How Much Say Do We Really Have in Local Democracy? Columbus City Council and the FCDP

Watching the Columbus City Council 2019 election unfold was an eye-opening experience. 

While campaigning for Liliana Rivera Baiman, I knocked on hundreds of doors throughout the city. I spoke with countless working-class families and heard similar stories over and over. People felt ignored by the current local government. Instead of worrying about people who are working the hardest — those often with multiple jobs just to keep food on the table, to keep the utilities on, and to rent paid — the incumbents on city council were focused on helping out those who were funding their campaigns. We saw this with luxury condo developer Preferred Living (known for their plan to evict seniors from manufactured homes) donating $1,000 to Emmanuel Remy and Elizabeth Brown taking $1,000 from AEP‘s “Committee for Responsible Government.”

As I spoke with these families, I was getting increasingly excited. Yes, getting Lili (and the other Yes We Can candidates) elected was going to be difficult, but everyone was excited to vote for candidates concerned about the issues people deal with daily: inconsistent transit, low wages, high costs of living, poorly funded schools — problems facing so many. People were tired of incumbents who waste valuable city money to build new sports arenas (and then lie about the financial costs and benefits to people living in the city). People were tired of seeing developers get huge tax abatements for luxury property developments while students and the working class paid the cost.

I thought this momentum could be enough to carry us to a victory.

Unfortunately, it turns out it’s nearly impossible to win when you’re not in a fair fight. The Columbus political machine is set up to make sure its candidates win — even if the result is an undemocratic process. If it means they win, they’ll do it.

Just how unfair are these city council elections?

I was shocked to find out the advantage our incumbents have.

To even get on the Columbus City Council ballot, a candidate needs 1,000 valid signatures. This is the same number that a person needs to run for Governor of Ohio — a statewide position. To put that in better context, candidates for Congress only need 50 valid signatures.

It gets worse, too. Lauren Squires, who worked on Liliana’s campaign, explains “not one of the current city council members had signatures collected on their behalf in order to get them on the ballot for their first time in office. NOT ONE. That’s because, in addition to all but one of them being appointed first, you are allowed to swap out candidates once signatures are verified. So, the Democratic Party routinely uses ‘placeholder’ names to get signatures and then fills in the name(s) later with their appointee(s).

The electoral outlier, Liz Brown, was not appointed to Council prior to being elected. But she was appointed to fill a slot on an existing slate of candidates after one of them dropped out. The signatures had already been verified. Nobody collected signatures for her the first time she was elected.”

Furthermore, our at-large system exacerbates the difficulty of new names getting elected to city council. The resources needed to reach enough residents throughout the city is nearly insurmountable for challengers. After all, several candidates in this past election got nearly 30,000 votes but didn’t come close to getting elected. Without the backing of big-time donors (read: developers and corporations), it’s nearly impossible to build the name recognition needed to win a race.

Oh, and the Franklin County Democratic Party (FCDP) often pays people to go out and collect signatures. Those running against them typically depend on dedicated volunteers who care about the success of the candidates.

What’s the end result of this discrepancy? It’s a whole lot harder for working-class people — those who are committed members of the community — to get on the ballot. This makes our city council a place for the rich (and guess whose interests they’re going to be most concerned about? The wealthy people and businesses who put them there).

It also turns out this race’s incumbents spent $1.3 million to make sure they got re-elected (now compare that to Lili’s $35-thousand campaign), a good portion of which was donated by corporations, developers, and special interest PACs.

Then, there’s the “official” sample ballot the FCDP mails out. There were seven democrats running for city council, and yet only four democrats ended up on this ballot (which was widely distributed, including through mailers). Likely, these ballots were initially intended so voters know who’s a republican and who’s a democrat, but now the FCDP is disorting that. Furthermore, the paid pollstanders (who, by the way, are paid less than $15 an hour according to one who I spoke with) who pass the ballots out on Election Day imply — and sometimes directly state — that the candidates their sample ballot are the only Democrats on it, which is a flat out lie. As a result, many go in thinking they’re voting for the most progressive candidates. Unfortunately, though, they’re often casting votes for politicians who have interests more aligned with Republicans than the city’s working class.

Given the power of the FCDP, it seems that if we want to change this imbalance of control, we need to take action and shift power back to the everyday Columbus citizen.

If those making decisions in Columbus are beholden to developers, we need to change that. The direct problem isn’t the individual politicians in power (though, they’re not great either). The problem is the political machine giving them essentially unlimited funds for campaigns, creating a culture that cares more about donors and developers than you and me in the working class. The result is a political machine that is more concerned with maintaining a stranglehold on its power than on supporting its communities and constituents. 

Something needs to change if we want our voices to not only be heard but also to be listened to.

So, that’s what we’re going to do. 

Stay tuned.