Urbana High School English teacher Cassandra (Cassie) Cress announced her candidacy for city council in a joint video with Justin T. Weller, who has said he will file as an Independent in a bid to become Urbana’s next mayor. Both candidates are running as Independents on an “Urbana Wins” platform that includes raising the minimum wage, eliminating government waste and building a better education system.
“Urbana Wins is the name of the coordinated campaign platform,” said Weller. “As far as logistics, it means that we are sharing a campaign committee, so all of our finances are one. We’re really very integrated from that standpoint, but it’s because we want to use the same platform because we know the chances of implementing it go up every time we have someone who’s on our team, whose supporting the same thing, especially when we can add someone like Cassie who can really champion the education component of the platform.”
“I’ve never been involved with politics before, but it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a few years,” Cress said. “Justin is a former student of mine, and he asked for some feedback about his campaign, and once I learned about his platform and some of his ideas I thought this would be a really interesting opportunity, maybe a good time to make some changes.”
Cress said she will circulate petitions to file with the county Board of Elections by the May 6 deadline for Independents to have names on the Nov. 5 ballot. She is expected to challenge current Urbana city council member Pat Thackery, who holds the only at-large seat currently up for re-election, but said she would be open to discussions about filling the vacancy left when at-large council member Tony Pena resigns at the end of March. Other seats up for re-election this year include Council President Marty Hess, Second Ward Council Member Cledis Scott and Fourth Ward Council Member Ray Piper.
Cress said she has not attended recent city council meetings, but that either she or Weller will attend council and school board meetings regularly in the near future.
Cress grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, then attended Wittenberg University in Springfield and did her student teaching at Urbana High School. For the next two years she lived and taught in Charlotte, North Carolina before returning to Urbana in 2002. She teaches freshman and junior advanced placement English, and her husband is also a teacher at Urbana High School.
“Because I’ve taught at Urbana since 2002, a lot of the students I’ve had are adults, and a lot of them live in the community,” said Cress. “I have two daughters, and they go to school with some of my former student’s children, and so I feel like I know a lot about the community just because of my experience in education.”
Cress said she has often worked with students on a theoretical budget and sees that it is nearly impossible to support a family on a minimum wage salary, which was an important reason for joining Weller’s campaign.
“I think I can recognize some of the problems that not everybody sees,” she continued. “For example, I’ve seen since I’ve been here a rising level of poverty and that really affects the education system. I think that we need to do more to encourage people to stay in Urbana. I see our best and brightest leaving because there aren’t the kinds of jobs that they want here, or they don’t feel like they can have the kind of life that they want here because of the lack of jobs, or because of the lack of high wages.”
Part of Weller’s plan as mayor is to establish a director of education at the city level coordinating an electronically managed program so that businesses can provide information about their current needs, and allowing local high school students to discover what classes they can take to make themselves competitive. Cress has also voiced support for a partnership between local businesses and the school system that would help prepare students for the opportunities that are available. Weller said that he has already scheduled a number of meetings with local manufacturers and small businesses to learn more about implementing his plan.
Cress said she would also like to see a community mentoring center to assist students with mental health issues.
Current council member Thackery began his elected term on Jan. 1, 2016 and owns two downtown Urbana businesses, Cafe Paradiso and Carmazzi’s Candy & General Store. He said he treats all of his employees respectfully and pays them more than $12 an hour, but that doing so should be the business owners’ decision without being mandated by the government.
In regards to education, Thackery sits on the board of the Champaign Economic Partnership and said that he is aware of many ongoing efforts at workforce education.
“I would think she would run for school board if she wanted to change the educational system,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand what council does and what our limitations are, but what we do is legislate and appropriate. We’ve already cut the budget back to almost nothing, but we’re asking for an additional six-tenths income tax to support first responders and I am a big supporter of that as well.”
Over 1,000 people have watched Weller’s campaign video and engaged with the campaign online within the first week of his announcement, and the two candidates plan to continue meeting with Urbana residents face-to-face over the next couple months in order to find out how government can improve their lives.
“For me, ‘Urbana Wins’ means thinking about ways that we can improve our community,” said Cress. “I think there are already a lot of great things about Urbana, it being a small town with nice restaurants and some really good shopping downtown. It’s a tight-knit community, and I think there are some really positive things happening in our school system, too, but I think we could do more to bring together parts of our community. We’re stronger together, and I think that’s definitely true if we can communicate well and get people to work together, like with the school system and the city council, and the businesses.”
Christopher Selmek can be reached at 937-508-2304