By Peter Dorfman
The state legislature in the authoritarian principality of Florida is mulling over a new bill that would require bloggers who write about Ron DeSantis to register with the state. I should be distressed by this. But actually it amuses me, in light of the small formality I’ve just undertaken on behalf of The Dissident Democrat, right here in puritanically liberal Bloomington.
I did this at the friendly but firm suggestion of Monroe County Democratic Party Chairman David Henry, who had called to notify me that some unidentified person or persons had requested that the party and the county Board of Elections investigate our activities. The apparent concern was that our advocacy, through the blog, our Facebook group and occasional emails, fell under the definition of a PAC, and that therefore we should be required to register and disclose our finances — who was funding Dissident Democrats and what we were doing with the money.
My first reaction was that this was a ludicrous attempt at intimidation. Not everyone appreciates what we’re doing; that’s to be expected. But it had never occurred to me that Dissident Democrats might be doing what a PAC does, because I’d always thought of PACs in terms of campaign finance law. The Dissident Democrat expresses some strong, iconoclastic opinions, but has never had any involvement in fundraising and has essentially no assets.
But it turns out that that’s not what defines a PAC, at least not in Indiana. The actual definition is in Ind. Code § 3-5-2-37, and it goes as follows:
(a) Except as provided in subsection (b), “political action committee” means an organization located within or outside Indiana that satisfies all of the following:
(1) The organization proposes to influence:
…(A) the election of a candidate for state, legislative, local, or school board office; or
…(B) the outcome of a public question.
(2) The organization accepts contributions or makes expenditures during a calendar year:
…(A) to influence the election of a candidate for state, legislative, local, or school board office or the outcome of a public question that will appear on the ballot in Indiana; and
…(B) that in the aggregate exceed one hundred dollars ($100).
OK. In a roundabout way, Dissident Democrats does feel as though it meets some of those criteria…now, at least. But it hasn’t always.
Are we an organization? Mostly it’s been a one-person operation since the blog began publishing in November 2020. I established the blog as a platform for opponents to sound off on the Hamilton Administration’s proposal to resuscitate the just-defeated amendment to Bloomington’s Unified Development Ordinance to do away with single-family zoning. Various local experts wrote posts, but it was still basically just me maintaining the website and talking people into reading it. But a few months into this, I got a few anti-upzoning stalwarts with whom I talked regularly to agree to be identified as an Editorial Board. At that point, I could concede, we became at least a proto-organization.
Was our mission PAC-like? Not at first. What we were trying to do initially was to convince city officials to vote down the upzoning amendments to the UDO. So were we trying to “influence the outcome of a public question”? Actually no — under Indiana law, a public question is one that appears on a ballot. The amendments to the UDO never did.
In fact, this was principally what motivated the creation of the blog and ultimately the Facebook group. We have representative democracy in Indiana, meaning the citizens have no direct say in issues like amendments to the UDO, which can be hugely consequential. Local government is required to give us opportunities to comment on issues like this — e.g., public comment time during Plan Commission or City Council meetings — but elected officials or appointees aren’t required to take our input into account when they decide on such things. We have a direct say only once every four years, when citywide elections come around, and we don’t get a vote on policies or expenditures of our tax dollars. We only get a vote on who gets to make those policies or spend that money.
The upzoning was defeated in the City Council that held the vote in 2019. But by then, it was clear that upzoning supporters would gain a net two seats on the Council in January 2020, when Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger replaced outgoing members Andy Ruff and Chris Sturbaum. And it was clear that the new upzoning proposal would be one of the 2020 Council’s earliest priorities, because the strategy would be to ram it through as far as possible before the 2023 election.
The new Council finally succeeded in May, 2021, after a long, angry and polarizing public debate. The night the Council passed the upzoning amendments on a 5-4 vote, the mission of Bloomington Dissident Democrats changed — arguably to one that meets the definition of an Indiana PAC.
As of May 11, 2021, the mission shifted to what the blog’s stated mission is now: “In the 2023 election, we will work to remove the irresponsible elected officials who brought this [the upzoning] about.”
In other words, sure, now we’re working to influence the outcome of an election. The aforementioned “irresponsible elected officials” know who they are and what, by expressing our First Amendment protected opinions, we’re trying to do. Today, in fact, we’re making our first candidate endorsement in the 2023 citywide election. More are coming.
Have we spent an aggregate of over $100? Well, I have, but not by much. As a PAC, Dissident Democrats will be required to file the same CFA-4 financial disclosure forms that candidates have to file. But hey, why wait? Here’s the breakdown:
- We have a website, with a private domain (stopbtownupzoning.org). It costs $67 each year to keep that going. Since May 2021, I’ve done that twice. I spend nothing else to produce the blog — all graphics are sourced from royalty-free stock photo sites. The Facebook group costs nothing to maintain.
- There is a t-shirt with the Bloomington Dissident Democrats logo on it. If you go to the home page of the blog, there is a link to a site where you can order several versions of this t-shirt. No one’s ever done it, except me. One t-shirt exists. You’ll see me in it around town when the weather warms up. It cost $25.
That, literally, is it. We’re a 100% BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) operation. Yes, I maintain the blog on a computer, arguably a capital asset. Mine is nine years old. It runs Windows 7. I have no idea what my editorial board members use.
The editorial board has met once in person. I suppose, if pressed, I could accept the argument that our expenditures include the costs of hosting that meeting. You can put us down for six teabags, a plate of cookies and a couple of fireplace logs.
Maybe the most amusing moment in my conversation with David Henry was when he mentioned that the individual or individuals who originally argued that we should be required to register as a PAC had suggested the blog content itself was an asset. In more technical terms, they had contended that every blog post was an in-kind contribution to Bloomington Dissident Democrats that needed to be assigned a dollar value and accounted for.
To which I responded, “Horsefeathers” (or something to that effect). These posts are essentially letters to the editor. Every such contribution is entirely voluntary. No one expects any compensation for any of it. If someone seriously wants to make an issue of this, well, we now have both feet planted firmly in DeSantisburg. See you in court.
The fact that a handful of people, sounding off on a blog and in a Facebook group, have enough clout in Bloomington to prompt an investigation of our potential PAC status says something about the stakes of the 2023 election. But it also seems to attest to the power of free or cheap media to influence voters — or at least to push campaigns into panic mode. Which seems ironic in an election where hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent to influence an electorate of roughly 8000 voters.
But carry on, Bloomington. As the French writer and actress Colette said, “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”