Identity Politics and the 2022 County Election

By Peter Dorfman

In early April, as early voting was getting underway in the 2022 Monroe County primary election, the Monroe County Black Democratic Caucus and the 9th District Indiana Latino Democratic Caucus sponsored Democratic candidate forums at City Hall.

I went, expecting a preview of the tactics we’re likely to see in 2023 employed by the young ideologues who identify themselves as the “Progressive caucus” among Monroe County Democrats — principally an aggressive campaign of identity politics focused on young candidates chosen to appeal to young voters. Long story short: They did not let me down.

The county commissioners’ race is between Lee Jones, the two-term incumbent and former chairperson of the Monroe County Democratic Party whose political activities date back to her work on Frank McCloskey’s mayoral campaign, and Dominic Thompson, a young gay man (a self-identification that is front and center in his campaign) who currently heads the Bloomington Board of Housing Quality Appeals and sits on the Monroe County Affordable Housing Advisory Commission.

Jones opened by understatedly reciting her experience and ambitions (principally focused on criminal justice reform, protecting the integrity of the city’s drinking water source, and trying to provide support for people in danger of falling into homelessness), and describing the frustrations of administering county government during the COVID pandemic. Thompson needed to establish a basis for challenging Jones’ leadership, and the forum was tailor-made for that challenge.

The first question concerned the relationship between the incumbent county council and county agencies, especially the County Clerk’s office, which moderator Beverly Calender-Anderson characterized as “contentious.” She called specific attention to the fact that County Clerk Nicole Browne is the first Black woman elected to that post — a tacit challenge for Jones to prove she and her fellow commissioners gave Browne the same respect they’d have given a White clerk.

Jones didn’t take the bait. She calmly reviewed the controversy over the response to the Election Board’s request for expanded space to run early voting in local elections. The Board wanted more space in the current Election Central building at Madison and 7th; ultimately the county contracted for space in the former NAPA Auto Parts building nearby, which was ready in time for this week’s start of early voting. Jones acknowledged the tension in the prolonged, pandemic-interrupted process, but cited the outcome as a success.

Thompson, as expected, pounced.

I should preface this by saying Thompson is smart, personable and fully qualified to be a public servant. But this campaign has been designed to exploit a perceived vulnerability for Lee Jones — a kerfuffle that arose last October during a Zoom meeting where the election space issue was being discussed. Jones was accused of mouthing off-microphone mockery of Nicole Browne, who was speaking at the time. Jones later claimed she was simply caught on camera scolding her cat. (For the record, I personally watched the video multiple times; I could never see what all the fuss was about.)

The ensuing uproar went on for weeks. It came back during the forum, thinly veiled behind accusations by Thompson that people of color are not treated with the common decency accorded White officials in Monroe County government. Thompson repeatedly suggested county government (and Jones) have failed in the duty to “elevate Black and Brown voices” — what has come to be familiar rhetoric among young Bloomington progressives. It rang as cynically calculated, but it played well for this evening’s audience; throughout the exchange, the elephant in the room was Lee Jones’ cat.

Thompson’s campaign literature prominently cites affordable housing and “economic development that meets the moment we are in with climate change.” For all that, though, surprisingly little time was devoted to housing.

The county commissioners have been criticized repeatedly in the last several years for failing to green-light dense housing developments, despite the emergence of practical issues related to drainage and traffic at each of these sites. Jones noted the county has donated large tracts to Habitat for Humanity, given $2.2 million to the United Way’s Heading Home project and identified large areas of shovel-ready county land where commissioners would be likely to approve development.

Thompson offered no specific proposal for affordable housing, but voiced dissatisfaction with the county’s affordable inventory, incorporating much of the same rhetoric we heard last year during the city’s upzoning debate about representation — the absence of the “voices” of county residents who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend government meetings. As with anyone challenging an incumbent, he peppered his rhetoric with pro forma talk about “fighting” for recognition of the interests of marginalized residents.

My take: Dominic Thompson is running to be “the first LGBTQ+ County Commissioner” in Indiana. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not a qualification for office. He’s not unqualified, but his campaign is more about who he is than what he’s done. I’m put off by his pandering to Black, Brown and young audiences by exploiting the Zoom incident as a cudgel against Lee Jones — I remain unconvinced that there was ever anything to that.

I’m concerned about Thompson’s approach to housing issues; while he was never explicit about it this evening, during the recent upzoning controversy in Bloomington he posted on Facebook in support of those who argued increasing the market rate housing supply would somehow bring down rents. He has tried to promote the idea that there is meaningful differentiation among Democrats in Monroe County on racial justice and climate change; I’m not buying it. I believe Lee Jones is — quietly and self-effacingly — as committed to racial and climate justice as Dominic Thompson is.

My sense is that the incumbent county commissioners have done a decent, honorable job over the last term, and Lee Jones is a capable, ethical public servant. I support her re-election.

I stuck around for the forum for Democrats running in the primary for Indiana’s 9th District Congressional seat. My takeaway was that IU cybersecurity expert and faculty member Isak Nti Asare is an absolute rock star — the most compelling and inspiring voice I have heard in politics in years. Seriously. I was blown away, and I will vote for him, BUT…the debate moderators failed to ask the one really relevant question they needed to ask: How is even the most powerful progressive story supposed to overcome the consistent deafness to such narratives in southern Indiana? I suspect Asare has an answer to that, but no one raised the issue.

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