We Endorse: Sue Sgambelluri (City Council District 2)

In the 2023 Democratic primary, voters have some clear and stark choices, between pragmatic, open-minded problem-solvers and rigid, ivory tower ideologues embracing a singular, aggressive growth philosophy that would urbanize Bloomington’s residential neighborhoods. Nowhere is this difference clearer or more distinct than in the race for Council District 2, on the city’s northwest side.

Due to the recent City Council redistricting, that race pits two incumbents against one another: Current District 1 Representative Kate Rosenbarger lives in Prospect Hill, which is now in District 2, and must run against fellow-incumbent Sue Sgambelluri. Both were elected to their first term in 2019. But that’s about all they have in common.

For the District 2 City Council seat, we endorse Sue Sgambelluri for re-election.

Sgambelluri is the current City Council President. She has been thoughtful, ideologically neutral and objective; pro-business and pro-growth but generally for sound reasons. We assess her as one of the sharpest thinkers on the Council. 

District 2 Council Member Sue Sgambelluri

Sue takes the job of a Council member seriously. We noticed her at a Plan Commission meeting one night in June 2019 — first on the agenda was that huge student housing complex at the Motel 6 site, in the Council district that was going to be Sue’s but wasn’t yet. She’d won the nomination only a few weeks earlier. Still, she was there, getting up to speed on a significant issue. It was the responsible thing to do.

She was far and away the most impressive of the freshman Council members who appeared on January 7, 2020 on WFIU’s Noon Edition show. She clearly understood the opportunity for affordable housing on South Walnut (using buildings bought by the city and then sold to developers). She understood that, while the new Council was preoccupied with climate change, it would constantly have to deal with tradeoffs between climate and other considerations in development decisions. Not a stroke of genius, but Sue was the only one who articulated it.

We haven’t agreed with every position she has taken in her first term. We appreciate her vote against the upzoning in 2021, but were disappointed that she did not support the follow-up amendment to create an occupancy rate incentive to promote affordable rents in new duplexes. And we differ with her on her recent support of expanding the Monroe County Convention Center. (Rosenbarger opposed that expansion; it’s one of the few positions where we agree with Kate.)

But Sue clearly understands the role of a district Council member, which is, first and foremost, to represent the interests of her constituents in District 2. Those are different from those of District 1, or 4, or 6 constituents, and will come into conflict sometimes with the citywide objectives of the administration – and sometimes her own inclinations. This is something truly differentiating among Council candidates and, again, nowhere more so than in District 2.

Take the proposal for the city to buy the western half of the Showers Plaza and move the Bloomington Police Department there. Sgambelluri made it clear that she saw benefits in the city owning the entire building, which is also City Hall. But she listened when district residents objected to the likely hazards of police traffic coming and going from the site, often crossing the B Line Trail – the hazards highlighted by the union representing rank and file police who opposed the move. She ultimately voted against the Showers purchase, at least partly against her own inclination. 

Rosenbarger, by contrast, originally voiced the same concerns about safe entry and egress at the Showers site – she characterized the idea of police cruisers regularly crossing the B Line as “a little terrifying.” But she ultimately caved to pressure from the mayor, with whom she typically has been in close alignment, and voted for the Showers deal.

Kate was elected in the May 2019 primary, at a time of widespread anti-incumbent sentiment. She ran an energetic and effective campaign, coordinating closely with Matt Flaherty, her brother-in-law. (Then and now, they use the same yard sign graphics.) 

But we sense a lot of “buyer’s remorse” among voters who supported her. A fervent supporter of the supply-side housing theory that expressed itself in the upzoning of Bloomington’s residential neighborhoods, she has consistently put her personal ideological agenda ahead of the interests of her own district constituents, who turned out in droves at Council meetings to oppose the elimination of single-family zoning.

It often has seemed that Kate sees her principal role on the Council as being the conscience of the city on matters of racial justice. One of the most arrogant displays of dogmatic pretense came on May 6, 2020, when Kate harangued her Council colleagues about the continuing existence of single family zoning in Bloomington – she characterized it as an artifact of institutionalized racism (in a self-demeaning misreading of Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law”).

Kate has aligned herself with a self appointed “progressive” Council faction that pushes a top-down growth agenda based on the supposed benefits of densifying neighborhoods. It was that densification project that energized many Bloomingtonians in opposition to the mayor’s upzoning proposal and led to the creation of Bloomington Dissident Democrats. So it should come as no surprise that we oppose Kate’s re-election to the Council. (We would even if she wasn’t facing such a distinguished opponent.) 

But there’s more at stake than housing ideology. The factional split on the City Council has led to absurd levels of unnecessary procedural chaos. We’ll have more to say about this when we assess the candidacies of Kate’s factional allies (Matt Flaherty and Steve Volan, who are running at large, and Isabel Piedmont-Smith, candidate for the reconfigured Council District 1).

In addition to being an ideological antagonist, Kate, to many of her constituents, has just been a disappointment. She sometimes seems disengaged from the job; she often sits passively and says little in Council meetings, which during the pandemic she seemed frequently to have attended from a place she keeps in Colorado. (Constituents wondered aloud at the time whether Kate actually lives in Bloomington.) 

Asked in a recent Dissident Democrats survey why she deserves to be re-elected, Sue Sgambelluri responded: “The issues we face as a city – and as neighborhoods – are complex, and the decisions that come before Council are often difficult and nuanced. I believe we need public servants (emphasis on the word ‘servants’) who bring energy, a solid work ethic, an understanding of the needs and opportunities in our neighborhoods, a sincere respect for varied viewpoints, and balanced, broad-based insight and expertise.”

We agree, both with the statement and with the assessment that Sue has embodied those qualities. She has our support.

%d bloggers like this: