Ending 1-Party Rule

Republicans haven’t held a single Athens city office since 2005 and don’t even bother running candidates anymore, because there are too few local Republican voters to elect them.

That’s GREAT NEWS for everyone who opposes the Republican Party’s opposition to climate and medical science, its conspiratorial paranoia, and its hatred of women, minorities, nonwhite immigrants and the poor. And in the absence of any Republican opposition, our local Democratic politicians can do whatever they want. So Athens must be a progressive utopia, right?

Not so much.

Because apparently what our local Democratic officeholders want to do is behave like Republicans themselves by pursuing gentrification, lax public safety regulation, giveaways to the wealthy and over-spending on policing, while covering up racial injustice. Perhaps that’s why Athens Mayor Steve Patterson bragged to The Post in 2019 that he was the mayor Republicans wanted, and indeed 17-year chair of the Athens County Republican Party, Pete Couladis, was among Patterson’s backers.

The status quo maintained by our local Democratic establishment results in our community’s staggering inequality. Every year the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation ranks Athens County as having the absolute worst housing problems in the entire state of Ohio — and by a longshot — due to the unusually high costs and unusually low quality of our local housing stock, and coupled with the fact that Athens County also has the highest income inequality in all of Ohio and some of the worst poverty.

Perhaps most ironically, the status quo maintained by our local Democratic establishment also prevents us from challenging Republican control of our state and the power of the far-right nationally. Something that makes Republican support for local Democratic politicians even less surprising!

Every 4-5 years, tens of thousands of students pass through our city. We know that when students and young people vote, they overwhelmingly vote for the most progressive viable candidates. When it comes to presidential and midterm elections, student voting is actively encouraged by OU administrators, Democratic Party leaders and local politicians — and student turnout is high. But when it comes to the off-year city elections that determine students’ daily living conditions, students are kept in the dark and ignored — and student turnout is virtually nonexistent. (For more info, click the “OU Students” tab above.)

By keeping students in the dark about local politics, our Democratic city sends OU graduates off into the world with only a mountain of student debate and a collection of rental housing horror stories, instead of a knowledge of progressive city policy and a habit of participating in local governance that students could use to challenge the far-right wherever they end up next. What a waste!

And the problem isn’t just one-party rule. It’s also the power of local Democratic Party leaders — and how they use that power.

Party leaders recruit candidates, fund and run their campaigns, prevent them from facing challengers in competitive primaries, and often appoint them directly to office. Party leaders take power away from voters by typically allowing voters only one candidate per office to vote for (thereby effectively appointing candidates even when they are technically “elected”), and party leaders exercise considerable leverage over the politicians who owe their political careers to party leaders rather than to voters.

Take the case of former Democratic councilmember Pete Kotses, who was recruited by party leaders in 2015 to replace Steve Patterson on Council, when Patterson left Council to run unopposed for mayor. During Kotses’ five years on Council he rarely campaigned, and during at least one year the Democratic Party committee was his one and only campaign donor. Thus when Kotses defied party leaders to challenged incumbent Democratic County Treasurer Ric Wasserman in last year’s Democratic Primary, he was unable to withstand their backlash and it cost Kotses his political career. Local Dem Party chair John Haseley was “incensed” according to the Athens News that Kotses would challenge a fellow Democratic incumbent and actually let voters decide an election. Haseley told the New Political he does everything he can to prevent incumbents from being challenged in competitive primaries. Haseley and Wasserman also came right out and told the New Political that Kotses owed them his allegiance after they had supported his City Council campaigns. So the party withdrew all support from Kotses. Party leaders came out against him publicly. He lost the primary for Treasurer by 20 points, and three months later he resigned from Council, issuing a statement protesting the conformity and lack of diversity in local politics. 

When party leaders make local politicians, they can break them too. And this has resulted in a situation where local officeholders are more accountable to party leaders than voters.

That’s exactly why I’m so concerned that 2 of the Democratic incumbents in this race — Ben Ziff and Micah McCarey– have been appointed to Council by party leaders, rather than being elected by voters, while the 3rd incumbent Dem –Sarah Grace– is one of the party leaders who appointed them.

That’s not a criticism of Ziff or McCarey. Party leaders were going to pick somebody to fill those vacancies on Council — and I personally spent two years pushing for them to start picking more diverse , younger people and renters, which is exactly who Ziff and McCarey are.

But at the same time, we’ve got to ask ourselves: Why is it that the Democratic politician who’s taken the most progressive positions on housing and racial justice so far this year isn’t Ziff, isn’t McCarey, isn’t a young person, isn’t a renter, isn’t a person of color, and isn’t even former social work professor Solveig Spjeldnes, but instead is Alan Swank, who, despite being a retired, straight, white, homeowning, cisgender man whose daughter is a landlord, is nevertheless the only Dem to criticize the city’s failure to conduct its promised racial equity review; the only Dem to condemn Council’s unanimous passage of new 3-year police union contracts not informed by any racial equity review; the only Dem to oppose the University Estates gentrification scheme deceptively mislabeled “affordable housing”; and the first Dem who came out in favor of banning source of income discrimination earlier this year. (For more on Swank’s progressive positions, click here, here, and here.)

So how did Swank end up this year’s most progressive new Democrat? I suspect it’s largely because he is the only new Dem who does not owe his seat on Council to conservative local Democratic Party leaders but instead to the progressive Democratic voters who elected him in a competitive primary race.

Granted, there may still be some reason for optimism about his year’s other new Democratic candidates. After I started publicly criticizing Ziff and McCarey for being outdone by Swank on housing justice issues, Ziff and McCarey both started taking clearer and better positions on those issues in response to two candidate questionnaires released earlier in October by United Athens County Tenants and the Far Eastside Neighborhood Association respectively. This was after Ziff and McCarey shied away from taking clear positions on housing justice issues at the League of Women Voters September 21 candidate forum, after they faced public backlash for skipping the September 30 OU Student Senate candidate forum, and after Ziff resisted taking clear positions when he first announced his desire to serve on Council back in January. However, now Ziff and McCarey seem to be on the same page as me and Iris Virjee about a lot of things, and many of their stated positions on housing issues are quite good.

Also, Ziff, along with the new 1st Ward representative-to-be Solveig Spjeldnes, were early proponents of banning source of income discrimination this spring. And that came at a time when Sarah Grace and her ally Chris Fahl were still opposing a ban. Ziff also has opposed Grace and Fahl’s proposed parking regulation changes that would make life harder on students and working class renters while also likely pricing more single family homebuyers out of city limits. And when Mayor Patterson tried to get Council to suspend its rules to rush through approval of his controversial choice of new Arts, Parks and Recreation Director — without anyone outside the mayor’s team being consulted, without Council even having been permitted to see the candidate’s resume, and with the candidate being a co-worker of the mayor’s wife — Ziff was among those Democrats on Council wo stood up to the mayor, while McCarey voted with the mayor and councilmembers Grace and Fahl.

Also, when it comes to racial justice issues, although McCarey has been quiet about racial justice and policing since joining Council, and although he has fallen far short of the racial justice positions taken by Swank, the first news story covering his appointment nevertheless reported that “Reforming law enforcement with diversity in mind is also key for McCarey. He said the city still has a long way to go before policing arrives at a place deemed acceptable.” Similarly, at the League candidate forum, Ziff sided with me in expressed is support for the city conducting the racial equity review Council promised 15 months ago.

Regardless, I think it’s clear that the local Democratic Party and its candidates in this race have mostly taken better positions only when pressured to do so by progressive independents. Thus if we want to maximize progressive policy and power for voters, I believe we need to start electing progressive independents like me (and Iris Virjee), who don’t owe party leaders anything.

Plus, if establishment stalwart Sarah Grace joins her ally Chris Fahl in losing her seat on Council, then the power of more conservative party leaders will be further diminished. That also might make it easier for new Democratic Council members to side with progressive independents.

UPDATE 10/8/21 — Well, so much for Ziff and McCarey’s independence from party leaders! It’s like Athens Democrats are determined to keep confirming my worst suspicions of them.

At the last minute, all 3 Democratic candidates (Ziff, McCarey and Grace)  backed out of the September 30 candidate forum. This was the last chance to hold a candidate forum before the October 4 voter registration deadline, plus one of what will likely be just two candidate forums held in this race, plus what will likely be the only student-hosted candidate forum held on campus. Yet every single Democratic candidate decided they had something more important to do.

To make matters worse, County Democratic Party leaders John Haseley and Abi Scherer stepped in to falsely claim Democratic candidates were not aware of the forum, despite email records showing the forum was scheduled according to the Democrats’ stated availabilities. Even sleazier, Haseley and Scherer tried to put the blame on the forum’s student organizer who worked hard to hold a valuable voter education event.

Ohio Republicans are notorious for ducking candidate forums and questionnaires. Now, it appears Athens Democrats plan to follow suit.

The same week all of the Democratic at-large candidates skipped the Student Senate candidate forum, all three Democrats also failed to respond to a voter guide questionnaire from United Athens County Tenants. The questionnaire was sent to all candidates on September 16, yet only Iris Virjee and I responded by the September 30 deadline. However, UACT continued to request responses from the Democrats and published their failure to respond at the same time the Dems were facing negative publicity for skipping the Student Senate candidate forum. Micah McCarey then submitted his response to the UACT questionnaire on October 5, and Ben Ziff submitted his on October 6. However, as of October 8 UACT has not received any response from Sarah Grace, who, ironically, is Chair of Athens City Council’s Affordable Housing Commission.

The 4 candidates who now have responded to the UACT questionnaire are all tenants, while Grace is a landlord. But I believe rental housing issues ought to be a priority for anyone in Athens city government (or aspiring to be elected to it), regardless of whether that person is a tenant, landlord or the owner of their own home. After all, nearly 80% of off-campus city housing stock is made up of rental units and about the same percentage of our city population resides in them!

UACT continues to request Sarah Grace’s response and will post it here if it is ever received.

Finally, at the same time all of this occurred, instead of Ziff and McCarey producing individual yard signs like Democratic candidates did in 2019, both of them lent their names to a single yard sign for all 3 Democratic candidates.

And here’s the problem with that —

In the at-large race every voter can vote for any combination of up to three candidates, regardless of those candidates’ party affiliations. And the top 3 vote-getters win the 3 at-large seats on Council. So in that sense, every candidate is competing against every other candidate, regardless of party afliliation.

In 2019, each candidate had their own sign, and many yards featured a mix of signs for individual Democratic and independent candidates. Democrat Beth Clodfelter was the top vote getter, which reflected her support from many people who also supported independents. So it was common to see yards with signs for both independent Ellie Hamrick and Democrat Clodfelter, independent Chris Monday and Clodfelter, independent Pat McGee and Clodfelter, and yes, even independent Damon Krane and Clodfelter.

Yet this year, it seems if you want a yard sign for 1 Democrat, you have to get a yard sign for all 3 Democrats. And the only long-term incumbent in the race (and the only landlord left on Council), Sarah Grace, is listed in the middle of the sign, hidden between two new, more diverse, tenant candidates –Ziff and McCarey– under the message “Keep Democrats.”

Grace has the same policy record as councilmember Chris Fahl, who, on the basis of that policy record, was defeated in this May’s primary race by 30 points. So hiding the vulnerable status quo candidate between two new candidates is a smart way to try to protect Grace from suffering the same fate as Fahl.

But if you watch the September 21 League of Women Voters candidate forum and read the UACT and FENA candidate questionnaires, you’ll see that the candidates closest to one another on policy are me, Iris, Ben, and Micah — and the candidate farthest from any of us is Grace. So through the 3-in-1 Democratic yard signs, Ziff and McCarey are literally campaigning for their opponent.

The saddest thing is Ziff’s and McCarey’s willingness to be used in this way. They’re both the first renters and youngest people on Council in more than a decade. McCarey also is the first openly queer councilmember in more than a decade, and quite possibly the first Black councilmember ever. These two new Dems were supposed to be a breath of fresh air. And when they’re allowed to speak for themselves, they often have very good things to say. But their lack of independence from a dishonest party establishment that opposes many of their views is troubling, to say the least.

But like I said, when you owe your seat on Council to party leaders rather than to voters –and when party leaders routinely make and break local politicians– then party leaders get to exercise considerable influence over you.

I believe these recent developments have made clearer than ever the need to elect progressive independents who are not beholden to local party leaders.

Click here to get a yard sign or donate!

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Paid for by The Committee to Elect Damon Krane