The Dissident Democrat came into existence in November, 2020, a year after the re-election (unopposed) of Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton, and a new City Council slate that foreshadowed our city government’s ideological polarization. (The blog began as “Stop Bloomington Upzoning” — it acquired its present name in May 2021, the night the Council voted in favor of Bloomington’s clueless and potentially destructive upzoning.)
The blog, and the people behind it, have been focused ever since on the 2023 Democratic primary election for Mayor and City Council. Because this is how representative democracy works here: The individual residents of the town have an opportunity to vent their opinions but no real say in the policies of the administration, its commissions and the Council. We get to assert ourselves only once every four years, when mayoral and Council terms end.
We have generated a message that has resonated for a largish contingent of Bloomingtonians who haven’t forgotten the upzoning controversy or the way the Hamilton Administration and their allies on the City Council disrespected and stifled dissent from the growth agenda that initiative embodied.
What we’ve been saying throughout this several-year debate has resonated among diverse segments of the citizenry — not just in the core neighborhoods but everywhere in the town, from Broadview to Blue Ridge, and out in Monroe County as well.
The message also has hit home among this town’s Republicans — disenfranchised as they are by Bloomington’s de facto one-party government. Many local Republicans strongly objected to the upzoning and the arrogant, condescending way the Hamilton Administration and the Council’s self-proclaimed “progressive wing” brought it about.
We’re working to identify and help draw attention to current officeholders and new candidates who argued alongside us that the administration’s growth agenda was foolish. Opponents of that agenda turned out in droves during the upzoning debate, almost always representing a majority among the audiences for Plan Commission and Council debates. We have worked to hold that opposition together for more than two years, in anticipation of our opportunity to vote the architects of this growth policy out of office.
As a caucus, Bloomington Dissident Democrats will be active between now and May, in various ways — announcements to come. In the meantime, we would like to share some general observations on the election and the political process in Bloomington.
We need to resist suggestions that we share all the issues and opportunities that are relevant in big cities. We like to think of ourselves as a big, fast-growing city, but WE’RE NOT.
Bloomington candidates need to be able to differentiate between macro issues (e.g., climate change, abortion rights), which are important but beyond the scope of local government, and issues we can deal with meaningfully at the level of small city government.
Consider climate change. Yes, the city can take very meaningful steps toward hardening its built environment to withstand the problems we know are coming. And yes, we can reduce our climate impact as a city — for example, we can opt for adaptive reuse of serviceable, existing buildings instead of demolishing them to make way for new construction when the use changes. (There is nothing more environmentally irresponsible that you can do with a building than tearing it down.) Certainly it’s worth promoting solar energy conversion for houses and commercial/institutional buildings.
What we need to stop doing is disingenuously pushing climate as a rationalization for other priorities, as the administration and its allies on the Plan Commission and City Council attempted to do with upzoning.
There are many issues for which we simply have no measures we can take at the city government level, except issue proclamations and ask our citizens to make individually gratifying but ultimately symbolic gestures of solidarity. There’s nothing wrong with having positions on these macro issues, but those positions are not meaningfully differentiating among competing Democrats.
From the perspective of the election, if a candidate’s signature issue is human rights advocacy or climate change, we may agree, but we also need to hear about how these lofty goals apply to local challenges. City administration requires a focus upon realistic assessments and pragmatic solutions that can be implemented.
We’re in southern Indiana, and we have very little influence on surrounding counties. That’s a hard realization for a lot of idealistic Bloomingtonians, but southern Indiana barely seems to notice what we do here.
Bloomington has its own, more immediate problems, and those are more relevant in a citywide election campaign.
That includes the relationships between the administration and the City Council — which should be co-equal — and between city and county government.
We have geographic Council districts because people in one area of Bloomington have different interests and issues than people in other areas of the city.
Every district representative on the Council needs to understand and be able to articulate the issues of his or her district constituents, and care enough to pursue and try to resolve those issues — they are NOT the same as citywide issues or those consistent with the Council member’s personal ideological agenda.
How big is Bloomington, really? Is it growing? If it is, how fast, and what’s driving its growth?
How big should Bloomington be? What is our growth objective and why?
What sacrifices are appropriate to ask of residents in support of that growth?
What is city government’s responsibility with respect to growth, and what is the role of “the market”? Private investment isn’t an uncontrollable force — we can and should shape its effects through policy-making.
IU needs to take more responsibility for the consequences of its growth, especially given its refusal to house more than a small percentage of its students, and given the growth of its local real estate holdings.
IU can look out for its own interests. City government should, wherever the town’s interests come into conflict with the university’s, advocate for the town.
We reject the notion that simply adding more market rate housing stock will contribute anything meaningful toward increasing the availability of affordable housing.
We reject any assessment of our housing inventory that doesn’t count housing outside the city in Monroe County, as well as within the city limits.
We assert that any reasonable strategy regarding improvement of affordability in Bloomington focus at least as much on increasing area median incomes and increasing and broadening local employment opportunity as on lowering rents.
We’ll have comments in the coming weeks about specific issues facing Bloomington and its governing bodies. But those are some of the basic principles we believe should be guiding our political process. Stay tuned. You’ll be hearing from us.
- Peter Dorfman
- Jon Lawrence
- James Rosenbarger
- Jean Simonian
- Janice Sorby
- Chris Sturbaum