Meet John Hamilton
With a mere two months to go before Bloomington’s mayoral primary election (and the glories of spring, sigh!) John Hamilton met with a houseful of supporters once again yesterday afternoon.
He’s been chatting up cozy groups of friends and allies like this for weeks now, sometimes doing it, say, a couple of times on a Saturday and maybe four times on a Sunday as well as the odd weeknight. It’s hard work, shaking hands, remembering folks’ names, telling a living room full of people what a swell guy you are, pointing out the contributions basket, and fielding questions like How are you, sir, going to save our thriving, throbbing megalopolis from this or that looming peril?
And even though spring and the election are so tantalizingly near, Bloomington woke up to a fresh blanket of six inches of snow on top of the four-to-six already laid down earlier in the week. Ah, I figured, they’re gonna cancel this thing. But a quick check of my email, Facebook, and phone messages revealed no such reprieve from the arctic slog to Tomilea and Jim Allison’s house.
Tomi Allison, of course, was our town’s three-term mayor back in the 1980s and ’90s. She’s thrown her support behind Hamilton, so much so that she’s happy to have a gang of slush-shoed neighbors and pals trudge around her living room and dining room.
Host Tomi Allison
Than again, who knew how many would show up on this hellish March 1st? When I knocked on the Allison front storm door (after already falling into a deep snow bank trying to negotiate my way from street to sidewalk), Jim Allison greeted me thusly: “Well, you’re one of the brave three.” Sure enough, only a couple of other guys sat, lonely-looking, in the ring of a couple dozen chairs. Within five minutes, though, the place filled up.
Either Hamilton engenders this kind of loyalty or Bloomingtonians are simply sick of winter and will use any excuse to get out of the house. Hard to tell. Maybe both.
A pair of young Indiana University students, campaign vols, skittered about, handing out name tags and passing around sign-up sheets as more and more of the faithful stomped their boots on the welcome mat. Tomi brought in fresh pots of coffee and serving plates piled with cookies. Then the man himself showed up. Hamilton joined the boot-stomping chorus as his wife, Dawn Johnsen, did the neighborly thing and removed her shoes. No matter the foot or more of white stuff on the ground, Hamilton was going to run hard for mayor this day and his fans were going to cheer him on.
Hamilton And Johnsen Arrive
Time for chitchat
I told Johnsen she and the old man were real troupers. She replied that an earlier event at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs already had been cancelled but she and John were raring to go to it if it hadn’t. They walked here, though, but will have to drive to a third scheduled event immediately after. “I told my son the driveway’d better be shoveled when we get back from here,” she said.
Hamilton talked to a group of three about his book club’s current selection, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man. One of the the three, a woman, tells him about the book she’s reading, Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial. The woman says it’s about the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in a New Orleans hospital. She described the chaos, the suffering, how piles of dead bodies were found in certain rooms. Every level of government, she said, was caught unprepared for the hit. Hamilton shook his head sadly. ‘You can make great plans for any possible disaster that could happen every hundred years,” he said, “but then you’d have no time to do anything for today and tomorrow.”
I flashed to a landmark political event in my beloved hometown Chicago, the blizzard of ’79, when nearly 20 inches of snow paralyzed the city. The mayor at the time, a seat-warmer named Michael Bilandic, took the heat for the city’s inability to cope and was ousted for it by upstart Jane Byrne in the mayoral primary a month and a half later. Hamilton, I mused, had better pray no such natural surprise derails his mayoral career should he win in May.
Mary Kay Rothert And Tomi Allison Chat
Time for the star of the show. Jim Allison stood up and said his introduction would be blessedly short. “Having been married to a mayor of Bloomington for 13 years, I think I know what a mayor looks like,” he said. “Here’s our next mayor, John Hamilton.”
Hamilton spent the next 15 minutes or so laying out his curriculum vitae. He called himself a “proven progressive.”
“I love government,” he said, meaning, not necessarily that he was Ronald Reagan’s worst nightmare (although he probably would be), but that he really digs the work. Then he delivered a subtle dig at his main opponent, City Council member and outgoing Mayor Mark Kruzan’s hand-picked successor, Darryl Neher, a former Republican. “I am — all my life — a Democratic progressive.”
Now Neher may be thinking of coming up with his own riposte — Hamilton has moved from Bloomington to Washington, DC and back again since the mid-’90s. Johnsen worked for what is now NARAL Pro-Choice America and then became President Bill Clinton’s head of the White House Office of Legal Counsel. While in Washington, Hamilton started a community land trust as well as a lending bank for small businesses and low-income neighborhoods in the capital. Neher may ask if Hamilton wants to stay in Bloomington this time. Hamilton’s ready for that one: “I don’t want to live anywhere else,” he said.
After sufficiently selling himself to a crowd already sold, Hamilton then took on the city. “In the last ten years we’ve made some bad choices that have made downtown less beautiful,” he said. He mentioned the spate of hotels and high-end condominium developments that are springing up around the formerly quaint Courthouse Square. It’s all growth, sure, but the city must give some consideration to its residents who can’t afford huge mortgages and rents. Hamilton promised to make sure “that people of all kinds and all incomes can live in Bloomington.”
He went on: “We have a very high poverty rate. We’re in the top fifth of Indiana in terms of food stamps.” He pledged to provide tender loving care for existing businesses here and market the city nationwide to attract other businesses — and the jobs they’ll bring — to Bloomington.
Those poor folks here, he said, will be the last to be served when the big private broadband companies start building a citywide network. Rather, Hamilton suggested, the city should build its own network and perhaps it can use its TIF moneys to pay for it.
Speaking of those TIF funds, Hamilton said he wants to use some of that dough to give loans to local small businesses to expand.
Jumping back to big construction developments in town, Hamilton called for “inclusive housing,” meaning all developments must include affordable units and those lower-cost homes must be meant for the long term not only for the ten-or-so-year life of the planning agreement.
Hamilton said his aim, if elected, will be to eliminate all kids’ homelessness and half of overall homelessness in five years.
All this will be done in an open, transparent environment, Hamilton said. He asked: “Does anybody know how long it takes to fill a pothole in Bloomington? Not a trick question. Nobody knows. [It’s important that] the public sees and knows what their government is doing.”
Of course, parking meters came up. Hamilton used it to reinforce his assertion that the current administration and council have been less than forthcoming on crucial issues. “Do you know what’s happening with the parking meter money? I don’t.”
What do you think of the meters? a woman asked.
“There’s a tradition in Native America saying that crows are very wise animals,” he said. The new downtown parking meters have been bombarded by crow droppings this winter. “Are these [meters] serving a purpose? And what is it?” he said. No one, Hamilton added, knows exactly why the downtown meters were installed.
To fix that, Hamilton said he and his cabinet would have weekly sessions to meet the public, answer their questions and hear their complaints. “It won’t be fun,” he said, “but it has to be done.”
He concluded by reminding the crowd that fewer than 10 percent of eligible voters show up on primary election day. “You’ve got to talk people into voting,” he said.
During the question and answer session that followed, Hamilton made the following points:
- The city should catch up to the county in terms of sustainability measures and initiatives.
- If utilities companies are afraid about more and more people generating their own electricity through solar panels, “Tough.”
- His cabinet will not be filled with yes-women and men.
- The decision by IU Health/Bloomington Hospital to move from just south of downtown to the North Park campus outside the city is by no means a done deal, no matter what IU Health says — “It may even be worth it to us to spend money to keep the hospital downtown. I’m not giving up yet.”
It was nearing four o’clock. Hamilton had pressed the flesh and talked for two hours. It was time for him and his crew to head to that next house party. “We’re in a battle,” he said. “We need to show our progressive policies work.”
And so the Hamilton gang ran off. They’ll be running until May 5th.
[I’m scheduled to attend a Darryl Neher house party a week from today. Stayed tuned for my report in this space.]