Early voting is already underway for Freeport’s Democratic mayoral primary. On Wednesday, January 13, Freeport Democratic mayoral candidates, Walter Hayward and Ronnie J. Bush, met for a virtual debate moderated by Patricia Norman. Bush is a “life-long resident of Freeport” who is aspiring to be mayor because of “the reward that comes from serving others.” Hayward was “born and raised in Freeport” and is seeking to govern the City of Freeport because of his belief that “ordinary people make the world go round.” The candidates were asked a series of questions and given time for rebuttal.

The candidates were asked about what experience qualifies them to serve as the Mayor of Freeport and what skills they possess that prepare them for the role. Hayward explained that he has been an advocate for the youth and those with disabilities for “at least the last twenty-five years” and that he seeks to continue his role as an advocate of the people of Freeport as mayor. Bush explained that he has experience working under the managerial style of local government. Bush also said that “being on the city council for numerous years” and serving on many boards has given him the experience he needs to be an effective mayor of the city. He explained that he has connections to the members of different city boards and that he “will go out and really encourage people to get more enthused.” Hayward explained that with his social service background, he knows how to listen to people and will “follow-through and advocate for the citizens of Freeport.”

When asked how he would increase diversity in the police and fire departments, Hayward explained that it is important for the police to develop a relationship with the community. He expressed his belief that the police should be building relationships with the youth to get young people “excited about being police officers” because the negative stigma towards police is deterring young people from the profession. Bush responded that as mayor he “is going to push community policing.” He explained that when he served as an alderman, “community policing really helped” to build trust and bring the neighborhood together. 

In response to Freeport’s flooding issue, particularly on the East side, Hayward said that “we have to be sentimental because these are people’s homes” so “if we have to move them, we are giving them an honest and fair opportunity” and “a decent amount of money for their land.” Bush explained that “the major issue now is rebuilding trust.” He said that the city did not think things through and residents in the flood zones of the East side should have been given different options. 

The candidates were asked about which issues they deemed the most pressing. Bush argued that street repair, water and sewage, and high water bills are the most critical problems. Hayward agreed with Bush’s list and explained that so many citizens he has spoken to want to see the streets repaired. Hayward also added that bringing “transparency and trust” between the city and the people is key. “We have to be open and honest with people about what is going on,” Hayward remarked.

Hayward and Bush were asked to describe how they would select appointees to commissions and boards. Hayward said he will be “reaching out to the community”  to “find people that have the heart to make a difference.” He said that he will find people that will not just agree with whatever he has to say because he “wants accountability.” Bush explained that “you have to announce that there is an open position for people to apply for” and that “you have to be really open, it can’t just be your buddies or your friends.” Bush expressed his disdain for the lack of different individuals being appointed to boards. “You’ve got a lot of qualified people in Freeport that can do the job instead of calling on the same ones all the time,” Bush asserted

The candidates were asked about their approach to dealing with homelessness. Bush explained that “we need to set up some kind of shelter” and a “community effort” is necessary to address the problem. He expressed that it is necessary to support the people within the community who are already working on helping the homeless. Hayward explained that he wants to “collaborate with other community leaders” to develop a program similar to that at St. Francis. He wants to help develop a program that “not only gives people a place to stay,” but also teaches people “job training skills to help people get on their feet.”

In regard to pandemic policy, Hayward explained that “it is imperative to work with local businesses” while also following the governor’s guidelines. He wants to have “an initial meeting with local businesses to come up with strategies to sustain them” and host quarterly meetings to figure out what is working and what is not. Bush explained that he “is in favor of wearing face masks” and “has no problem” enacting a city-wide face mask mandate if it is recommended to him by the health department. Bush stated, “I will rely on the scientists before I do anything

The candidates were asked about what steps they would take to improve the Social Justice Committe. Bush explained that the Social Justice Committe “was a joke” because it came up with recommendations but failed to explain how it would deliver on those recommendations. Bush felt that the Social Justice Committe was “not representative of the City of Freeport” and was upset that the youth were excluded. Hayward explained “that he liked some of things he heard from the committee” but felt that the committe was not listening to the community. He also expressed that he wants to add youth to the committee.

To build trust between the police and the community, Hayward said that he would “sit down and have a conversation with the police chief” and that the police need to be involved in the community beyond patrolling. Bush explained that police officers “have to get out of their cars” and “get involved in activities going on in neighborhoods.” He also reiterated that returning to community policing would help bring trust between the community and law enforcement.

At the end of the debate, Bush and Hayward were given the opportunity to ask each other one question. Bush asked Hayward, “On your first day in office, what are you planning on doing?” Hayward explained that he would reach out to the different committees to see if he has to make any changes. Hayward asked Bush, “With your experience…how would your approach differ [from your approach in other positions to] being mayor?” Bush explained that he would continue to reach out to citizens, as he did as an alderman, and “listen to the people

To watch the full debate, visit the Stephenson County Democrats on Facebook. Make sure to vote on, or before, February 23 to elect either Ronnie J. Bush or Walter Hayward to face incumbent mayor Jodi Miller in the general election. 

“Farah Tolu-Honary is a graduate of Freeport High School and now studies political science and international relations at Beloit College. Issues most important to her include climate change, income inequality, and foreign affairs.”