We Endorse: Jenny Stevens (City Council District 5)

City Council District 5 is new, a creature of last year’s redistricting of Bloomington. It’s a mix of older neighborhoods, like Sycamore Knolls, and more recent developments in the southeast corner of the city. Arriving at a candidate endorsement is problematic — both candidates have been involved in local politics for some time but neither has run for office before, so there are no voting records to compare, nor has either candidate been very visible in media reporting. What we had to work with were some brief pitches the candidates have made at public forums and some published questionnaire responses to some very general, not very usefully differentiating questions.

So we called them. We spent more than an hour and a half on the phone with each of them, privately. And what we have to report is this: Whether it elects Jenny Stevens or Shruti Rana to represent it on the City Council, District 5 is probably going to be okay.

We give a slight edge to Stevens, because of a couple of concerns we’ll describe below, but we found both women smart, engaging and amply qualified to serve.

For the District 5 City Council seat, we endorse Jenny Stevens.

Stevens is a grant administrator for the University of Cincinnati (she works remotely — she formerly did similar work for IU, and has lived in Bloomington since 1995). She has a masters in Education Leadership from IU.

District 5 City Council candidate Jenny Stevens

Her background in local politics is principally through her work as a volunteer organizer for the 2010 MCCSC referendum, needed after the State cut public school funding. She took the lead in organizing packets, parents, students, lists, maps and training for volunteers to speak to their neighbors about the referendum. She committed herself personally, she says, because the previous MCCSC referendum (handled mainly by the school board) had failed. She lives in what became District 5, but canvassed all over Bloomington and Monroe County.

Asked what she sees as the principal issues in the district she’s running to represent, Stevens cites public infrastructure — the water supply, sewer lines, sidewalk maintenance, road maintenance and the drivability of Bloomington, and some traffic calming constructs and bike lane development, which she says have made Bloomington harder to navigate. She notes that the city’s recent proliferation of student housing development impacts demands on the infrastructure and sometimes seems out of character with previous building initiatives. The development at the former Kmart site, which she cites as an example, has a footprint that is in close proximity to roadways and, she asserts, is poised to congest traffic.

She also sees a concern in District 5 with citizen safety in our public spaces, citing the 6% increase in violent crime in Bloomington last year. And she cites sharply rising property value assessments, resulting in increased property taxes that have coincided with increased water/sewer rates. Stevens sees this as problematic for residents on fixed incomes.

Stevens promises a focus on infrastructure investments, public safety budgets and initiatives, and systems and services that impact housing affordability, i.e. tax rates and service cost increases. In her forum presentations, she’s emphasized her background in analyzing budgets and financial statements. She strikes us as numerate and deep enough to ask the hard questions when budget cycles roll around.

And she comes across as down-to-earth, a welcome impression in a town where political discourse tends to drift into macro issues of idealistic aspiration — big issues that are compelling but beyond the realistic scope of a small city’s local government. Her objectives seem realistic. She wants local government to focus on making sure the city is paying its 800+ employees a livable wage, that housing is affordable and attainable, that the public education system is strong, and that access to healthcare is achievable.

On Bloomington’s upzoning — one of the most consequential and divisive initiatives the city has seen in decades, and a core issue for Bloomington Dissident Democrats — Stevens suggests the elimination of single-family zoning “needs further study.” But she clearly opposes the blanket imposition of upzoning pushed by the Hamilton Administration, noting that what happens within and around neighborhoods impacts quality of life measures that matter to permanent residents. “It is important that developer rights do not supersede developed neighborhood rights,” she states, adding that zoning policy needs to meaningfully involve neighborhood residents and businesses.

This also is the first run for public office by Shruti Rana, a younger but higher-profile figure by virtue of her serving as vice chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party. Rana is a lawyer (currently non-practicing), a law professor at the Maurer School, and an assistant dean at IU’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. She’s a mayoral appointee to Bloomington’s Board of Public Safety and Commission on the Status of Women. She’s also the mom of a young daughter.

Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it.

Her public statements at forums have emphasized a lot of macro-level issues that initially concerned us because they seemed outside the scope of local politics: Defense of abortion rights, human rights advocacy and the like. On closer examination, though, these positions begin to add up. Bloomington’s City Council couldn’t do much about a total abortion ban, if one emerges from Indiana’s Republican supermajority in Indianapolis. But in the meantime, the city can provide employee benefits that pay for out of state travel to get an abortion, and encourage local employers to do so (as IU currently does), and that does seem in scope for the Council.

Rana’s website cites as core concerns accessible childcare, healthcare, housing, transportation, and climate resilience. She describes her own District 5 neighborhood as stable, with excellent sidewalks, parks and public spaces. She portrays the area as relatively car-centric, and notes that a lack of parking at parks and playgrounds has been a high-profile issue for her neighbors. And she suggests that her prospective constituents’ principal concern would be to keep their neighborhoods more or less as they are.

This interests us, as an advocacy against top-down, growth-promoting, citywide infrastructure and housing policy changes aimed at densifying the city’s neighborhoods. “I don’t see people in my neighborhood talking about issues like upzoning, except to say that’s not something that they want,” Rana told us.

More specifically, she asserts that she is opposed to top-down development approaches in which neighborhood sentiment is overridden by citywide initiatives. And she states that she doesn’t necessarily agree with assessments that Bloomington is under compelling population pressure to grow its housing inventory.

Rana says consensus-building would be a slower but more sustainable approach to growth and development. We found this refreshing in a political climate where growth issues tend to be expressed in alarmist, crisis terms.

That includes annexation. Rana cautions that positions taken by mayoral candidates who propose to stop the city’s current annexation process might not be legally viable. But she does stipulate that an annexation should be made on the basis of consensus between the city and the residents to be annexed, and that in her view the city has failed to make its case to win that consensus.

Her take on what a “sustainable neighborhood” is has partly to do with climate resilience — dealing with the impact of climate change on the built environment — and partly with employment opportunity and wage levels. She notes that IU, Bloomington’s largest employer, would be vulnerable to a drop in student applications, both because of the coming “enrollment cliff” and because out of state students may choose not to go to college in states with repressive laws on abortion and LGBTQIA+ rights.

Rana understands that risk, but also sees an imperative to incorporate that understanding into growth initiatives. For example, in attracting potential new employers to the city with incentives, she argues that those employers should be expected to, for example, offer health benefits that would pay for out-of-state reproductive care if they expect to take advantage of those incentives.

We find positions like these encouraging. We also indicated above that we had reservations.

Rana, as noted above, already serves IU, the local Democratic Party and the community in a variety of ways. She’s got a lot on her plate. It is natural to wonder whether the demands of a City Council seat can realistically fit into that kind of life; it’s an issue because actually voting on ordinances requires in-person attendance of meetings. Rana insists she’s aware of the demands of the role and prepared to make whatever adjustments are required to prioritize it and to attend meetings. She sounds sincere, but we believe this will be an issue for some voters.

In addition, there is her status with respect to the current administration, which is very much that of an insider. This will be an issue for some voters because this year’s election is to a significant degree a referendum on Mayor John Hamilton’s tenure and the continuity of its policies. We’re sharply at odds with many of Hamilton’s policies; it’s the reason Bloomington Dissident Democrats exists.

So it should be understood that Rana has ties to the mayor. He appointed her to two commissions. And there is the issue of money. The current candidate financial disclosures show that Hamilton has been surprisingly tight with the campaign funds he amassed in 2022 while he was still a candidate for mayor. He has given $10,000 to Don Griffin’s mayoral campaign, $100 to Kate Rosenbarger’s Council District 2 campaign…and $1,000 to Shruti Rana.

Rana herself gave $200 to Hamilton’s campaign in 2022. This year she donated $250 to the At Large Council campaign of Isak Nti Asare and $100 to City Clerk Nicole Bolden — both of whom we have endorsed — and also small sums to Council hopefuls Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger, whom we’ve opposed. We don’t presume to know what motivated these campaign contributions, or what if anything is expected in return, but they’re publicly reported and should be known to voters.

Ultimately, we lean toward Jenny Stevens, who is wholly detached from the current administration and who, we believe, has a somewhat broader and sharper vision of the local issues District 5 residents are talking about. But we feel we spent enough time individually with both of these people to get an appropriate sense of who they are, and came away impressed with both of them. We believe, either way, District 5 is likely to be pretty satisfied with its next representative on the Council.

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