has been generous in its support of the theater, but he feels the city should not buy the building.

"I want the city to continue to work with the Preservation of the Egyptian Theatre Board," Smith said. "I want that board to be very, very involved in its development efforts. They've got to go out and find people who are passionate about what we are doing at the Egyptian Theater."

Also running for the city's top office is Michael Embrey, who owns an event-planning business. In his experience, he says the Egyptian Theatre doesn't necessarily need to be a year-round venue at this point.

"We don't need air conditioning now," Embrey said. "We need to be able to find a way to fill it for nine months. Once that's done, then let's approach the air-conditioning unit. We do need a ventilation system in there, and I think that's something that needs to be addressed."

Embrey says DeKalb should look to what other regions are doing to build up outdoor entertainment during the summer months.

DeKalb County Board member and mayoral candidate Misty Haji-Sheikh says the study didn't take the city's budget into consideration and includes a growth area that she says it not realistic.

"It is flawed," Haji Sheikh said. "There are things in it that could be used, so not all is wasted. Unfortunately, the good, juicy parts where you wanted to get some info didn't work out."

Incumbent Mayor John Rey says the city should continue to play a public role in planning for the future of the Egyptian Theater.

"It's very important that it become a public-private partnership," Rey said. "I can't underscore the private partnership enough. We needs investors that are stepping up to recognize the legacy of the history of the Egyptian Theater and carry it to the extent that the community wants to see it grow."

"Communiversity"

In recent years, there has been renewed interest in connecting the city with Northern Illinois University to create a "communiversity" relationship.

John Rey says he was elected mayor around the time Doug Baker took office as NIU President.

"The relationship with NIU from the mayor's office has got to include the leadership at NIU -- not only the president, but the college deans, faculty, staff, and students," Rey said. "They are all components that have to part of that positive relationship."

Northern Illinois University
Credit Jenna Dooley

He says he recently met with dozens of students who were given a tour of downtown DeKalb to brainstorm ways to get more students into the area.

Misty Haji-Sheikh says DeKalb could benefit from looking at the success of another Illinois college town.

"Edwardsville markets to the students," Haji-Sheikh said. "Their businesses have something in a lot of them that say 'discount for students.' They make sure that students can put flyers in the windows for different things they are doing. They work with their students. Keep in mind, SIU-Edwardsville is surrounded by 2,600 acres of forest. They are in the middle of a forest. For the students to get to the downtown is a two-mile journey; it is not a couple of blocks. These kids are down there all of the time. There are things they can afford and things that they can do."

She adds that local coffee shops, bakeries, and music stores attract the younger demographic. She also says lower tuition and textbook costs can be a big draw to attracting students to that institution.

Embrey says businesses near the University of Illinois also do a good job tailoring benefits to students. In addition to pushing for a residency requirement for city workers, Embrey says efforts to entice faculty to live closer to the college could have benefits for the city overall.

"I get extremely upset when you have 300 deans, professors, and administrators living east of Route 47 that make over $100,000," Embrey said. "That's $30 million that doesn't live in our community. We need them to be participatory and add to our community, and they have a greater respect if they live here."

Smith says that, if he is elected to the office, he wants to maintain open communication between the city and university.

"We're in this together," he says, "and I hope that the Board of Trustees and the administration see that our offer is not only sincere but that it makes sense for everybody. We, as a city, and I, as its mayor, [would] have a regular seat on an ongoing basis with the university and with the Board of Trustees."

Crime

A report from the DeKalb Police Department showed an increase in crime last year. All four candidates say they already have a positive relationship with Chief Gene Lowery and expect that will continue if they are elected.

Haji-Sheikh points out the growth in crime is for lower-level offenses.

"He said the biggest uptick in crime was people not locking their car doors and then someone would break into it," Haji-Sheikh said. "I looked at that statistic and I said, 'That is something that we can work on.' You can't always work on all aspects of crime, but if we can work on that one and get that down, then the police can be out chasing the proverbial bad guys instead of going to people's unlocked cars."

She says it is more troubling that such crimes are increasingly committed by juveniles. She says working with youth in mentoring and skill training could help reduce the crime rate. She says there are low-tech solutions like police placing business card warnings near unlocked cars.

Embrey says combating crime may involve looking at how larger cities use video technology to monitor criminal activity.

"The perception is that we are the biggest crime part in the nation," he says, "but no, not really, when you are talking about breaking into cars. There are other problems that need to be addressed. We need to look at high-tech [methods] in the future."

Smith says police leadership is an asset in the community.

"Our police chief is top drawer in my opinion," Smith said. "He may feel like he needs a little bit more help. We are going to try to do all we can as a city council, if I am elected mayor, to give him whatever help he needs, within the constraints of our own budget."

He says support is also needed within neighborhood groups, youth programs, and area churches to help reduce crime.

Rey points to what he considers a lost resource to help law enforcement.

"We don't have residential mental health beds in the community," he said. "That's very problematic for our police department who can only use the emergency room at the hospital for protection of individuals that need mental health services immediately."

He says interrupting the pathway to crime among juveniles will involve engaging social service agencies.

Leadership Style/Role of Mayor

Smith says his leadership style is that of a "unifier." He says he respects the delegation of duties among mayor, council, and city staff.

"It's been suggested that the city staff is the tail that is wagging the dog -- the dog being the council and the mayor," Smith says. "I think that in certain instances because of the timing of information given to the council where they are expected to make an important decision with little time to read the material. Other than that happening a few times, I think the city staff and city council have worked pretty well together."

As a county board member,  Haji-Sheikh says she is used to working with many people. She says she has been frustrated with the level of engagement the city has with its residents. She says DeKalb has a great asset in its supply of water that isn't currently being marketed to the fullest extent as a revenue generator. She says she has waited hours as a member of the public during a city council meetings to be able to voice concerns.

"The mayor's job is to lead the council, to set the agenda, and to set the tone, Haji-Sheikh said. "If staff is not doing that, to work with the city manager (or if necessary replace a city manager) so those policies get implemented in the way they were intended. So it is a follow-up by the mayor and council that is needed and I haven't seen that in our current administration."

Incumbent Rey says he feels confident in the execution of his duties in his time as mayor.

"I am not a confrontational person," Rey said. "I learned early on, it takes a second swing to start a fight. We've had situations where I could have offered that second swing. I prefer to be more of a cooperative individual listening carefully and quietly--thinking through a reaction rather than shooting from the hip and being confrontational."

Embrey says he wants to improve the level at which voters get involved in moving the city forward.

"I really want to see the city giving back to the citizens and get them more involved to feel proud, and they will feel proud," Embrey said. "Right now, they feel totally divorced. They have nothing involved with the community. They are kind of outcasts, unless you are part of an elite group or city hall. I think that will change. It has to change or there literally is going to be a negative future for the city. I say this tongue and cheek, but in reality, DeKalb right now is the Titanic. We are heading to the iceberg. It is time to move it in the right direction so we don't crash and burn."

The election will be held April 4.

Candidate Biographies

Michael Embrey

Embrey is the Executive Artistic Director for a music and theater event-planning company called FunME Events. He is an NIU graduate and the former Show Band Director at NIU. He is a United States military veteran, serving four years with the U.S. Air Force.

John Rey

Rey is running for a second term as mayor. He previously worked at DeKalb Ag/Monsanto. He holds a master's degree in business administration from Northern Illinois University.

Misty Haji-Sheikh

Haji-Sheikh currently serves on the DeKalb County Board and chairs the Health and Human Services committee. She has a degree from the University of Texas at Arlington and is currently taking graduate classes at Northern Illinois University.

Jerry Smith

Smith is a graduate of NIU and served two years in the military. He spent the majority of his career at Castle PrinTech, 17 years as the company's president. He spent a decade as Executive Director of the DeKalb County Community Foundation.