John Fernandez is indeed the perfect target for a sustained political offensive built around the I-69 boondoggle. His vulnerabilities extend well beyond the highway.
Fernandez came out of Indiana University a brash, politically talented kid from Kokomo who got himself elected to the Bloomington City Council in 1987 and re-elected in 1991. Somewhere along the line, however, perhaps before he was first elected, Fernandez determined that Bloomington would be an incubator for his ambitious career plans. In 1993, he forsook his pledge to serve the people of Bloomington and quit the council in mid-term to begin feathering his own political nest.
Fernandez went to law school and cultivated powerful contacts in the State Democratic Party. Upon graduation, he took a job in the Bloomington office of a major Indianapolis Democratic law firm and got elected mayor in 1995. In a historical repeat of his council days, the mayor's commitment to those who elected him lasted exactly one-and-a-half terms. Midway into term two, Mayor Fernandez announced he would not seek re-election and launched a run for Secretary of State.
The truth is, it's never been clear to Bloomington citizens exactly whose interests John Fernandez was serving - theirs or his - though his record on I-69 leaves little doubt.
In his City Council runs and first mayoral bid, Fernandez emphasized issues of social, environmental and economic justice. An ill-informed Indianapolis Star editorial writer not long ago actually called him "Bloomington's progressive mayor." In fact, he owes his 1995 mayoral victory in part to young Bloomington progressives. Cops-run-amok was an issue that year, and his opponent's campaign manager was married to the city police chief. Local progressives flocked to Fernandez' side against a more worthy candidate. He barely won his party's nomination.
But Bloomington citizens soon learned just how quickly power corrupts. Between his inauguration in 1996 and his re-election in 1999, Fernandez accepted $28,000 in campaign contributions from developers, builders and engineers. He so thoroughly ingratiated himself with these vested interests that Republicans couldn't even field a candidate to run against him.
Through the years, Fernandez steadfastly remained vague about his position on I-69. But four months before the 1999 mayoral election, he was exposed by the pro-highway group Voices for I-69, which released a letter signed by 22 Indiana mayors, including Fernandez, that called I-69 a "golden corridor of commerce." When local activists protested, the mayor feigned conflict, telling them in an e-mail that he shared "a number" of the concerns they had raised.
1999 was a critical time in the I-69 process, as the O'Bannon administration was preparing its final public push for the new-terrain route. In 2000, INDOT announced a collection of I-69 route alternatives and asked for public response, which overwhelmingly favored the 41-70 route.
Now, governors listen to popular mayors in their own party, especially when they are political up-and-comers. Had John Fernandez stood with the people in 1999, the direction of this entire debate may have shifted. But true to form, he chose his own career over the public interest. Knowing that quiet support meant financial resources for his own political aspirations and public support meant the wrath of an outraged citizenry, he adopted the I-69 equivalent of don't-ask-don't-tell. He spoke not a word in public.
To no one's surprise, Fernandez' name today is moving up the list of politicians receiving campaign contributions from Bernardin Lochmueller. The Environmental Law & Policy Center analysis shows that the $2,250 in contributions to Fernandez were reported between May 8, 2001, and March 15, 2002 as he was gearing up for his Secretary of State campaign.
During a fund-raising visit two weeks ago in Terre Haute, Fernandez wouldn't talk to the Tribune-Star about I-69. At last Tuesday's I-69 hearing at Bloomington North, he sent an emissary to tell the public he supports a new-terrain route.