It's easy to see that the municipal election in Bloomington did not go well for progressives. The People First Coalition went 0-for-4 at the ballot box as more conservative and centrist candidates won.
While progressive candidates think they delivered a winning message, a local political scientist said they need to moderate that message if they want to get elected.
Jackie Gunderson was at the top of progressive ticket. She came in third in a three-way race for Bloomington mayor. Gunderson oversees capital projects at Illinois State University.
Gunderson said the election was a first for many in the progressive movement — a first for the candidates, volunteers and even some voters.
“We engaged people who had no idea there was even a municipal election going on. For me that’s a win,” Gunderson said. “Getting people to turn out in record numbers. That for me is a win.”
This was Gunderson's second campaign. She unsuccessfully ran for a McLean County Board seat in November.
Current Bloomington City Council member Jenn Carrillo helped lead the progressive coalition, though she said she doesn't speak for the candidates. Carrillo said the election results reflect a typical political cycle.
“In Bloomington, you saw some very progressive candidates elected in the last cycle, and I think you are seeing the backlash of conservative candidates being elected to counter that,” she said.
Carrillo suggests upset Donald Trump supporters were more motivated to vote after he lost in November. Trump voters alone could not have made the difference. The ex-president lost Bloomington to Joe Biden by 15 points. Carrillo also accused opponents of using scare tactics on the issue of police funding.
Erik Rankin is a former chair of the McLean County Democrats who works in Illinois State University's Department of Politics and Government. Rankin said running all the progressive candidates as part of a coalition was risky.
“One of the problems with coordination and jumping all into one camp is that you do tend to sink or swim based upon how that group does,” Rankin explained.
The progressive candidates say the coalition helped them pool resources and unify their message.
Coalition member Kelby Cumpston lost to incumbent Mollie Ward in Ward 7 in northwest Bloomington. Cumpston is a project manager in affordable housing construction. Cumpston rejects the everyone-sink-or-swim theory.
“I think the progressive movement has only just begun,” Cumpston said. “I think there are the center-leaning organizations that have existed for decades and decades. Honestly, this feels like the first time a progressive slate has been tried in local elections.”
Rankin said the progressive candidates also lurched too far to the ideological left to win.
“A pure progressive slate will not be successful in McLean County without moderate Democrats to help bolster the numbers,” Rankin said. “It’s a simple matter of math.”
The progressive candidates say they stuck with their convictions.
Patrick Lawler lost his race to Nick Becker for Bloomington City Council in Ward 5 in the city's near-east side. The Bloomington police union backed Becker. Lawler said he wanted to be a voice for those who have had problems with police.
“Those problems exist. I guess rather than (doing) what’s political expedient or what’s politically popular, all of us in the People First Coalition, we were more concerned with standing up for what is right,” Lawler replied.
Cumpston said even if the coalition didn't win any races, it forced the other candidates to address issues important to them.
“I would say for sure the PFC (People First Coalition) controlled the entire narrative of this election season in Bloomington for sure,” Cumpston said. “I think a lot of the questions and forums were all based on campaign issues we were running on.”
Whenever an election is over, talk usually turns to unity. How do opposing sides put aside their differences for the common good? Carrillo made clear she has not interest in that.
Carrillo posted on Facebook Tuesday night she plans to make the lives of two of the newly-elected council members a "living hell" for the next two years. She also called election winners Nick Becker and Sheila Montney "dangerous authoritarians" who were essentially paid off by the Bloomington police union.
The union backed their campaigns. Becker and Montney both made public safety a key part of the election platforms and have said those contributions won't affect their judgement as council members.
Carrillo said those who demand unity apply a double standard.
“When the mainstream narrative is one that leaves out people of color, leaves out people with disabilities, leaves out women and folks of different sexualities and gender orientations, then of course, unity around the mainstream sounds really nice to the folks who are included in the part of that mainstream," Carrillo said.
Unlike Normal, where council candidates are elected at-large, Bloomington council members are elected only by voters in their ward. Carrillo represents Ward 6 that covers parts of downtown and west Bloomington.
Rankin bristles at Carrillo's rhetoric, but he said Carrillo has made clear what she believes. He said for her, it has worked among her supporters.
“If you are going to find a candidate like Jenn, (they) tend to be more successful in her specific ward because her specific ward has more of that profile than any other ward in Bloomington,” Rankin said.
People First Coalition candidates say they still need to dive into the data from this election and see how they could do better in the future.
Gunderson said each of the candidates already was advocating for progressive causes before they ran for office. She said they will still push for ways to bring about change even if it's from the outside looking in.
“All of the things I was passionate (about) don’t suddenly go away,” Gunderson said. “I still want to see those things come to fruition, especially the places where our vulnerable neighbors are slipping through the cracks.”
Carrillo calls for progressives to take the long view, adding it takes decades to build political power. She says they are building a movement, not a moment.
The new council will be sworn in May 1.
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