Inside baseball: Guenther swings away with farmers market “winning issue” accusation in District 2 city council race

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From left: District 2 candidates Andrew Guenther and Sue Sgambelluri; moderators Meredith Karbowsky and Taylor Combs; District 3 candidates Marty Spechler, Ron Smith, and Nick Kappas. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

It was a rest day for the baseball World Series between the Astros and the Nationals. But about 20 people attended a city council candidate forum Monday evening, hosted by The Civil Society at Indiana University. Moderators were students Meredith Karbowsky and Taylor Combs.

Only the council hopefuls in District 2 and District 3 were in the lineup—five candidates in all—because the races in the other four Bloomington districts are uncontested.

Held in the basement of Woodburn Hall on the IU campus, the event was unmarked by any real friction through about the first hour.  Candidates did not offer radically different views on public safety, housing, or climate change, even if their talking points differed.  It resembled a mostly friendly game of political pitch and catch, not hardball electioneering.

But a question about the situation that emerged this summer at Bloomington’s farmers market, which was pitched by moderators straight down the middle for each candidate, was blasted by Republican Andrew Guenther right at Democrat Sue Sgambelluri. The two are competing for the District 2 council seat.

On Monday night, Guenther accused Sgambelluri of “political cowardice,” based in part on what some of his supporters told him her campaign treasurer has said. Sgambelluri reached for Guenther’s line drive with a “results-oriented” glove.

On Nov. 5  it’s voters who will make the call, safe or out, in an election that still has a few innings to go. Here’s how the play unfolded.

Over the summer, one farmers market vendor’s alignment with white supremacist views led to protests at the market, which led to counter protests. Bloomington police arrested a demonstrator, because she was standing outside of a prescribed area for demonstrations, holding a sign protesting white supremacy. Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, called for a two-week suspension of the market in early August, based on threats of violence.  After the two-week suspension, the market resumed.

Debate in the Bloomington community has centered on the tensions between First Amendment rights of vendors at the government-run market, to say what they want outside the market, and their obligation to follow the market rules to which they agree to abide as vendors. One solution that’s been proposed, and supported by Guenther, is to privatize the market, so that First Amendment issues don’t apply and vendors with white supremacist views can be excluded.

At Monday night’s forum, the question put to candidates was: How would you have proposed handling the situation, had you been on the city council at the height of the protests over this past summer and how would you seek to move forward on the issue if elected?

Sgambelluri led off. “First and foremost,” she began, “like almost any other thinking person I know, I wholeheartedly and unequivocally condemn white supremacy. It has no place in Bloomington or anywhere.”

It’s not possible under the law to remove a vendor because of what they think, Sgambelluri said. So she advocates for documenting what the vendors do: “Are they charging different amounts to nonwhites when they sell their produce? Are they using their role as vendors at the farmers market to recruit or do outreach? … Are they refusing to sell to some people who are nonwhite?”

Monitoring the vendor’s behavior could give Bloomington a case to actually remove them from the farmers market, Sgambelluri said. About the idea of privatizing the marking, she said, “I’m not convinced we need to privatize it just yet. But I think we have some important work to do in terms of documenting and presenting and pushing that legal case to have them removed based on behaviors.”

Guenther was next up on the question. “I’m proud to be the only candidate who has called for the privatization of the farmers market,” he said. (A few minutes later, District 3 candidate Nick Kappas said he also favored the privatization of the market as a 501(c)(3) in the same way the winter market is privatized.)

Guenther said he believed there had been a danger of violence breaking out and he was glad that Mayor Hamilton put the market on a two-week break. Guenther said he believed that vendors, market goers, and protesters, had nearly all voiced support for some level of privatization.

Guenther said that Hamilton and Sgambelluri were “dismissive of the concerns of the protesters.” Responding to Sgambelluri’s call to document the vendor’s behavior, Guenther said: “I can tell you they have openly advocated their beliefs to people at the market. They’ve also recently just in the last couple weeks called a transgender individual ‘a man in a dress.’ I think those are things that do warrant being removed from the farmers market because they do break the current code that they currently signed to be in the current farmers market.”

Guenther then accused Sgambelluri of cowardice: “And additionally, it’s very disconcerting, I think, … Sue, your treasurer, Geoff McKim, a county councilor, has told supporters of mine, that the reason you’re not talking about the farmers market issue is because it’s not a winning issue in your district. I think it is the duty of a city councilperson to stand up against the ugly evils of our society, even when it’s not a winning issue in our district—that is political courage and the opposite, unfortunately, of what you have been practicing over this issue, which has been nothing but political cowardice.”

The rules set out at the start of the forum allowed Sgambelluri to respond, which she did: “I would respectfully disagree, Andrew.” She said she couldn’t comment on second- or third-hand conversations that Guenther had heard about, but that McKim had not said anything to her about it not being a winning issue. Asked by The Beacon early Tuesday, McKim said he did not remember saying anything like that, adding, “I would trust that Sue knows what issues are most important to the district she wants to represent.”

Sgambelluri then did a quick survey of the room, something she’d done during her opening statement as well. The survey question she asked as part of her rebuttal of Guenther’s statement was: “How many of you have done a group project in a class, where you’ve had one or more people in your group not particularly contribute to it, but they got the same grade you did at the end?” Most of the hands in the room went up. “It is very, very easy to step up to microphones and make pronouncements,” Sgambelluri said. “It is much harder to do the day-to-day work,” she continued. “Most of it isn’t sexy and a lot of it is behind-the-scenes, but to build coalitions and build consensus and move projects forward. So in terms of documenting, I do think it’s critical that we document these kinds of behaviors.”

Sgambelluri concluded her response with a hypothetical example about a gay farmer in a hypothetical community elsewhere. (Guenther is openly gay.) “Suppose we were in a Bible Belt state and we really wanted to dismiss a farmer, because we found out that he was gay and that doesn’t fit our community values—again, we can’t remove people for what they think.” Sgambelluri concluded with her results-oriented approach: “Getting results is about putting in place a strategy to actually effect that change.”

District 3 candidates were uniform in their condemnation of white supremacy.

Independent Nick Kappas said, “The First Amendment protects you from the government, not from the person sitting next to you.” Kappas said he felt that for the vendor to go on the national news and name some of people who were protesting against them, it put the protesters at risk. If he’d been a councilmember, he said, he would have been in favor of removing them from the market at that point.

“I don’t take my daughter there anymore,” Kappas said. He goes to the market at 8 o’clock, gets his stuff and gets out of there, he said, adding, “The market as we’ve known it, it’s gone.” Kappas concluded: “I believe privatization under 501(c)(3), just like the winter market, is the way for us to go.” (The winter market is one of the projects of the nonprofit, Center for Sustainable Living.)

Independent Marty Spechler said the First Amendment includes people who have “obnoxious white supremacist views.” As a leader of the Jewish community, he said, of course he’s against white supremacism of any kind. He said he did not think the vendor had yet done anything except think or write their obnoxious views.

If you disagree with the vendor, then what you have to do is go to her and say, “I don’t agree with you and I’m not going to buy your vegetables,” Spechler said.

Democratic Party nominee Ron Smith said the farmers market issue had consumed a lot of the community’s thought. When he canvasses, the topic comes up frequently, he said, and many people ask, “Can’t we just kick them out?” Of course, Smith said, we can’t do that. Smith said he is in favor of changing the market’s rules, so that if you’re a member of a hate group and you espouse those views, you can’t be a vendor, because it would be against the market rules.

[Time permitting, The Beacon will report separately on other issues discussed at Monday’s forum.]