Bloomington city council District 1 Democratic Party Primary: Joe Lee, Isabel Piedmont-Smith

The Democratic Party’s May 2 primary election for city council District 1 is a choice between Joe Lee and Isabel Piedmont-Smith. There is no Republican candidate in District 1.

This write-up provides specific background on the District 1 city council primary race as well as general background.

April 20 is the last day to apply for an absentee ballot. Application for an absentee ballot, verification of voter registration, and a preview of the ballot are available through the Indiana secretary of state’s voter information portal.

Early voting  started on April 4 at Monroe County’s election operations center, which is located at Walnut and 3rd streets.

Bloomington City Council: Overview

The 9-member Bloomington City Council is the legislative branch of city government. A seat on the city  council is compensated with a salary of $20,146 in 2023. The president and vice president of the council—who are elected by their colleagues at the first meeting of the year—receive an extra $1,000 and $800, respectively.

Each of the city’s six districts has a representative on the city council. Three at-large seats represent residents citywide.

Bloomington City Council Districts

Bloomington City Council: District 1

District 1 covers the southwest part of Bloomington. All of District 1 lies south of 3rd Street. It’s bounded by Henderson Drive and Woodlawn Avenue on the east.


Joe Lee

Joe Lee’s name might be recognized as the political cartoonist for the Herald-Times, a position he has had to give up to run for Bloomington city council.

Lee describes himself on his campaign website as “a graphic novelist, teacher, historian and raconteur.”

His website identifies Bloomington’s challenges as including: the cost of housing, aging infrastructure that he says was not built to support robust growth, limited employment opportunities, climate change, fairness and equity for the city’s diverse population, and public safety.

Lee says that the community’s deliberations on those issues has devolved into “ideological rigidity, conflict and disrespect for the expertise and lived experience of Bloomington’s permanent residents.”

Lee says he’s running “to help restore shared respect and openness to ideas in Bloomington’s city government.”

Lee’s statement of economic interests describes him as a freelance artist, writer, cartoonist, and married to Mary Bess Lee, a retired MCCSC teacher.

Joe Lee candidate declaration
Joe Lee statement of economic interests
Joe Lee campaign committee filing
Joe Lee campaign website
Joe Lee LWV Vote411 Profile


Isabel Piedmont-Smith

Piedmont-Smith is an incumbent councilmember. If re-elected, it would be for a third consecutive term, and a fourth total.

She was first elected to city council in 2007. Citing family obligations, she did not seek re-election in 2011, but returned in 2015 to win another four-year term.

As a city council member, Piedmont-Smith has served on various boards and committees, including: Monroe County’s solid waste management district board; the Monroe County public safety local income tax committee; the city council’s climate action and resilience committee, the city’s plan commission, and the Jack Hopkins social service funding committee.

Piedmon-Smith’s campaign website lists her priorities as: building a sustainable community for all; grassroots democracy; systemic improvements; and support for labor.

Piedmont-Smith grew up in Bloomington, graduating from Bloomington High School South.

Piedmont-Smith’s statement of economic interests indicates she worked for Indiana University through August of 2022—as the department of French and Italian’s administrator and fiscal officer, a job she started in 1998. She started in November 2022 as a baker for Crumble Coffee and Bakery. She’s married to David Smith, who works for Baxter Pharmaceuticals.

Isabel Piedmont-Smith candidate declaration
Isabel Piedmont-Smith statement of economic interests
Isabel Piedmont-Smith campaign committee filing
Isabel Piedmont-Smith campaign website
Isabel Piedmont-Smith LWV Vote411 Profile

[CATS video: April 1, 2023 NOW Bloomington municipal candidates forum]

[CATS video: March 26, 2023 LWV Bloomington city council district races forum]

Verbatim responses from March 26, LWV forum

Question: Opening Statement

Joe Lee: Thank you all for being here. And I am Joe Lee and I am running for city council District 1. This is the first time I’ve actually run for political office. Although for the last 30 years, I have provided a political cartoon for first the Boomington Voice for 10 years and then 20 years for the Bloomington Herald Times. So I have a lot of political experience. The main reason I’m running is there’s been a top down governance in the city of Bloomington for the last eight years and especially the last four years that hasn’t paid attention to the lived experience and expertise of its citizens.

Isabel Piedmont-Smith: Hi, my name is Isabel Piedmont-Smith. And I’m running for reelection in District 1. I was born and raised here in Bloomington. My parents immigrated to Bloomington from Germany. So I’m a first-generation American. I worked at IU for 24 years as a fiscal officer. So I know about budgets, and staying within them. And I am currently working part time as a baker at Crumble Coffee and Bakery—check it out! I am in my 11th year as a city council representative. And I want to continue serving, mainly because I see a lot of things that still need to be done. The Climate Action Plan, which the city adopted in 2021 is something that we need to push forward with sufficient finances and staff. This includes things such as greater transportation options, more funds for bus service, bicycle lanes, making it safe to walk as well. More funds for sidewalks and the local food network. So there we go. That’s one of my top priorities. Thank you so much.

Question: What do you believe is the primary role of a city council member? And how do you plan engaging in that role as a city councilmember?

Isabel Piedmont-Smith: Great question. And interesting answers. Thank you all to my colleagues. I think it’s true that ideally, in a direct democracy, like back in ancient Greece perhaps when people would come to the town square and actually everybody participate, then yes, direct representation would be the primary goal, and the primary role that an elected representative has. But as Kate mentioned, we live in a society where not everybody has an equal voice. Not everybody has equal access. And so part of our role, I think, is to be very clear what principles we’re running on, and to follow through an act upon those principles. We try to get input, and I agree with Kate that going door to door even when it’s not campaigning, is really the only way to hear from some people and I think that’s a great idea. I’ve had constituent meetings since 2008, where I’ve invited people, all throughout my district. And so input is very important. But also recognizing that you’re not going to hear from everybody is very important as well. You try to hear from them, but you can also make decisions based on data, and based on principle. So as far as the actions of council, we do pass a budget. The budget should reflect our priorities, we should fight for that even though the mayor is the one who brings the budget to us. Passing legislation is the other aspect of what we do. We need to bring legislation to make Bloomington better. And I’ve co-authored eight ordinances and six resolutions to do that.

Joe Lee: Well, as this is my first time attempting this, I will say that I would represent my constituents. It sounds like an easy thing. A community is a is a wider area, and with more opinions than one might realize. But I’ve seen over and over our present council on issues like densification, when so many spoke about things—like if you densify a neighborhood, you have to do something about the infrastructure. This is climate on the ground where people live, and it was never listened to. It passed. We see things like the public safety being moved into the Showers building. A hundred percent of the rank and file of the police and fire department are against that. But it gets voted in. And over and over, we see these kinds of issues that… My motto is to listen to all, to learn from all, and to lead with all. It’s a community position. City council, you are all those other people—you’re not just yourself.

Question: If the past is any indication, there’s a slight possibility that you might encounter people who have strongly different opinions than you do. So what is your approach to working with people who have differences of opinions? And can you give an example of how you how you’ve used that effectively?

Joe Lee: Well, the first thing you do is you listen. Because one can learn a great deal by actually listening to what somebody says. Because it’s important to ask people what they think about a particular issue, and then try to find that common ground. Katharine Hayhoe, who is an environmentalist, who was here several years ago, she talked about: To find the common ground. If you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t accept climate change, you first find where you have a point of agreement, and you grow it from there. You don’t get into confrontations, because if you don’t listen, you’ll never know that. And so I found that was a really, really important kind of thing to think about. And actually doing the cartooning for the last 30 years, I’ve gotten a lot of comments, and a lot of negative comments. More people will respond when they don’t like what you say, than when they like what you say. And one learns from that. You can see a lot of nuances. And you might change your opinions. I think some of the greatest leaders in the world were the ones that came in with one idea, and by listening to the people who knew more than they did, they actually changed their opinion. I think that is an incredible leadership skill.

Isabel Piedmont-Smith: Yes. So working with people who have different opinions, this, of course, happens all the time. And I have great respect for all my colleagues on council and for the mayor, and yet we still disagree a lot, which is fine. I think we learn a lot through discussions that we have with each other. And as Joe said, through discussions we have with the residents that we represent. Here’s an example of when I sought compromise on a very important issue, which was allowing duplexes and triplexes in traditionally single-family neighborhoods. First, the plan commission passed legislation that would allow them in all single-family zones, which I supported. But I knew that there was a lot of resistance to that idea, a lot of different opinions and thinking that this was a bad thing. So I actually sponsored an amendment that decreased where those will be allowed. And what we ended up passing was that only 15 duplexes and triplexes will be allowed in single-family neighborhoods. So I thought that was good work. We spent many long nights listening and working on that compromise solution. I think, definitely respecting people even if you have a difference of opinion, never getting to a personal attack. Just discussing the issue, the problem and not personalities is very important. And trying to reach out to communities who are often not engaged in the process is very important to consider the impact on those underserved communities.

Question: How will you collaborate with community stakeholders, city departments and community organization to achieve the city’s goals to mitigate climate change?

Isabel Piedmont-Smith: Yes, thank you for the question. So the climate action plan was a collaborative process. It took about a year to develop. We had a consultant, but they met with many experts from IU, from community organizations, from solid waste district and other places to come up with a plan. And it does have very specific goals. And it says things like: Work with Indiana University to reduce pesticide use and things like that. So we’re gonna try. I’ve been working on the same committee as Ron, the city’s climate action and resilience committee. So we’re working on phasing out leaf blowers as a good starting point. The solid waste management board of directors is another group that I am serving on. We collaborated with the city of Bloomington on studying whether an anaerobic digester could be installed in the Dillman wastewater treatment plant. Any day now we’ll get the study back. And I believe signs point to yes, to use the the magic eight ball terminology there. But this would be a way to actually generate methane to run that [wastewater treatment plant]. So it’s a great project. We’re also collaborating on the solid waste district in the city on a composting pilot program for multifamily housing. So in apartment buildings, people can actually recycle. Communication is key. And egos have to be put aside, we must admit that no one entity can solve these problems, and that no one entity or person has all the right answers.

Joe Lee: Well, I would say the first thing is that we can look outside Bloomington and we can see the way climate change is affecting the rest of the country and the rest of the world. But we need to look within Bloomington to see the way it affects us. We have had massive flooding in Bloomington in the last few years. And if infrastructure isn’t kept up. And we have neighborhood after neighborhood, the core neighborhoods without sidewalks and sewer drains, and just on and on. When you wake up after a storm and you have three feet of water in your basement and you’re glad that people in the neighborhood have basements, because it has somewhere for the water to go. And we’ve seen it over and over. So there are all kinds of ideas. The climate action plan is a great idea. The important thing is as you transition, you work with everybody to transition at the same time. I think things like public transit, and the B-LineTrail is a wonderful, wonderful thing. But it replaced the railroad tracks that used to be our transit system, to all the way to Chicago and beyond, all the way down to Miami. I used to take the trains quite often—take it up to Indianapolis and then across to New York. That’s the kind of public transportation we really need to pay attention to.

Question: What do you see as the key mental health challenges facing our community and how you plan to address them?

Joe Lee: We can look at a lot of what is happening in Bloomington and beyond. We are talking about national and regional issues. During the Reagan administration and across the country, they started closing the institutions. A lot of them were horrible places, but they should have been changed into good places, where people could actually get mental health services. I was living in New York in the city in the 80s. The number of people who had been turned out of places where they had a roof and they had food. So we have here in Bloomington, we have Centerstone. We have other addiction and mental health services. And we need to work with our region. It’s not just Bloomington. We are surrounded by counties that have no services. And so the only place people can go for services is Bloomington. And they might be better off in a smaller town where they know people that would help them—but there are no services there. So I think working within the region is the way that we can begin this process.

Isabel Piedmont-Smith: Yes, the city of Bloomington can and should support better mental health services. And let me throw in substance misuse treatment services as well. We need to continue awarding Jack Hopkins social service grants and actually increase that funding amount that we have available every year. Nonprofit agencies have come to depend on that money to keep their very valuable services going. We must also use opioid settlement funds—we have about $2 million coming to us over the next 15 years. We need to use that to support local prevention, treatment and harm reduction programs in collaboration with the county which also have a significant amount of funding coming. We need to bring together key regional and local stakeholders and expertise to work on solutions to the drug misuse crisis. People are dying in this community, due to fentanyl meth or opioid use. We need to support the agencies that are battling this. And in the process, we need to listen to those with lived experience and incorporate their ideas into our community’s plans.

Question: Closing Statements

Joe Lee: Well, I would just say, this has been a great forum—a lot of wonderful ideas out there by everyone. I’ll just say a little bit more about myself. For five years, I worked with the Bloomington Township trustee’s office. And trustees offices exist for assistance. And it is a great first line. Bloomington Township and Perry Township, as they split Bloomington—you get to know a community that needs assistance. And these are our neighbors. They’re not charity cases. When I was at the interfaith winter shelter, I volunteered there for six years, and still see people at the breakfast at First Christian Church on Sunday mornings. These are our neighbors, these our people and everyone is a constituent. So that does it for me.

Isabel Piedmont-Smith: Thank you to all of the cosponsors for this very good event. The questions have been excellent. And thank you to my colleagues also. My name is Isabel Piedmont-Smith. I’m running for reelection to the city council in District 1. My priorities include making local government more inclusive—residents must be involved in their city government decision making and the city’s processes must be clear and easy to follow. Number two: Implementing the 2021 Climate Action Plan which we’ve already talked about quite a bit. This includes investing in more buses and bike routes, utilizing green infrastructure for stormwater, and reducing emissions through local food network. Strengthening the social safety net is number three. And while Bloomington is a vibrant place to live, there are too many residents that are struggling to thrive in our community. The city must collaborate with others to provide more affordable housing, greater accessibility to physical and mental health care and additional substance misuse treatment options. I’m willing and ready to do more to make Bloomington a better place than what I found it.