Ever since the 2019 citywide election, Bloomington’s City Council debate has devolved into a dispiriting tangle of ideological posturing, factional turf squabbles and procedural chaos. Regular sessions dragged on, sometimes into the wee hours of the morning. A deeply unpopular proposal to allow homeless encampments in public parks became a litmus test for progressive purity. The Council heard hours of heartfelt public comment opposing the mayor’s proposal to eliminate single-family zoning in residential neighborhoods — and then blithely ignored that testimony and passed the upzoning on a 5-4 vote. A petulant minority boycotted Council of the Whole meetings for much of the 2022 term, threatening the Council’s ability to raise a quorum. Many citizens tuned out completely.
Into this morass — reluctantly — steps Joe Lee, a longtime Bryan Park resident, a humorist, writer, artist, satirical cartoonist and teacher. Lee is challenging incumbent Isabel Piedmont-Smith for the Council seat in the newly-configured District 1. We welcome that challenge. Lee could be the perfect antidote to the vacuous pandering we’ve gotten used to seeing on Wednesday nights.
Joe is profoundly progressive, but with a satirist’s eye for the hollow and cynical in politics. As a regular editorial cartoonist for the Herald-Times, he has promoted climate awareness, tighter gun laws and racial justice, while skewering the Hamilton administration’s reckless pursuit of urban growth-at-any-cost. He’s become one of the city’s most consequential social and political critics.
Lee is worldly, with diverse life experience, and a cartoonist’s ability to distill complex issues down to their essence, and to let the air out of hollow rhetoric. He’s a serious student of history who has published mass audience books on diverse thinkers, movements and theories, from classical philosophy to climate change.
And he’s been a public servant, principally as a volunteer and director with diverse organizations including the InterFaith Community Winter Shelter, the County Humane Association and various non-profits supporting the arts. With appreciation for Bloomington’s unique arts community on the rise, his leadership as an administrator, teacher and youth mentor would be a welcome asset on the Council.
Lee’s platform includes a focus on workforce and affordable housing, but with a welcome recognition of the disproportionate pressure from Indiana University’s impact on demand for rental housing in the local market. He is concerned about the health, safety and dignity of the homeless in Bloomington, whose hardships he witnesses first-hand, but sophisticated enough to see the complexity of the problem, and the distinction between housing policy and policy for the welfare of the unhoused.
He voices an urgent concern for Bloomington’s creaky infrastructure, but most pointedly the need to protect Lake Monroe, questioning whether the city’s one and only water supply is adequate to support the administration’s aggressive growth plans.
A clear and consistent concern about the impact of climate change is one thing Lee has in common with his District 1 opponent. But they have different perspectives on how that concern should be expressed in public policy.
In a recent Democratic Women’s Caucus candidate’s forum, when asked to define herself in an opening statement, Isabel Piedmont-Smith led with her climate change preoccupation. For the last several years, it has been pervasive in her approach to growth and development. She cited implementing the city’s Climate Action Plan as her first priority. “We are in a climate emergency…and we need to act swiftly,” she declared.
Which is fine, and not particularly controversial. But it isn’t very useful in differentiating between Democrats running for elected office in Bloomington, Indiana. Democrats are all, essentially, on the same page with respect to the urgency of the problem. They differ only with respect to how they place climate concerns in the context of competing priorities in city-level development policymaking, and the degree to which individual citizens should be compelled to make personal sacrifices for the sake of carbon reduction measures that, while morally appealing, may not have any practical impact on the habitability of the planet. We have found Piedmont-Smith’s frequent “climate emergency” declarations in Council meetings overbearing and short-sighted.
What is genuinely differentiating among candidates for district Council seats is the degree to which they recognize their primary responsibility: To advocate for the interests of their own district constituents. Sometimes those district-specific concerns will coincide with those of the city as a whole. Often they won’t. We’re encouraged by Lee’s pledge not to put his own ideology ahead of District 1 constituents’ interests. And this is where Piedmont-Smith’s record becomes a concern.
In 2019, she expressed support for the Hamilton administration’s upzoning proposal, on what she saw as ethical, social justice and environmental grounds. But when the time came to vote for the upzoning amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance, she bowed to demands from her district constituents (which apparently were strident) to vote against the amendment. (It failed, 6-2.)
However, when the 2019 election altered the composition of the Council, giving densification proponents a shot at a majority, Hamilton brought the upzoning back, and Piedmont-Smith made it clear that she would not give in to pressure from her own constituents on the measure — implicitly acknowledging that she would vote against the interests of her district.
Many of her constituents have shown up to comment publicly at Council meetings, sometimes taking issue with her positions. In response, she has cited the interests of unnamed constituents who, she suggested, don’t have time, inclination or “privilege” to attend meetings to express themselves. In a May 2021 special session, she helped vote down an amendment removing the upzoning language from the UDO revision, explaining, “I represent people who live in Henderson Court, Acadia Court, Timber Ridge, Summit Point, Barclay Square, Walnut Springs, Walnut Grove, Walnut Woods, and Oakmont Terrace, just to name a few multifamily housing developments in District 5. I have not heard from any of them.”
It’s convenient. She makes policy based on assumed preferences of absent constituents, allowing her to claim support for whatever happens to be on her own agenda — even in the face of vociferous opposition from her own constituents who are actually in the room with her.
Piedmont-Smith has identified herself with the self-professed “progressive caucus” on the Council, along with Matt Flaherty, Steve Volan and Kate Rosenbarger. They occasionally demonstrate impatience with the Hamilton administration’s agenda, but generally have gone along with it. They have held themselves to be more authentic progressives than the other individuals on the Council, a stance that has offended many Bloomingtonians, fostered a petty turf battle over committees and contributed to the Council’s disruptive polarization.
We would welcome a change in District 1 and hope to see Joe Lee take the Democratic nomination for this seat in May.