Q&A with Rita Ali

What inspired you to run for Peoria mayor?

This is a unique time in Peoria’s history when a new mayor will be elected amid multiple crises—a global pandemic, a recession and civic unrest. This situation requires experienced and proven leadership to spearhead collective efforts to stabilize Peoria’s social and economic climate and lead our city toward recovery and revitalization. 

Having successfully led large-scale government and business organizations, combined with extensive community work, I bring a unique set of skills to the position of mayor. Serving as an at-large member of the Peoria City Council for the past 20 months has provided me additional insight into the inner workings of city government. If elected, I will retire early from my wonderful, longtime job as vice president of workforce and diversity at Illinois Central College. I will serve as a full-time mayor without additional expense to the taxpayers or the distraction of another full-time job.

When I commit to something, I work tirelessly to see it through to completion. My father called me a “finisher,” insisting that I finish what I start. Like another, more famous Ali, I am a fighter and I never give up when it comes to something I care about. I was encouraged to run for mayor by many individuals, but I was inspired to run believing I can make a difference in moving Peoria forward. 

What are your top three issues, and how do you plan to address these issues?

As mayor, I will prioritize jobs, economic and population growth, neighborhood safety, education, and equity. I will work with my colleagues on the City Council and a broad range of key stakeholders to create a comprehensive Peoria Strategic Action Plan. This plan and vision for Peoria must be formed with a high level of citizen engagement and transparency. Strong commitments to a plan are made when the people are included in its development. There must be collaboration at all levels. The resources to make it a reality will follow. This is how I work to get things done: together, as a team.

My first and primary objective will be expanding Peoria’s economic base, which will lead to increased revenue and job creation. We must connect business and education in ways we have never done before to provide opportunities we’ve never had before. 

People are leaving Peoria due to high taxes, job loss, crime and other factors. Those who remain bear the brunt of high taxes and limited city services. We must focus on strategies to grow Peoria’s population as a means for growing our tax base and expanding our economy. 

My lifelong experience working with law enforcement and people in our community has uniquely prepared me to work cross-functionally with all stakeholders to reduce crime and its footprint in all of our neighborhoods. It is essential that we place a safety net over high-crime areas of our city, protect residents, and more effectively address criminal behavior.

Education is an area that is near and dear to my heart. Education makes the economy thrive—and most jobs today require some level of education or training beyond high school. We need more of these programs, and I want to make them real for every person who desires the opportunity. Apprenticeship models work—we know that from the trades. I will work to see more of this in Peoria.

Equity means leaving no one behind. Until we begin to fully embrace the diversity within our city, we will continue to experience great disparity and disconnect amongst our citizens. Embracing our diversity means addressing the root-cause issues of poverty; breaking down gender, racial and ethnic barriers; supporting our senior citizens and those with physical and mental challenges; and building character among our youth. These are the values of a strong city. 

Top: Asiya, Brandy and BreAija. Bottom: Rita, Devy, Davina and Nora

What is your vision for Peoria’s future?

Vision has always been a cornerstone of my leadership. I envision Peoria becoming a “smart city,” using digital technology to connect, protect and enhance the lives of citizens. I see Peoria becoming connected via technology and transportation systems, education and workforce development systems, strong community networks, and industry chains that support one another. I recently read about how Columbus, Ohio, became the fastest growing city in the Midwest—and one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Columbus is a smart city. It also developed a coordinated plan to create 150,000 jobs over a ten-year period, boosted entrepreneurship and small businesses, and involved many stakeholders to work their plan. 

Peoria can grow in a similar fashion with a bold vision that builds on our current foundation: a strong healthcare industry, advanced manufacturing, information technology expansion, and innovative, new businesses. I am excited for the thriving city that Peoria will become by working together.

Peoria’s amenities should retain and attract individuals and families seeking to live a quality lifestyle. This means great schools, a healthy environment, well-paying job opportunities, quality housing, wonderful parks, thriving social outlets, supportive faith communities, and a network of strong businesses. There should be plenty of places to shop, eat and play. Too often, young people in Peoria complain that there is not enough to do here. I want to remove those words from their vocabulary by creating many options. There should be no reason to have to leave this region for entertainment, shopping or social activities. 

We will be proactive at establishing a plan and measuring our progress as a city. As mayor, I will work with city staff to establish a dashboard that communicates our progress to the public. Along with key stakeholder organizations, we will set goals for creating a specific number of living-wage jobs, a specific number of new or newly renovated homes in specific parts of the city, a specific number of new homeowners, and a specific number of new businesses over a sustained period. Entrepreneurship should flourish in Peoria. I also want to bring Amtrak passenger rail to Peoria as another connector and mode of transportation.

Peoria should be known as a safe city. Unfortunately, that is not the current perception. We must address crime and its root causes more effectively. Additional resources—including technology, equipment, community outreach support and other programs—will be required. These resources must be secured from external public and private grants. 

Peoria is currently listed as one of the top 100 “Most Educated Cities in America” (#87 on Wallethub). We have a wealth of brilliant minds in and near Peoria. Through an initiative I call “Lend Us Your Best,” I will create a core group of volunteers, with skills and expertise in several key areas, that can help accelerate Peoria forward—digital engineers, strategic planners, grant writers, fundraisers, financial experts—those who have the time to take on projects the city cannot afford to pay for. Some may come on loan from corporations, while others will step forward or be called upon. “Lend Us Your Best” will recruit those willing and able to help.

My vision is for Peoria to become one of the best cities in America to live, work and play. 

Why are you the best candidate to serve in this position?

My extensive leadership experience and credentials, proven success in securing millions of dollars in external funding for innovative workforce and education programs, and documented strategies for building bridges between people and communities makes me the right candidate to serve as Peoria’s mayor. I urge voters to review my background at ritaali.com and participate in one (or more) of my “Rounds with Rita” virtual discussion sessions. I am passionate about building a stronger Peoria that future generations will enjoy and be proud of.

Considering the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our community, its people, its businesses and organizations, Peoria needs a leader who understands pain. Peoria needs a leader who can manage under crisis. Peoria needs a leader who is in touch with all parts of this community. 

With humility, I attest that I have experienced the pain associated with poverty, having been a single parent on welfare as a young adult. I have worked most of my adult life helping individuals to improve their lives and incomes through higher education and job training. With empathy, I have helped them remove barriers to their success and cried at their graduation ceremonies. I have been trained in crisis management and I problem-solve every single day of my life. My life is a testimony of challenges overcome. I am a product of Peoria—the life I have lived here, the mentorship I have received here, the success I have had here. As mayor, I will be the champion that Peoria needs here and now.

Anything else you’d like to add?

My mindset is that every problem is an opportunity. Peoria is struggling, and it has been further beaten down by a terrible pandemic. But through this crisis, we have learned how to work differently, how to learn differently, and how to connect differently. These will be opportunities for our future. My focus will be on our strengths. Our greatest asset is our people, and that is who I will work with to serve passionately. Muhammad Ali said, “You don’t lose if you get knocked down; you lose if you stay down.” Peoria will not stay down! PM