The 2023 Democratic Primary: Our Closing Argument

Less than a week remains before the close of the 2023 Democratic Primary election in Bloomington. The primary IS the election here, for all practical purposes. We’ve been making the case for a saner, less ideologically-driven, bottom-up politics, one more respectful of citizen and neighborhood autonomy, for four years. If you’re still working out who to vote for, consider this our closing argument.

For 7+ years, the Hamilton Administration and a determined minority on the City Council have pulled Bloomington in the wrong direction. The 2023 citywide election provides Bloomingtonians a real opportunity to put the city on a more realistic and less divisive course – if we seize that opportunity.

Mayor John Hamilton and his allies (in city government and among private sector real estate profiteers who see student rental development here as a goldmine) have adopted the misguided assumption, or disingenuous pretense, that Bloomington’s future – its prosperity, justice, tranquility and political clout – depend on the city’s getting bigger and denser. 

They have chosen a cynical libertarian program of housing deregulation as a centerpiece of that strategy, rationalized through a set of supply side economic theories that, while popular in progressive Democratic circles these days, amount to a revival of long-discredited ideas from the bad old days of Reaganomics.

The administration and a noisy claque of densification zealots have convinced some Bloomingtonians that the integrity of the neighborhoods that make this an attractive town to live in needs to be sacrificed to make room for rapid population growth. This despite the observable fact that Bloomington’s population isn’t growing – it’s been flat for the last decade and there is no credible evidence that this trend is due to change any time soon, especially with the “enrollment cliff” looming over Indiana University, whose in-person enrollment has already begun to decline.

The scale and aggressiveness of the mayor’s annexation of the suburbs (which will be tied up in expensive litigation for years to come) likely demonstrates that Hamilton is fully aware that the population growth projections he’s used to justify his urban growth agenda are ludicrous.

It is crucial to the mayor’s legacy that he find a way to pay for the lavish amenity spending he has championed over the course of his administration. Hence the constant search for ways to increase tax revenue, both by juicing the assessed values of existing properties (through upzoning) and adding more ratables and rate-payers (through annexation).

That amenity spending includes an ambitious program to expand the city’s bicycle infrastructure. Hamilton, and certain individuals within the Planning & Transportation Department, have pursued a goal of enhanced certification of Bloomington as a “bike-friendly city,” seeking to impose new traffic-calming and greenway installations on neighborhoods that often have opposed these changes. City government has removed City Council oversight from these projects, handing control to mayoral appointees. 

While there is nothing inherently wrong with improving bike safety, behind this development process is a larger principle — that the administration should be able to brush aside neighborhood objections to force citizens to accept top-down transformations to achieve the administration’s citywide aims. That has aroused intense pushback. We have pushed back.

Taking cues from the Right Wing think tanks that have written the script for the urban growth agenda, the administration and its friends have co-opted the best progressive instincts and language of ordinary Bloomingtonians to cast their program as a path to climate justice, racial equity and humane caring for the unhoused. 

The administration’s seeming blindness to the realities of our deeply financialized real estate industry has led to the absurd suggestion that profit-maximizing developers and their private equity backers can build us out of our affordable housing crunch, if we just turn them loose. They have made willingness to accept urbanization of the city’s core a litmus test for liberal purity.

Since Hamilton was first elected in 2015, city government and Monroe County Democratic Party insiders have been convinced that this deluded formulation is popular among progressive voters. That assumption will be tested in the current citywide primary election.

As this election season has unfolded, it’s become clear who represents continuity with the present administration’s misguided program and who offers a change of direction. Some of the genuine change candidates are newcomers to Bloomington politics. But some are incumbent Council members who have consistently opposed, and offered sensible alternatives to, the Hamilton agenda.

In a town with narrow and sparse employment opportunities (principally IU and a handful of life science employers, none of whom have been corporate campaign donors this election cycle), real estate is the tail that wags the dog in the local economy. We have watched the property development players who are transforming this town (often not for the better) align their interests behind one mayoral candidate. This is reflected very directly in their concentration of campaign contributions in this absurdly expensive election.

By a wide margin, the bulk of this season’s campaign donations from people and organizations with direct interest in land transactions – architects, civil engineering firms, developers, development consultants, realtors, investment firms with real estate interests, law firms – have gone to Kerry Thomson, a purported outsider reform candidate. 

Real Estate & Allied Donors to Kerry Thomson’s Campaign
Note: Not accounted for are $22,900 in donations from Thomson’s largest single donor, Michael Doran May, whose interests in real estate are unclear. Source: Candidate financial disclosures for 2022 and Q1 2023.

Relatively minuscule developer contributions have gone to Hamilton’s chosen successor, former Deputy Mayor Don Griffin. Real estate investors and developers have had a lot of freedom to pursue large, highly profitable student rental projects during the Hamilton years; one might have expected them to salivate at the prospect of a successor expected to continue the Hamilton agenda — and who is himself a real estate entrepreneur. Apparently, however, most realtors, developers, engineering firms, law firms and other stakeholders in land transactions have decided that Griffin’s chances of winning the primary are slim. 

Real Estate & Allied Donors to Don Griffin Jr.’s Campaign
Not included: $10,000 from John Hamilton’s mayoral campaign fund. Source: Candidate financial disclosures for 2022 and Q1 2023.

That has left them a choice between two challengers — Thomson and long-time At Large City Council member Susan Sandberg — as the candidate with whom to establish themselves as benefactors and secure, at very least, access to and the chance to influence a new mayor who is building an administration and considering development priorities.

Real Estate & Allied Donors to Susan Sandberg’s Campaign
Source: Candidate financial disclosures for 2022 and Q1 2023.

[Note: The 2023 figures, as reported on the candidates’ Form CFA-4s, are through April 7. Potentially substantial additional donations are expected; they will not be disclosed prior to the primary.]

The numbers clearly indicate that developers see their interests as best aligned with Thomson. That already was apparent when Sandberg announced that her campaign would decline donations from corporate real estate interests, choosing instead to fund itself through grassroots fundraising among regular folks in Bloomington. (Sandberg’s largest single donation came from a couple who own local rental properties, who have been personal friends and backers for years.)

So here we are, drawing to the end of a bloated, dollar-saturated campaign season when more than $300,000 will have been raised and spent to impress the roughly 5,000 of us who will actually vote. We continue to be concerned that real estate interests have far too much influence in Bloomington, where developers have drained wealth from the city by building precisely the wrong kind of housing – the kind that generates the greatest profit but least serves the interests of our families, our workforce or our lowest-paid service employees.

Thomson’s campaign insists the concentration of developer money behind her reflects confidence in her leadership generated by donors’ experience working with Thomson on Habitat for Humanity projects. We’re skeptical – and we don’t believe this matters even if it’s true. Large campaign contributions always come with strings. Kerry Thomson is sophisticated enough to know that.

A Thomson administration would face constant scrutiny of its relationships with the firms whose projects are greenlighted or who get hired to do consulting projects for the city. It’s enough of a concern to motivate us to throw our support to Sandberg – a public servant we’ve known and trusted for years and were inclined to support anyway.

Bloomington Dissident Democrats has been devoted to stopping the city’s drift toward growth-at-any-cost urbanization, by advocating to unseat the mayor and City Council ideologues who brought this agenda about.

This year’s Democratic primary might just be Bloomington’s last opportunity for a decisive course-correction. This is all we ask:

  • Turn out and vote, on May 2 if not sooner, and
  • Vote for Democrats who oppose top-down imposition of this mayor’s unrealistic and irresponsible growth agenda for Bloomington. 

We invite you to bear them in mind when you fill out your ballot.

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