CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Tom Bruno, after a two-and-a-half decade career, is arguably the most well-known face on the Champaign City Council and not just for his iconic mustache.

For the first time in 25 years, Bruno does not plan to seek re-election and will step away from his seat at the end of the term in April, he said.

His streak began in 1997. Bruno said he spotted a newspaper headline in a vendor box on a walk through Lincoln Square Mall: Councilmember Ed Ryan was resigning, “and he was moving to Arizona,” Bruno remembered.

He thought back to his dad, a smalltown village council member in suburban chicago… And he threw his hat in the ring.

Bruno was one of 18 vying to fill the vacancy for one of three at-large council seats, representing the entire city.

“My father was on the Westmont Village Council,” a small-town in the western Chicago suburbs, he said.

“It was one of the things I admired about my late father. So when I saw this opportunity, I thought, Okay, I’ll throw my hat in the ring.”

Bruno was selected with five votes from the council and first took a seat in the Champaign chambers on Aug. 5, 1997.

“You go from the audience, you walk up front and take your seat. And that was a little unnerving to you go over there and not even know if you’re gonna be on the city council, and an hour later, you’re sitting up there voting on council bills,” he recalled.

“I fell in love with it.”

Bruno won his first election two years later in 1999 and has held the seat since.

Notable moments from his memories as a member are defined both by changes made in the city and proposed changes that never came to be.

Bruno first raised the idea of internet access for city employees in 1999 allowing for email between staff.

“They would have come around to that without me, that’s for sure,” he said, “But I wanted to lead that move to, ‘Hey, we, you know, we have to be ahead of this curve.”

His pitch a couple of years later for a fixed guideway tram system from Lincoln Square to downtown Champaign (with a section that went out to University of Illinois sports facilities) was less successful.

“It was going to cost about 33 million bucks that the federal government was going to pay for, and the City of Champaign had to come up with like a matching $3 million,” Bruno said of the early 2000s plan.

“But we didn’t do it. The community turned against that idea. We took a pass on it, and the rest is history.”

The city’s 2006 indoor smoking ban was another controversial point on his timeline. Champaign Council, with Bruno on board, beat the Illinois General Assembly to prohibiting smoking in indoor public places.

“Oh my gosh, the hand wringing and the angst and the gnashing of teeth,” Bruno said, sometimes the price of pushing Champaign to be a “cutting-edge” city.

“I mean, I had business owners at the time coming to me saying, ‘Everybody in my bowling alley, my bar, everybody smokes. If you ban that, I’m gonna go out of business’…But of course, they were wrong.”

Council ended up repealing the ban in 2007 following the enaction of a statewide ban.

Rewind a bit to 2002, Bruno was at the center of another debate brought in by none other than the Chicago Bears. Soldier Field went through a remodel that year, and the football team needed to play an entire season outside of Chicago. The University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign was selected.

A council debate was soon sparked by the city’s prohibition of morning liquor sales on Sundays, an issue for fans tailgating ahead of several noon kickoffs.

“‘We’re going to hell in a handbasket if we allow people to buy a six-pack of beer on a Sunday morning,'” Bruno said of the discussion to lift the ban for the weeks the team played in town.

“Spontaneously at that city council meeting, I talked to a colleague and I suggested, let’s do this, not just for the six or eight games that the Bears are gonna play, let’s do this every Sunday morning. Why do we say you can’t buy beer on Sunday morning?” he said.

“Because the puritans on the Champaign City Council said, Sunday is the day of worship.”

Five votes later, Sundays also became a day those in Champaign can buy beer as early as they please (or as early as stores are willing to open their doors).

Bruno turned some heads again with his outspoken support of recreational marijuana legalization, which became a reality in Illinois in 2020. He was in line at Champaign’s Sunnyside Dispensary on New Year’s morning.

“Because I was going to wake up and watch the Rose Bowl and be one of the first purchasers of cannabis edibles or gummies,” he said.

“I don’t find anything immoral about alcohol use. I don’t find anything immoral about cannabis use.”

He also prides himself on political neutrality, something he said he’s noticed is dwindling into a divide in the audience at council meetings. The tension hit a boiling point when Champaign Police Officer Chris Oberheim was shot and killed last year, Bruno said.

“There’s the anti-police people on one side and the pro-police people on the other side. And they’re all angry, they’re angry with each other, they’re angry with us. They’re screaming,” he continued.

“There’s such division in our country that you’re either in one camp or the other, and it was hard to find,” he paused. “Hard to find our way through that.”

As he gears up to step down in April, he hopes partisan politics keep out of the chambers amongst elected members.

“I would be horrified if the power of partisan politics became more prominent on the city council. I’d like to see it stay where your partisan affiliation has very little to do with your work on the city council.”

Bruno will continue the criminal law practice he’s been running since 1980, now alongside his two sons.

His iconic mustache, on the other hand, that’s been around far longer than either career. He said the inspiration came during a summer study-abroad trip to Spain following his freshman year of high school.

“When I came back from my sophomore year in high school, not only was I just about the only person in the school, my age that had facial hair, but I had a full mustache,” Bruno shared.

Aside from another clean-shaven period junior year, he said by senior year, the mustache was on his face to stay.

“My wife has never seen me without a mustache, my children who are in their 30s now have never seen me without a mustache,” he said. “So that’s the story.”

Bruno didn’t have any specific goals for his remaining months. He’ll continue to tackle the issues as he always has, he said, which is “as they come.” He said won’t be supporting any candidate as his replacement, but he looks forward to a fresh perspective and new, big ideas.