Three candidates appear on November’s general election ballot for the seat representing Bloomington’s District 3 on the nine-member city council. One is the Democratic Party nominee, Ron Smith. The other two are independent candidates—Marty Spechler and Nick Kappas.
If Spechler or Kappas is elected, it would make District 3 special, because either candidate would be the first ever independent to win election to the Bloomington city council.
But that potential historical distinction is not what Sue Sgambelluri meant, when she spoke up at the Monroe Democratic Party headquarters during a caucus held Monday night: “First, I want to congratulate District 3 on having replaced District 2 as the most interesting race this year. Well done!”
Sgambelluri is the Democratic Party’s nominee in District 2, facing Republican Andrew Guenther.
Sgambelluri’s line got its intended laugh among the three dozen or so precinct representatives. They had gathered to discuss Spechler’s candidacy for the city council as an independent, while sitting in a different elected office as a Democrat.
Spechler was elected to the Bloomington Township board in 2018 as Democrat, a position he currently holds. (Townships overlap with the city.) That situation led to the convening of the Monday night caucus.
A single question was printed on the written agenda Monday night:
Should a sitting Democrat be allowed, without denouncement by the county party, to run as an independent against another Democrat in a general election?
No vote was taken at the caucus—the occasion was intended only for discussion. A consensus emerged that the party should make clear to the public who its nominee is: Ron Smith.
One attendee hinted at how two candidates perceived to be affiliated with the Democratic Party might impact the outcome of a three-way race: It would divide the party’s vote, to the benefit of the third candidate in the race.
Additional background includes Spechler’s previous term as a Democrat representing District 3 on the city council. He was elected in 2011, serving from 2012 through 2015. In 2011, Spechler won the four-way primary that included Brett Rorem, Gary Charbonneau, and Ron Smith. In 2015 Spechler entered the Democratic Party primary, seeking re-election—but lost to Allison Chopra. Before that, he contested the Democratic Party primary in 2007, a race won by incumbent Mike Satterfield.
Given a chance to lead off with some remarks of his own, Spechler’s answer to the agenda question was yes. He said that he was running as an independent only because his preferred candidate in the Democratic Party primary (Jim Blickensdorf) withdrew.
Blickensdorf’s announcement came after the deadline for withdrawal, and his name still appeared on the ballot. Ron Smith won the two-person race with 74 percent of the vote. The deadline for entering the Democratic Party primary had passed by the time Blickensdorf announced he was going to stop campaigning.
Responding to Spechler’s reason for running as an independent, Sue Wanzer said, “I don’t mean this to sound crass or cruel or harsh, but sometimes you miss that deadline, or sometimes somebody drops out, and you want to do something, but it’s too late.”
After presenting a case for himself as a candidate based on his experience, and his ability to do the job, Spechler asked for the opposite of censure from the group on Monday night: “I’m asking you to endorse me as a candidate for the Third District, because I am certainly a Democrat, and … I hope I have convinced you that I have a strong case.”
Spechler’s request for an endorsement got a negative response from Jim Sims, who currently serves at a member at large on the city council. Sims said: “He just stood right here and said he would like for us to endorse him. That is totally inappropriate, to me. He’s an independent.”
No one in the room spoke in favor of the party’s endorsement of Spechler’s independent candidacy. A consensus view among those who spoke was that Spechler should not represent himself to voters as a Democrat, and that the party should support its nominee.
As Sgambelluri put it: “As a candidate who actually went through the [District 2] primary—and I would argue a pretty hard-fought primary—primaries matter. They just matter. And so we have a Democratic nominee. And his name is Ron.”
Smith himself said he had no problem with Spechler’s run as an independent, but added, “I’m the nominee. I think I should be supported in that way.”
Longtime party activist Charlotte Zietlow said the party has the job of laying out what being a party member means and what obligations the party has to people who run for office, indicating she thought those definitions should be made clearer.
A few people said they were not interested in censuring or denouncing Spechler, but also did not think he should identify himself as a candidate who is a Democrat. Larime Wilson said: “I don’t feel like a censure is going to do anything at this point—other than put controversy in the local newspaper. I don’t think it’s going to clarify who our Democratic candidate is. I think we should work to support our Democratic candidate and let the voters decide.”
Sgambelluri held out the possibility that public censure might be in order, if Spechler campaigned as a Democrat: “Do we have a basis for censuring now? Maybe not. … If you begin claiming to be a Democrat, we may.”
Spechler was not dissuaded: “…I have no alternative, but to tell the truth. And what is the truth? The truth is that I am a moderate Democrat, I have always been a moderate Democrat. I will run as a Democrat, a moderate Democrat, and tell everybody—whatever you say—exactly what I would do as a moderate Democrat on the city council. And I think I can convince the voters, who actually are more important than the vote here, who is the best candidate for them in the Third District.”
Mayor John Hamilton opened his remarks by addressing Spechler as “my good friend, Marty,” telling him he’d served the Democratic Party well, and it was fine to run as an independent.
But Hamilton told Spechler he should resign from the position of Bloomington Township board, if he wants to pursue an independent candidacy for the city council. Hamilton asked Spechler to consider a hypothetical situation: If Spechler were still a precinct committeeman, should he participate in a vote to replace some local Democrat who vacated an office before the end of their term, even while Spechler was running as an independent?
An earlier draft of the question to be discussed at the meeting had asked whether Spechler should resign the township board position. In his initial remarks on Monday, Spechler said he was not going to resign.
Reached Monday night by The Beacon, the second independent candidate in the race, Nick Kappas, said he would have contested the Democratic Party primary, but the filing deadlines came just before his wife was due to give birth to their first child, and he wanted to have time to assess how that new situation would play out. After deciding to run, he said, “It didn’t cross my mind to say, ‘I’m a Democrat’—because I have an ‘I’ next to my name.”
Towards the end of the one-hour meeting, vice chair of the county party, Peter Iversen, said he thought the conversation was a sign of the party’s health: “I think this is a really great showcase about how healthy our party is that we can all come together and discuss the question … in an unheated matter. And I think this is exactly why the precinct system exists.”
County party chair Jennifer Crossley indicated that the party officers would discuss the comments they’d heard Monday night and possibly arrive at some recommended action, which could be brought back to the caucus for consideration.
Among the possibilities for action is a suggestion made early in the meeting by former city clerk Regina Moore—which was supported by several people on Monday. Moore described how Democrat Jim Sherman served from 1992 to 1999 on the city council and then decided to run in 2003 as an independent. Dave Rollo won the uncontested Democratic Party primary that year.
In 2003, Moore said, the party simply wrote a note to Democrats stating that just in case there was any confusion about Sherman, who was previously a Democrat, the Democratic Party’s candidate is Dave Rollo. The general election was won by Rollo in a three-way race against Sherman and Republican Rodney Young.
Rollo won his primary in District 4 this year and is not opposed in the general election.
District 2 and District 3 have the only contested races in the city this year. And those are the only areas of the city where elections will be held. That gave Sgambelluri’s joke—about District 3 replacing District 2 as the most interesting race—a little extra punch.