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Primary candidate Q&A: West Lafayette City Council at-large
It’s the only contested primary on local May 2 ballots: 4 Democrats – James Blanco, Iris O’Donnell Bellisario, David Sanders and Gerald Thomas – are up for 3 at-large spots on the WL City Council
The only local contested race in the 2023 primary will be among Democrats in West Lafayette, where voters will choose three at-large city council candidates to appear on the November municipal ballot.
Four candidates are on the May 2 ballot, including incumbents James Blanco, David Sanders and Gerald Thomas, along with Iris O’Donnell Bellisario. As of now, no Republicans have filed to run for the three at-large city council seats.
Early voting starts Tuesday, April 18.
Here, the four Democrats running for three at-large nominations for West Lafayette City Council discuss their approach to the four-year position.
For more: Find bios of each candidate, along with information about where and when to vote at the end of this article.
Candidate forum: The four candidates are scheduled to debate at 7 p.m. Monday, April 17, in a live event hosted by the League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette and WLFI-TV18. To watch, here’s WLFI’s livestream link: www.wlfi.com/livestream/
Why are you running for city council?
James Blanco: I am running for a second term to continue to be a voice for those who often are dismissed and ignored, people whose struggles we must work to find solutions for, especially working people, students and renters.
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario: I am running for office because West Lafayette is my home. I bought my first house here and am so proud to set down roots in such a dynamic town. I love how dynamic and neighborly people are. We are a community that looks out for each other. Our society faces complex challenges, and my mentor, Mayor Dennis, inspired me to realize that local change is the answer to our complex global issues. I am running because I want to support the growth of our community. I want to inspire future leaders and develop sustainable solutions to our town’s pressing issues, and to do so by involving perspectives from all segments of our population.
David Sanders: I believe in public service. My principles include government transparency, responsiveness and accountability. I answer every message I receive from constituents. When someone has a concern in the city, they know that they can contact me, and I will see that it is addressed. Virtually all of the legislation that I sponsor is citizen-initiated. I hold a monthly Meet Your Councilor meeting at City Hall. I have striven to protect privacy rights. My record on promoting diversity and social justice and protecting the interests of the underprivileged is clear. Ensuring that taxpayer funds are spent wisely is a priority.
Gerald Thomas: Even after serving almost four terms as a city councilman at-large, I still feel I have something I can give to the city I call home.
How long have you lived in West Lafayette? And how did you land in the city?
James Blanco: I’ve lived in West Lafayette for nine years, came to town as a student of Purdue University. I’m proud to call West Lafayette home, it’s a wonderful community.
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario: I moved to West Lafayette midway through high school while my mom was pursuing her doctorate at Purdue University. I fell in love with this city and began working with the city council and mayor on addressing climate change as my education progressed. My family has settled here and having just bought my first house, so have I.
David Sanders: I have lived in West Lafayette for 27 years. I came here with my boys, who all attended the West Lafayette public schools, and my now deceased wife, Mimi Hasson, because we were offered two positions in the Structural Biology group at Purdue University.
Gerald Thomas: I have lived in West Lafayette for 50 years. I originally landed as a basketball recruit for Purdue University in 1973 and obtained a job here after graduating from Purdue.
Name two of your top priorities for the district. And how will you handle them?
James Blanco: Public transit and improving EV infrastructure. I serve on the board of CityBus and am proud to work along our new CEO to implement the agency’s net-zero climate strategy, which includes hydrogen-powered buses. As for EV infrastructure, I’m excited to work with Erin Easter on adding more street chargers, while making sure new developments include EV chargers on the premises as well.
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario: Climate change is the No. 1 public health threat globally, with increased extreme weather events and even decreased natural spaces that impact our ecosystems. On a city level there are infrastructure concerns that we can address: wastewater treatment demands, preparedness for extreme heat and weather events. First, the city can work to implement the Greater Lafayette Climate Action Plan and continue to invest in making our resiliency officer a sustainable and long-term position. With new leadership, and designated expertise, the city can begin to prepare for increased weather events as well as extreme heat events. We also can expand our green infrastructure spaces and ensure open natural spaces and resources for community members. The city can continue to monitor our greenhouse gas emissions and refine plans and strategies based on scientific evidence. If you’re interested in the current status of these items, visit www.irisforwestlafayette.com
David Sanders: As a long-term resident, I believe we need to balance growth with preservation of neighborhoods. Development must be conducted in a sustainable manner. We need to address climate change and complete product life cycles with more effective recycling and composting and a reduction in single-use objects.
Gerald Thomas: 1. We need to continue to look at economic development opportunities for our city. Our city is growing, and we will have to evaluate each opportunity on its merits for our city. 2. Housing stock for low- and moderate-income families and individuals continues to be a concern. This is a difficult situation, but we need to continue to work with developers to come up with a solution.
What do you see as the biggest challenge for the district? And how do you proposed to solve or deal with it?
James Blanco: Housing, housing, housing. Our most recent Student Rental Report stated that there were no vacancies within the area nearest Purdue. We have a crisis-level lack of housing availability and affordability. I plan to keep the pressure on the city and the university to make more housing available. I support efforts to reform zoning laws and redevelopment to make more housing available, such as the Chauncey Hill Mall plan.
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario: The greatest challenge facing West Lafayette today is a housing crisis. Currently the vacancy rate is near zero, and simply put there is no capacity to accommodate new population growth, which results in lost economic opportunity. The lack of affordable housing is also at a critical point. To address our housing crisis, we can forge collaborative partnerships with private industry, Purdue University and our municipal resources. Creative incentives and public-private partnerships can stimulate housing designed with growth, flexibility and equity in mind. We need to ensure that all of our citizens have an equitable place to live, play and work.
David Sanders: I have been a leader in working to ensure that Purdue University consults with the city, so that it can act as a trustworthy partner with the community. The lack of affordable housing is a product of an absence of firm commitments by Purdue University about student-population size. Development should include below market-rate housing. We should encourage efforts to retain residential stock for residents. Large-scale construction should utilize sustainable materials that can be readily reused when the building lifespan has been reached.
Gerald Thomas: Because I am running at large, my answers to the previous question apply here.
West Lafayette will have a new mayor for the first time in 16 years? What changes, if any, would you like to see change between the city council and the city administration?
James Blanco: I’m excited for what the future of West Lafayette looks like under an Erin Easter administration. John Dennis has been an excellent mayor for these many years, and his support for her is a real vote of confidence. John has had a positive relationship with the council, and I expect that to continue with Erin, maybe even deepen.
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario: I have really appreciated the ability to regularly speak with our city leadership as a resident and hope to see that level of accessibility continue. I believe that transparent communication and accessibility to the public should continue to be a priority as our leadership transitions. I would like to see more regular communication between departments and the city council regarding upcoming public meetings and communication with residents in construction areas.
David Sanders: I have worked together with Mayor Dennis on many issues during my time on the council including recently on a housing ordinance. I already speak regularly with Erin Easter, the declared candidate for mayor. I made it a point to meet with each of the department heads to understand the operations of their groups and the challenges that they face. I am also in regular communication with the chief of police. I believe in the council continuing to play both a supervisory and a monitoring role for city actions and amplifying the voices of constituents when they express their concerns.
Gerald Thomas: I have been pleased with the current administration and look forward to continuing the same relationship with the new administration.
Name two specific things that separate you from your opponents and why they matter.
James Blanco: 1. I am the only at-large candidate who is a renter, like the majority of West Lafayette residents. I have a personal stake in a housing market that allows longtime residents to continue to call West Lafayette their home, because that’s my situation. 2. I was the only candidate on the at-large ballot to publicly condemn the actions of the former Wabash Township trustee and stand with the firefighters. It’s evidence that the community can count on me to stand up to bad actors, even when they are members of the same political party.
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario: 1. I have proven that I care about the issues important to West Lafayette, and I believe in working respectfully and cooperatively with stakeholders to positively impact the West Lafayette community. I have a standing practice of transparent communication, listening and being able to work with a diverse community. As a young woman for change, I’ll bring about a new generation of leadership for our city to help support the growth of our community. I have shown my commitment protecting the environment, civic engagement and public service in Indiana. 2. As an executive director for a nonprofit and previous office manager for a medical clinic, I have a solid understanding of how to prioritize and make informed financial decisions. I am a firm believer in implementing initiatives within the limits of feasibility, and that my creative approaches and fresh perspectives uniquely position me to successfully serve West Lafayette.
David Sanders: I can’t answer this question; I can only respond with a description of my experience. I have had the privilege of working on matters with each one of my fellow candidates. Many of the issues that face our city have a scientific or technological basis, and as a scientist I believe it is important to be able to address them on a firsthand basis. It seems to me to be valuable to have someone who is familiar with the inner workings of Purdue University on the council. Councilors have a duty to act as independent participants representing the residents of West Lafayette in the operation of city government. I have worked with state Rep. Chris Campbell at the Statehouse, where I spoke on issues of local governance on behalf of Mayor Dennis and the city council and appreciate her support. I have also been endorsed by state Rep. Sheila Klinker.
Gerald Thomas: We all need to work for the best interests of the citizens we represent.
Candidate bios, West Lafayette City Council at-large
Occupation: Automotive mechanic
Education: Purdue University, Bachelor of Arts in Political Science, Ivy Tech Community College, certificates in EV and Hybrid Technology and Maintenance and Light Repair
Past Elected Positions: current city council member
Immediate Family: n/a
Campaign site online: voteblanco.com
Iris O’Donnell Bellisario
Occupation: Executive director of a nonprofit
Education: B.S. Purdue University, Natural Resources and Environmental Science; Master’s of Public Health expected graduation: December 2023
Past elected positions, if any: Precinct committeeperson 2022-Present
Immediate family: Mother, Kristen Bellisario, professor at Purdue University; father, Timothy O’Donnell, physician and owner of Coze Health Medical LLC; and brother, Noah O’Donnell Bellisario.
Your campaign site online: www.irisforwestlafayette.com
Occupation: Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, Purdue University
Education: B.S., Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Yale College; Ph.D., Biochemistry, University of California, Berkeley
Past elected positions, if any: West Lafayette City Council, at-large. 2016-present
Immediate family: Wife, Sharon Waxkirsh, three sons
Education: BSIM Krannert School of Management
Past elected positions, if any: current city council member
Immediate family: Spouse, Susan; sons, Christopher and Benjamin
DEBATE, MONDAY, APRIL 18
Here’s a look at the candidates via a WLFI-TV18/League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette debate livestreamed Monday, April 18.
ABOUT THE MAY 2 PRIMARY
Where to vote ahead of May 2:
Tuesday, April 18, to Friday, April 21: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Tippecanoe County Office Building, 20 N. Third St., Lafayette
Monday, April 24, to Friday, April 28: 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Tippecanoe County Office Building, 20 N. Third St., Lafayette
Thursday, April 27, and Friday, April 28: noon-6 p.m., West Lafayette City Hall, 222 N. Chauncey Ave.
Saturday, April 29: noon-4 p.m., West Lafayette City Hall and Tippecanoe County Office Building.
Monday, May 1: 8 a.m.-noon, Tippecanoe County Office Building.
Election Day voting: Polls will be open 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday, May 2, at these sites in West Lafayette:
Purdue Black Cultural Center, 1100 Third St.
West Lafayette Wellness Center, 1101 Kalberer Road
Faith West Community Center, 1920 Northwestern Ave.
West Lafayette City Hall, 222 N. Chauncey Ave.
Connection Point Church, 2541 Cumberland Ave.
Check your voter registration status: Go to the Secretary of State’s portal at www.indianavoters.com.
On ballots, so far: Here are the candidates who filed by February deadline in Lafayette and West Lafayette municipal elections. (Incumbents are marked with an asterisk.) Parties will have time after the primary to slate candidates for open slots. Same goes for independent candidates.
Mayor: Erin Easter, D.
Clerk: Sana Booker*, D.
Council District 1: Aaron Abell, R.
Council District 2: Michelle Dennis, D.
Council District 3: None
Council District 4: Larry Leverenz*, D.
Council District 5: Kathy Parker*, D; James Waters, R.
Council District 6: Jeff Brown*, R; Stacey Baitinger Burr, D.
Council at-large (3): James Blanco*, D; Iris O’Donnell Bellisario, D; David Sanders*, D; Gerald Thomas*, D.
Mayor: Tony Roswarski*, D; Benji Milanowski, Libertarian
Clerk: Cindy Murray*, D.
Council District 1: Jerry Reynolds*, R.
Council District 2: Eileen Hession Weiss*, D; Mary Fisher, R.
Council District 3: Perry Brown*, D.
Council District 4: Lauren Ahlersmeyer*, D; Josiah Eller, Libertarian
Council District 5: Melissa Weast Williamson*, D.
Council District 6: Bob Downing*, D; Perry Barbee, R
Council at-large (3): Kevin Klinker*, D; Nancy Nargi*, D; Steve Snyder*, D.
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