Little more than a week ago The Pencil took in a John Hamilton for Mayor house party. On that Sunday afternoon Bloomington seemingly was in the grip of winter, with a foot of snow on the ground. Yesterday, though, I drove to a Darryl Neher house party in the fancy Renwick residential n’hood with my window down and my arm resting on the door.
Man, things change quickly around here.
Here’s another example: back in the fall, Bloomingtonians who thought at all about the 2015 mayoral contest prob. would have wondered which Republican sacrificial lamb would be wacky enough to go up against three-term boss Mark Kruzan.
But Kruzan sent shock waves through the local political biome in November with the announcement he wouldn’t seek another term. Now, with spring beckoning and the primaries less than two months away, two well-known Democrats — Hamilton and Neher — are battling for the nomination with impish John Linnemeier firing pea-shooters on the periphery.
Like I said — things change quickly.
Then again, there is indeed a Republican wacky enough to run for mayor in this one-party town, he being John Turnbull of Parks & Rec. And, just like Hamilton last week, Neher argued before a living room full of folks that he deserves the title of The Most Progressive Man in Bloomington.
Y’know, plus ça change….
Neher’s soiree was hosted by Bloomington High School North guidance counselor Greg Chafin, his husband, manager of Indiana University Art Museum’s Angles Café, Murat Candiler, and BHSN librarian Kathy Loser. The crowd at Chez Chafin/Candiler was decidely younger than that at former mayor Tomi Allison’s digs a week ago, reflecting perhaps the age diff. between Hamilton and Neher. For pity’s sake, there were twenty-somethings and even the odd high schooler or two here to listen to Neher.
“I heard you were going to provide refreshments,” a newly-arrived woman jokes with the hosts. Candiler replies: “We’ve got beer, Coke, and wine — red and white.” They’ll help the faithful wash down hummus and tabouli and lentil salad, prosciutto, asparagus spears, crackers and baguettes. Attendees mingle in the kitchen (comparing the bouquets of the various wines), the dining room, the foyer, and the living room. A couple of adventurous young guests peek into the master bedroom. Every room of the place is hung with objets like vases, delicately balanced lamps, mobiles and the like. Clearly no tots or cats live here.
Kathy Loser Tends Bar
Murat points toward the loft balcony hanging over the vaulted living room. “There’s our treasure,” he tells me. It’s a print of the famous Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster of Barack Obama. “It’s signed,” he continues, beaming. “I got it when Obama came to town.”
Loser and Neher’s wife, Jeanette, alternate answering the doorbell. Jeanette, like her mate, teaches business communications at IU’s Kelley School. I sit next to a woman recently retired from a local quasi-governmental entity where she served as a union steward. She’s by no means the only superannuated soul here but the young ones have certainly dropped the average age.
Neher’s Wife, Jeanette Heidewald [In Blue]
I wonder: Who’s more likely to vote? The young — those in their 20s and 30s — or the old? The answer to that question just might be the key to May’s primary.
Loser intro’s Neher. He’s used to speaking before groups. He practices every day in front of an IU classroom. He is comfortable, making eye contact left, right and center, using gestures as punctuation, striding confidently stage left and right before the fireplace.
Kathy Loser Introduces Darryl Neher
“I never thought I’d be in public life,” he says.
He tells how he co-founded WFHB’s Interchange program in 1996, where he began to meet public figures. That’s how he became interested in civic affairs. As time went by this or that pol would tell him he’d make a fine candidate for something, anything. He’d laugh at the suggestions. Then, when he left radio in 2009 (he also hosted a public affairs program on WGCL), two big-time local elected officials told him he now had no excuse not to run. So he did, running for the retiring Isabel Piedmont-Smith’s District V city council seat — and winning — in 2011.
Over lunch with Mark Kruzan a couple of years ago, Neher recalls, the mayor said, “At some time in the future, you would be the one to take my place.”
So now, here he is. Tonight’s job interview runs a short five minutes. “I want this to be about you,” he says. “I want to hear your questions.”
His first interlocutor turns out to be a former intern for the first Hamilton campaign for mayor. The kid doesn’t let on whether he’s here to support Neher or gather intelligence for Hamilton. “What are your plans for affordable housing,” the kid asks.
Neher says the Indiana statehouse has been playing havoc with local plans to develop housing for the poor. Indiana cities and counties cannot, acc’d’g to Neher, create development zones that “mimic” the federal Section 8 program (meaning any municipality looking for state vouchers for low-income housing had better quit looking.)
Rather, Neher suggests, Bloomington might use inducements like increased density or parking variances to get developers to include low-income units in their plans. “We still have possibilities,” he says.
A woman asks why she should vote for him over Hamilton. (BTW: I get the sense that at least several of the Q’s tonight are intentional softballs.) Neher takes his swing: He’s been working in the city council for four years now, he says. “That is invaluable experience.”
One of the most important decisions he’ll make should he win, Neher says, is naming a deputy mayor, “who does much of the day to day work of the office.”
Another woman asks what his take is on the big new downtown developments of the past decade. Advocates of big development like to use to word growth, Neher says. “I don’t like the word growth. We need economic value…. We need to protect those areas that define who we are…. It turns my stomach the way the hotel passed the way it did.” That hotel, the new Hyatt Place on Kirkwood, is 70 feet tall. Bloomington zoning ordinances cap downtown building heights at 40 feet. The Hyatt got its variance without much public or city council input, Neher says. He asked the city attorney to find out if all such variances can be kicked from the Planning Dept. to the whole city council for final say-so.
“If I’m elected,” he says, “I want my legacy to be that we protected our character.”
A woman asks what his relationship would be with IU president Michael McRobbie. “”I would not want this town to be a slave to the university,” he says. [MG Note: Jeanette Heidewald has asked me to emend this quote. She says the woman asking the question used the “slave” reference. My notes and my memory tell me otherwise. I do acknowledge that my rushed note-taking could well have been mixed up and my memory faulty. I’m a human and so is Jeanette. If anyone else in attendance has a recollection of this reference, I’d appreciate if she or he could contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.] The city, he continues, needs a better, stronger relationship with IU. He wants to revive a working group relationship wherein city and university reps meet four times a year to discuss developments “so that when something like the FIJI move comes up no one is surprised.”
Neher returns to affordable housing, saying it would help the city retain IU grads who love the town. “We have an emerging tech community growing up here. Those 20- and 30-somethings are doing terrific things…. Let’s keep them here.”
A woman asks about the homeless. “The city doesn’t have a magic bullet,” Neher says. “The mayor needs to be a catalyst in the conversation and the solution…. What’s great? Both John [Hamilton] and I have been talking about it. Whoever wins, hold us accountable.”
Translation: Nobody on this good Earth knows how to solve the problem of homelessness w/o alienating half the voting populace.
Host Greg Chafin says he’s been worked with “marginalized” people all his adult life and he’s noticed that Bloomington seems to be pulling away, bit by bit, from that progressive ideal. “What can you do about it?” Chafin asks.
Greg Chafin [L] & Murat Candiler
“Be there to cheer them on,” Neher says. He recounts when City Clerk Regina Moore placed in front of him to sign as last year’s council president a document endorsing same-sex marriage. “That was the greatest moment of my public life,” Neher says. “And if I lose [in the May primary], they can’t take that away from me.”
Neher adds that when protesters shut down 3rd St./College Mall Road intersection last fall in response to events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Bloomington police marched alongside them to protect them, “I was proud of that.”
A man asks what he thinks of the possible move of Bloomington Hospital out of town. “We don’t know exactly what IU Health’s going to do,” Neher says. Then he asks, “What are we going to do to hold the hospital accountable for that site?” He refers to one city that was stuck holding the bag for demolition and site clean-up after its hospital moved to a new location. “We cannot allow that to happen,” he says.
Neher then suggests the site might serve as an affordable housing development. “Not first-floor commercial and apartments on the second and third floors but real mixed housing,” he says.
Loser asks what he thinks of charter schools and school vouchers. Neher admits that, as mayor, there’s little he can do to affect the machinations of the Monroe County Community School Corporation nor can he single-handedly nullify state education regulations. “There is the bully pulpit,” he says. As mayor, he might rally other Indiana mayors to go up to Indianapolis to lobby legislators.
At last, a woman asks him about his noted switch from the Republican to the Democratic party. “There it is,” Neher says, laughing, “the elephant in the room!” [Last week, Hamilton’s wife, Dawn Johnsen advised me to ask Neher about his party switch. “There’s the story,” she said. I told her I wouldn’t ask the Q myself but would be listening for someone else to. “If they don’t, that’s a story, too,” I said.]
Neher says he grew up in a small Indiana town that was “99 percent Republican.” His eyes were opened when he traveled to places like Sierra Leone and Honduras. “My social policies have been strong and progressive for a long, long time,” he says.
Recent Republican moves further and further to the Right alarmed him, he says. He adds, “I never voted a straight ticket in my life.” Finally, he announced on his WGCL program in 2008 that he would support Barack Obama for president. “That was a very liberating moment,” he says.
Neher’s kick in the elephant’s behind? His four-year record of voting in the city council has been “very Democratic.”
Chafin & Candiler’s Treasure [Upper Left]
After a few more questions, Neher takes a sip from his green water bottle and says he needs help. He asks for money, for all the guests to wear Neher buttons and put up yard signs, and to talk him up to their neighbors. “Roughly 7000 people voted in the Democratic primary in 2011,” he says. “We need people to turn out.”
And that’s that. Neher mingles a bit before leaving with his wife. I take the opportunity to query him on a part of his personal story he loves to talk about. He’s a fervid Chicago Cubs fan. “Let’s say you have magic powers,” I say. “You can choose one of two things: Win this election or watch the Cubs win the World Series. What would you do?”
Neher jumps back theatrically and roars with laughter. “That’s impossible!” he says.
The question remains whether a Cubs World Series victory or the choice itself is what’s impossible.