We Endorse: Susan Sandberg (Mayor)

Bloomington Dissident Democrats has published a series of candidate endorsements for the 2023 citywide Democratic primary election. Thus far, we’ve held off on an endorsement for mayor, because we’ve anticipated a string of candidate forums and media analyses that we felt might shed some important light on this three-way race, and another round of campaign finance reports is due next week.

But early voting is now underway, the candidates have elaborated on their early positions, and media and forum moderators have — finally — begun to ask the right kinds of questions. We’re satisfied that the candidates have given us what we need to differentiate them effectively.

For mayor of Bloomington, we endorse At Large City Council Member Susan Sandberg.

This primary has been:

  1. Ridiculously expensive, and
  2. As expected, a referendum on the two-term administration of current Mayor John Hamilton.

Hamilton ruled out a run for a third term back in November, but ever since, his administration has been conducting an aggressive, non-stop, tax-funded campaign to burnish his image and cement his legacy as a progressive success. This primary will furnish a verdict on that legacy, and in our judgment, based on voter interaction, media coverage, donor activity and candidate messaging, sentiment in Bloomington is running strongly against the mayor and his administration. This is a wave election, with Democrats competing to distinguish themselves as change candidates.

Candidate Don Griffin was Deputy Mayor in this administration until this January, and we are not the only ones who perceive him as Hamilton’s handpicked successor and heir to the administration’s legacy. Griffin has challenged us directly on this position, adamantly insisting he is his own man. He’s a longtime Bloomington real estate entrepreneur and a success at it, and was involved in non-profits and public sector commissions long before he was Hamilton’s right hand. He’s certainly capable of expressing independent ideas.

But we don’t believe he can escape the perception of his being closely tied to the Hamilton administration and its policies. Hamilton worked hard to push Griffin into the public eye in the run-up to Griffin’s campaign launch. And those of us who attended City Council meetings leading up to the controversial purchase of the west side of the Showers complex to house the police and fire department headquarters witnessed Griffin’s vigorous defense of that deal first-hand. (We believe it will turn out to be a poorly vetted and deeply flawed investment).

It would have helped Griffin’s case if he’d taken positions, in his own campaign, that challenged the Hamilton legacy. But he hasn’t. One of his campaign planks is an objective to increase the city’s anemic homeownership rate. But asked how that can be achieved, he told a forum audience, “I know how to do it—we’ve got the people in place at city hall already ready to go.” In other words, trust me, and trust city staffers who already work for John Hamilton.

He strongly supports Hamilton’s overblown, oversized, expensively litigious and downright hostile annexation of the city’s suburbs. Griffin’s pushed for a rapid growth agenda that embodies the highly suspect notion that Bloomington’s prosperity depends on the city’s getting bigger and denser. He alludes to a vague priority of “protecting neighborhoods” amid all this growth, but never explains how. And he has publicly projected the city’s population growth at 1200 to 1500 new residents a year — an unattributed fiction even more exaggerated than Hamilton’s repeated assertion of 1000 a year.

All of this has turned out to be a bit awkward when both of Griffin’s mayoral opponents — and multiple candidates for City Council seats — have adopted a common vision of a city that is better, but not necessarily bigger. (We concur.) This year’s referendum on the Hamilton legacy also has become a referendum on its urban growth agenda, and we believe the early returns are not good news for the “growth is good” constituency.

At Large City Council member and mayoral candidate Susan Sandberg

Griffin’s challengers are Susan Sandberg, now in her fifth term as an At Large member of the City Council, and Kerry Thomson, a 25-year Bloomington resident, former head of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter and current executive director of an Indiana University-affiliated “community-facing funding organization” called the Center for Rural Engagement, who is running as an outsider reform candidate.

Both women have sharply criticized the Hamilton administration’s record and called for a change of direction for the city. Both have been vocal opponents of the administration’s upzoning amendment to the Unified Development Ordinance, and have condemned the scale and aggressiveness of the forced annexation of the suburbs. Both have questioned urban growth as an ideal.

And both women have made experience a central theme of their campaigns — in Sandberg’s case, first-hand experience in city government, over the course of four elections and 17 budget cycles (she got more votes than any other Council candidate in 2019), and in Thomson’s, experience as an executive, albeit in the private not-for-profit sector. Experience, of course, is a two-edged sword, both providing reassurance and exposing vulnerabilities.

More about that below; first, though, we need to talk about money.

We don’t have the current campaign financial statements yet, but we suspect the April reports will just confirm what we learned from the 2022 fundraising disclosures we got in January: Kerry Thomson will have raised and spent vastly more campaign cash than either of her rivals. Susan Sandberg, who has declined contributions from big real estate developers who typically donate heavily in towns like Bloomington, will have raised…a whole lot less.

Thomson’s war chest (probably Griffin’s too; we’ll know soon) represent — quite literally — an embarrassment of riches. That is, we have difficulty imagining how a campaign in a small town like Bloomington, with a voter turnout consistently around 8000 in citywide elections, can productively spend anything like what Thomson has raised. (We’re guessing it’s north of $150,000.) The cynics among us can’t help wondering where the money is going and who’s benefiting and how.

She has taken on an out-of-town, professional campaign management team. Her print matter is expensively produced. We have previously criticized her investment, early in the season, in a push poll (an underhanded gimmick in which a campaign ad is disguised as a third-party research survey). She never explained this move to our satisfaction, but we’re willing to write it off as a rookie mistake by a first-time candidate with more campaign money than her campaign could figure out how to spend responsibly.

Thomson’s big-dollar donors have included a fair number of people with ties to large-scale real estate development. Her campaign has characterized these donors as past contributors to Habitat for Humanity during her tenure who simply trust her leadership. But in a town where real estate interests have (we believe) outsized access, influence and power, this concerns us. And it makes Sandberg’s pledge not to take developer money a meaningful differentiator.

There is no denying, though, that a lot of people, including a lot of influential Bloomingtonians, have looked at Kerry Thomson and liked what they saw. Among the three mayoral hopefuls, she’s the most youthful. People seem to relate to her image as an energetic, liberal, professional, bicycle-commuting mom of five.

And she has benefited from being the outsider when many voters, frustrated by arrogant, top-down, my-way-or-the-highway imposition of unpopular policy by the current administration, and backbiting and process chaos in an ideologically divided City Council, are disgusted with local government and anxious to see some new faces.

It’s an ingrained American habit to look for leadership from a charismatic individual who offers to take the reins and single-handedly overhaul a decadent, fat and happy system. Thomson’s campaign origin story about riding into Bloomington on her bicycle 25 years ago and adopting it as her own plays to that sentiment. We understand. But recent developments in US politics have made us wary of this kind of appeal.

Some of Thomson’s backers have pointed to Susan Sandberg’s 17 years of experience on the City Council and sought to turn that into a weakness. They have suggested, because misguided policies have been imposed and mistakes have been made during the last two administrations “on her watch,” that this makes Sandberg “part of the problem.” We fundamentally disagree.

State law mandates that cities govern themselves via a “strong mayor” system, in which the mayor controls most of the appointments to city commissions and the administration draws up the budgets, which the City Council must vote up or down as a whole. Council members put themselves on the record as voting for or against every component of the budget. Mayors can get what they want by embedding unpopular measures in a budget or tax increase bill that contains some must-pass component. (A recent example: The essential salary bump for Bloomington’s police officers.)

For years, Susan Sandberg has been a steadfast ally of constituents in Bloomington’s residential neighborhoods as the Hamilton administration rolled out growth and development policies that threatened to undermine the character and integrity of those neighborhoods. The administration has been on a misguided campaign to urbanize the core neighborhoods by amending the UDO to eliminate single-family zoning and forcefully densify these areas. This sparked a backlash.

Neighbors rallied to convince the Council to defeat the upzoning proposal in 2019, but a thin majority on the newly-composed Council ignored equally-intense opposition in 2021 and passed the upzoning on a 5-4 vote. In both instances, Susan Sandberg was an essential, eloquent and forceful leader on the Council in supporting the neighborhoods and opposing the upzoning.

To her credit, Thomson spoke out against the upzoning, during the public comment period at several Council meetings. She expressed doubts about the efficacy of increased density in promoting affordability or diversity in these neighborhoods. She expressed these concerns as a resident of one of the affected neighborhoods (Elm Heights), not as a legislator involved daily in the decision process. But then, as now, her comments were taken with a certain deference because of her background at Habitat for Humanity.

This is curious, actually, because Habitat’s mission is to lift a certain, qualified minority of lower middle income people into the opportunity for homeownership. That’s an admirable goal, worthy of support and gratitude. But it’s not really an affordable housing mission, in the sense that we in Bloomington commonly treat affordable housing as a subject of policy debate. (It’s not focused on the shortage of rental housing available to people making below-median incomes.) Nevertheless, Thomson is widely assumed to have practical solutions to the affordability issue.

Thomson has, in fact, gotten a lot of presumed legitimacy for free. In 2022 alone, she was able to raise $93,000 in campaign contributions without taking a single substantive position on any issue of direct relevance to Bloomington voters.

Back in February, Sandberg’s campaign ran an ad in the Herald-Times promoting a highly specific “Six-Point Plan” for the city, one that rose above the vague generalities about equity, social justice and “inclusion” on which political debates are often based in Bloomington. In it, she specifically pledged:

  1. To work toward repealing the mayor’s annexation law;
  2. To reverse the upzoning, stop rubber-stamping giant student housing developments and pursue public/private partnerships for affordable housing developments, starting in Hopewell;
  3. To fully fund basic services, including reinstatement of the leaf pickup program;
  4. To prioritize public safety hiring at competitive salaries in the budget;
  5. To support the county’s litigation to stop clear-cutting in the Lake Monroe watershed; and
  6. To repair relationships with the county and other stakeholders and establish more transparency to constituents.

Essentially everyone agrees that the Hamilton administration has failed in its commitment to transparency and done a horrible job of communicating and collaborating with other stakeholders. Item 6 isn’t terribly specific about how a Sandberg administration would fix these issues, although she has engaged directly with the county on the convention center expansion. And she joined the County Council and commissioners in opposing Hamilton’s non-profit City of Bloomington Capital Improvement, Inc., the 501(c)(3) entity the mayor forced through as an alternative to the publicly-accountable capital improvement board that city and county legislators wanted.

But the other items on Sandberg’s list set a new standard for specificity and clarity of purpose in Bloomington policy prescriptions. The ad was a campaign game-changer.

Thomson has countered with a “Five-Point Housing Plan” and a “Blueprint for Bloomington” of her own. But they lack the concreteness of the Sandberg proposals. On housing, she starts with “implementing” the 2020 Housing Study — a Hamilton initiative that included some action items that have yet to be realized. Much of Thomson’s program strikes us as more aspirational than practical; she talks more about the end results she would like to see than how she would go about achieving them. (She did, in early February, introduce a laudably specific plan to make government more transparent.)

We believe the difference in the two campaigns’ bulleted plans reflects the advantage of Sandberg’s first-hand experience in city government, and we believe that advantage is material.

We like Sandberg’s willingness to call her differences with the administration into sharp focus. Witness the recent discussion of the proposed closing of Lower Cascades Drive. In a recent forum, Thomson couldn’t quite bring herself to oppose it outright; Sandberg was blunt in condemning the move.

Thomson makes a lot of her executive experience, at Habitat and at the IU Center for Rural Engagement. It’s a fair point, but we think not as essential as the experience Sandberg brings as a member of the Council often voting in opposition to the administration’s aims. Our view is that the administration and the Council should be truly co-equals, but in Bloomington they clearly aren’t. We believe the likelihood that the next mayor will work to address that imbalance is higher if that mayor is Susan Sandberg.

We also would relish the poetic irony of the least-lavishly funded campaign emerging as the winner in this year’s primary.

We’ve known and trusted Sandberg for years. She’s been a friend and ally in the disputes between the neighborhoods and this very imperious administration. We think it’s likely we could have developed a similar bond of trust with Kerry Thomson had she run for a City Council seat which, given her charisma and fundraising skills, she almost certainly would have won. But she made a different choice. We wish both candidates well, but hope to welcome Susan Sandberg as our next mayor in January.

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