Morrissey wins first mayoral debate

Morrissey wins first mayoral debate

By Shellie Berg

By Shellie Berg

Staff Reporter

At a Kiwanis luncheon Tuesday, the four Rockford mayoral candidates for the first time presented their platforms and debated at a forum held at the MetroCentre. After the live broadcast of the debate on WNTA-1330 AM, the public and media pundits who called in declared Larry Morrissey, an independent candidate, the winner.

The League of Women Voters moderated the event and gave candidates one minute to articulate their positions about questions audience members wrote on index cards.

First, Republican Dennis Johnson, Independent Larry Morrissey, Democrat Doug Scott and Independent Guy Spinello provided opening statements.

Johnson pointed to his involvement with organizations such as Kids Around the World and Swedish American Health System.

Morrissey said that although Rockford has a high property tax rate, the tax base is declining. “Our biggest problem is a lack of leadership, vision and trust,” stressed Morrissey.

Scott said he has nine years of experience as a Rockford city attorney, previously being involved in negotiating police and fire contracts. He said in his six years as a state representative, he’s helped to rewrite telecommunications acts.

Spinello noted he’s been a businessman for 30 years. His further involvement includes the Chamber of Commerce, where he dealt with I-39 issues. “I think we need to get back to basics,” he stated. He said the city needs to reduce spending and concentrate on issues within the budget.

After their opening statements, Marti Keeker of the League asked candidates questions.

The first question asked was, what will be your top priority during your first year in office?

Morrissey said his number one priority concerns the school district. “Our community needs to be involved in this process,” he stated, noting the city must begin taking “ownership” of the problem. “A mayor doesn’t have to have legal authority to have political authority.”

Scott also acknowledged that the mayor’s office can play a role in curtailing the crisis. He stressed that proposals should include long-term effects, and he indicated he wants to bring finality to the desegregation lawsuit.

Spinello said he directly or indirectly sought the mayoral seat because of the school dilemma. “We all recognize the mayor does not have the authority to do a whole lot,” he said. “I do believe the mayor has to

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get together with the community.”

Johnson said he yearns for the lawsuit to conclude. “This is a community problem, and we must solve it,” he commented.

In regard to community development and housing, Spinello alluded to the Rockford Housing Authority wanting to demolish Concord Commons to build single-family houses. But he contended the people there said they couldn’t even afford that type of housing. “They need jobs on the west side,” Spinello said. “You have to tie it together.”

Johnson said he hears people say that housing is economic. “We want to see property values increase,” he stated. He also said that the city needs to make sure adequate housing exists not only downtown, but on both sides of the river. He also noted the importance of improving neighborhoods, alleys and streets.

Morrissey, who lives in the River District, pointed out the 70 houses the city wanted to demolish for the Charles Street reroute. “We didn’t even talk to the neighbors,” he stated. He wants citizens to become involved and informed on “the front end.”

Scott noted the city possesses about 25 programs in community development that help with such aspects as renting or owning properties. He also referred to the Hope VI grants.

In regard to ideas for big business to come here with paying jobs, Johnson advocates making Rockford a regional medical center. Johnson, who sits on Swedish American’s board, is involved in the project expanding the hospital’s operations that will include the rerouting of Charles Street. Johnson pointed out that the average annual salary of a medical worker is $50,000. He said we have the potential to become another Mayo Clinic and that Rockford sends $150 million a year out to other regional medical centers. Johnson also said he has traveled the world and could bring businesses and jobs to Rockford.

Morrissey said, “The critical aspect is to take care of our basics first.” He said the city can’t create a regional medical center and not be able to get the doctors to move here because of the school and property tax problems.

“I think the city would be helped by being more aggressive,” in marketing the city and utilizing the Council of 100, Scott said. He noted he wants to talk to existing businesses to see how the city could help them.

Spinello said, “There are things we can do to stimulate more growth.” He said nearly all jobs are in the far east region of Rockford. He said that hopefully, the Harrison extension will spur development.

When asked about campaign finances, Johnson said he’s spent $50,000 to $75,000. He said before it’s over, the campaign might cost $200,000 or more. “It’s going to be a very expensive campaign,” he commented.

Morrissey noted he was the first to join the mayoral race and then heard people saying the “big guys” were jumping into the race. He said he’s had trouble raising money from traditional sources since then. His goal was to raise $201,000 by 2001. But he said that since people don’t have to pay to vote, he shouldn’t have any problems. He stated he doesn’t mind that the “big guys” are in the race because there are a “heck of a lot more little guys” in Rockford.

Scott said he’s spent $35,000 with a $200,000 budget. Although he said he’s spent money on advertising, he said the best plug for the campaign comes from “things like this.” He stated forums decide campaigns.

Spinello estimated the amount spent for his campaign is under $10,000. Spinello made a surprisingly strong showing, and he definitely drew the best crowd reaction with the remark: “If Denny Johnson is going to spend all that money that Paul Logli and Senator Syverson can raise for him—if it was all money—then Dennis Johnson would be our new mayor.”

Johnson ran multiple television ads over the last holiday weekend.

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