OU students aren’t children, they’re young adults who want a better world. When students and young people vote, they overwhelmingly vote for the most progressive viable candidate. Our city needs to stop treating students only as easy sources of revenue and start treating students as a vital source of positive change. To do that, we must engage students in city politics and make city government accountable to the majority of city residents. So far I’m the only candidate willing to say this, and I’m the only candidate with a record that shows I mean it.
OU students make up 75-80% of city residents, and in presidential elections students are the majority of city voters. But in the city elections that determine students’ daily living conditions, student voting is practically non-existent. This has resulted in an unrepresentative city government that’s opposed to progressive reform — especially when it comes to landlord-tenant issues, affordable housing, racial justice and policing.
In the 2016 presidential election, nearly 20,000 Athens city residents were registered to vote and 62% of them cast ballots. But in the 2019 Athens city election, fewer than 16,000 city residents were registered and only 18% voted. The vast majority of those 2019 votes came from neighborhoods predominantly made up of affluent homeowners. As a result, that year’s most popular candidates –Mayor Patterson and former councilmember Beth Clodfelter — were elected with the support of no more than 10% of eligible city voters.
As the Athens News reported in 2014 and again in 2015, the situation is even worse in our city’s May primary races. Our most populous voting precincts often have literally zero turnout in the primaries. In this year’s primary contest between Democratic council candidates Chris Fahl and Alan Swank, the Fourth Ward’s two most student-heavy precincts contributed only a single vote between them, despite being home to 1,097 registered voters and an even greater number of eligible voters!
If you’re not a student, you might not care about such low student turnout — but you should. Chances are, you’re who it hurts most.
The absence of student voting in city elections isn’t only bad for students who end up with a city government that lets university administrators use city police and prosecutors to enforce unconstitutional restrictions on student speech and assembly. The absence of student voting is even worse for the majority of non-student residents, who as renters and service workers face the same problems as students when it comes to overpriced and often dangerously substandard rental housing, low wages, a predatory 24-hour parking rule disproportionately enforced against low-income renters, and predatory city service fees disproportionately imposed on low-income renters. As a non-student, working class resident and progressive community organizer, I recognize that both my individual wellbeing and my chances of creating a more equitable community suffer from the lack of student voting in local elections. (And as I’ll explain later, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.)
When students vote, they overwhelmingly vote for the most progressive viable candidate. And it’s easy to see why. Since at least 2010 young Americans have viewed socialism more positively than capitalism. Across all races, genders and income levels, a majority of American voters ages 18-30 so strongly preferred democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries that he received substantially more of their votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined— 29% more than both presumptive nominees combined! Meanwhile, here in Athens, Sanders received nearly twice as many primary votes as Clinton.
In 2008 I briefly worked for an organization that promoted early voting and increased turnout in college towns. Technically, the group was non-partisan, but in reality it was an arm of the Obama campaign, because we all knew who most students would be voting for. For the same reasons, Republicans aren’t only focused on making it harder for Black and poor people to vote because Republicans are racist and classist, but also because everyone knows those groups overwhelmingly vote Democrat. Students and young people overwhelmingly vote that way too — provided the Democrat is the most progressive viable candidate in the race. (Usually the Democrat is — but not always. I’ll come back to that soon.)
So it’s easy to see how, without the progressive influence of students voting in Athens city elections, until earlier this year Athens City Council was an all-white group of homeowners and landlords with an average age of 54. Not a single renter or openly queer person had served on Council in 12 years, and Council may never have included even single person of color. And on the policy front, a Council so unaccountable to progressive students and working class voters has protected slumlords from regulation and condoned the use of city police to enforce OU administrators’ unconstitutional restrictions on campus speech and assembly. This Council’s answer to unaffordable housing has been to build more expensive homes. Its answer to local poverty has been to encourage wealthier people to move here. It’s answer to racial injustice has been token gestures and broken promises.
Only after two years of me publicly criticizing Council’s demographically unrepresentative makeup did the local Democratic Central Committee break from decades of past practice and appoint two renters in their 30s to fill vacancies on Council earlier this year, with one of the new appointees also an openly gay Black man. But the establishment’s new appointees still have yet to introduce strong housing and racial justice initiatives. Demographic changes don’t always translate into policy changes — especially when Council’s new members are no more accountable to progressive student voters than Council’s old members.
As OU student Bryce Hoehn wrote in his August 27 column for The New Political, the lack of student voting in Athens city elections “can push out progressive candidates who may be more in touch with younger people in favor of those who can appeal toward older demographics, creating a practical gerontocracy in the city.”
According to Hoehn, “This trend was most apparent in the 2019 mayoral race where self-described democratic socialist Damon Krane challenged incumbent Mayor Steve Patterson. Krane’s campaign focused heavily on issues that affect students and those in poverty such as affordable housing… [but] he only received 25% of the vote.”
And the situation is like this by design. The disparity between student turnout in presidential and city elections coincides with a similar disparity in the promotion of student voting by college town elites. OU administrators, local party leaders, and Democratic city politicians all promote student voting in presidential and midterm elections but keep students in the dark about city elections.
“Last year, several emails were sent to every student’s inbox from Vice President of Student Affairs Jenny Hall-Jones with election date reminders and instructions on how to vote in both the primary and general presidential elections, but none were sent this year [regarding the Athens city election],” reported Hoehn.
“Those emails from Hall-Jones are informative for students, and I suspect have a strong correlation with student turnout in the election years they are sent,” he added.
Democratic city officeholders and candidates also consistently ignore students. As independent candidates for city office in 2019, Ellie Hamrick and I not only were the only candidates that year to text students, encouraging them to register to vote and to check out our campaigns –with none of our Democratic competitors doing the same. To my knowledge, we were the first candidates to ever text students regarding any Athens city election!
I’m also the only candidate in recent decades to encourage student groups to boost student power in city government by hosting on-campus city candidate forums, focused on student issues. In 2019 and again this year, I’m the only candidate who reached out to student organizations and encouraged them to host on-campus candidate forums where they could grill city politicians. My efforts resulted in Graduate Student Senate’s 2019 candidate forums in the mayoral and city council races, and, this year, in Undergraduate Student Senate’s city council candidate forum happening next Thursday, September 30, at 6:30pm, in Walter Hall 135.
( UPDATE 9/30/21 — And as though the Democratic council candidates were determined to prove me right about all of this, all 3 of them — Sarah Grace, Micah McCarey and Ben Ziff — 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. They all backed out at the last minute, leaving the two independent candidates in this race, Iris Virjee and me, as the event’s only participants. Ohio Republicans are notorious for ducking candidate forums and questionnaires. Now, it appears Athens Democrats plan to follow suit.)
Finally, even my 2019 yard signs — which were overwhelmingly distributed in student and working class renter neighborhoods — included information on registering to vote and voting early intended to increase turnout among student and working class voters.
No one else has done this work to empower students. Not any other candidate. Not a single Democratic Party leader. Not a single Democratic city politician. Not even the OU College Democrats! None of these people or organizations have taken the steps I’ve taken to promote student voting in Athens city elections.
So why is it that the same OU administrators, local party leaders and city politicians who encourage student voting in presidential and midterm elections try to keep students in the dark when it comes to city elections?
The answer is simple. Student voting in presidential and midterm elections helps local elites, while student voting in city elections threatens local elites.
Just as we know students will overwhelmingly vote for the most progressive viable candidate, we know that in a presidential or midterm election the most progressive viable candidate will be a Democrat who supports higher education and increased enrollment at Ohio University. Meanwhile, the only viable alternative to that Democrat will be a science-denying, Republican bigot who wants to privatize everything, including education. So students overwhelmingly vote for the Democrat who’s in their best interest.
But that Democrat is also in the best interest of people who make their money from students — especially university administrators and college town landlords. For them, support for education and increased enrollment is good for business. So our local elites encourage student voting in presidential and midterm elections, because in those elections the interests of students and college town elites coincide.
The problem for college town elites is that it doesn’t work that way in Athens city elections. For starters, that’s because Republicans don’t run for office here. There are too few Republican voters for the party to field viable candidates. It’s been 18 years since any Republican was elected to a city office, and the last several city election cycles haven’t included a single Republican candidate.
This lack of Republicans, in turn, creates an opening for independent leftists. Because without viable Republican candidates, there is no risk of an independent leftist “spoiling” an election. That is, there is no risk of an independent leftist splitting the Democratic vote and inadvertently causing a Republican to get elected.
Thus, all of the sudden, in Athens city elections Democrats are no longer the most progressive viable candidates. And if students vote for the most progressive viable candidates — as they always do — we know that elite-backed Democratic candidates with records of opposing progressive initiatives will lose. And their elite backers –the rest of our college town’s elite– will lose, too.
When I ran as an independent democratic socialist for mayor in 2019 my platform was so appealing to students that even the OU College Democrats invited me to speak about it. Although I was running against their own party’s incumbent, I received a warm reception, and about half the college Dems in attendance seemed to prefer me to their party’s candidate.
Granted, that may partly have been due to my Democratic opponent, Mayor Patterson, being backed by the 15-year chair of the Athens County Republican Party and Patterson bragging to the Post that he was the Republicans choice for mayor. Regardless, I highly doubt the College Dems have ever given any Republican candidate the same invitation and warm reception they gave me. (The College Dems also extended the same invitation and warm reception to 2019 independent Council candidate Chris Monday, who had endorsed my housing justice platform.)
So the reason that OU administrators, local Democratic Party leaders, and elected officials all try to keep students in the dark about city elections is the exact same reason they promote student voting in presidential and midterm elections. In each case, they simply do what’s in their best interest. Democrats winning positions in national and state government is good for both students and college town elites, but students electing genuine progressives to college town city government is only good for students and working class residents, not for college town elites and the Democratic establishment they prop up.
The irony in all of this for Democrats is that, by suppressing student voting in Athens city elections, local elites –including local Democratic Party leaders– make it harder to defeat Republican control of state and national government. OU graduates several thousand students each year. Our small town could be sending them off into the world with a knowledge of progressive city policy and a habit of participating in local governance — knowing the vast majority of them will use that knowledge and habit to challenge right-wing control of government wherever they end up next and in national elections as well. But instead our exclusively Democrat-controlled city just sends off students with a mountain of debt and a collection of rental housing horror stories. Had students attended college in a town exclusively governed by Republicans instead of Democrats, most students probably wouldn’t have noticed any difference. That’s no way to challenge Republican control of Ohio’s state government, and it’s no way to challenge Republican power nationally.
I suspect leading Republicans like Couladis know this as well as I do. I suspect it’s part of the reason they support Democrats like Patterson and all other Democratic Athens city officeholders. They know those Democrats can be counted on to keep students in the dark and disengaged from local politics. And as long as that happens, thanks to these Democrats Athens will keep missing its biggest opportunity to help bring about progressive change at the state and national levels.
As I said to begin with, OU students aren’t children. They’re young adults with a vision of a better world. I know this because I’m an OU alum and a former campus organizer.
As an OU student and campus organizer in 2002, I exposed OU administrators for violating their federal requirements to inform students of campus sexual assault statistics, reporting procedures, prevention programs, and survivor support resources at a time when more rapes were being reported in OU’s residence halls than at those of any other college or university in Ohio. That year, I also helped organize the 300-person student walkout that forced OU into compliance with those requirements, the Clery Act, which OU had been violating for the previous 5 years straight to sweep sexual violence against women under the rug at a time when more rapes were being reported within OU’s residence halls than at any other college or university in Ohio.
The 2002 walkout and subsequent demand campaign also proved instrumental to the establishment of the OU Women’s Center as well as part of the successful efforts to expand the OU LGBT Center to include a full-time director, to expand Women’s Studies into a full-fledged major (since expanded further to Gender and Sexuality Studies), to expand employee spousal benefits to the domestic partners of queer and unmarried OU employees before the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality, and to eliminate unconstitutional restrictions on campus speech and assembly.
In the fall of 2002, I wrote a weekly column for The Post focused on student activism and organizing, and I’ve submitted many guest columns to The Post since then, along with one earlier this year to the student-run New Political.
In 2003, I co-founded the progressive, multi-issue student and community activist group InterAct, which served as the hub of campus activism at OU for the next 3 years and was voted “Best Student Organization” in the 2006 Best of Athens Awards by Athens News readers.
I continued my student organizing work even after graduation. From 2005 through 2009, I served as project coordinator and editor in chief of The InterActivist, a monthly magazine focused on independent news, progressive commentary, and the publicizing of local progressive activism. Up to 48 pages in length, with a print circulation of 3,000 copies per issue, and an all-volunteer staff of 30 students and community members, I used The InterActivist as a vehicle for training nearly 100 OU students in independent journalism and democratic management as they publicized the work of dozens of local progressive organizations and collectively ran the magazine.
In 2009, I left Athens for a job in Portland, Oregon to be Communications Coordinator for the Oregon Student Association, the state’s largest membership based organization.
After returning to Athens in 2016, I soon jumped back into student advocacy.
In February 2017, when OU administrators executed the second largest mass arrest of students on campus in OU’s 217-year history — all wrongful arrests carried out jointly by three different police departments that targeted anti-racist student activists — and then administrators followed up by resurrecting some of the very unconstitutional restrictions on campus speech and assembly that I helped defeat more than a decade earlier, I was a prominent voice condemning the arrests and the unconstitutional policies, writing columns (see previous two links) in the local papers and attending student demonstrations.
In my campaigns for city office in 2019 and again this year I have condemned the complicity of city officials who used city police to carry out administrators’ violations of student’s most basic Constitutional rights and then prosecuted wrongfully arrested students on blatantly false charges, even pressuring some of the Baker 70 into accepting conviction via plea bargain on lesser charges before the original charges were thrown out in court.
Finally, in the past two years I have worked to improve the lives of OU students and non-student residents alike by co-founding the main local organization dedicated to fighting unsafe rental housing conditions (United Athens County Tenants) as well as the main local organization fighting to eliminate racist and unaccountable policing (Athens County Copwatch) — groups which both have had a substantial positive impact on local politics and policy.
If elected to Athens City Council, I’ll be able to do even more to defend students rights, empower OU students, and make Athens a more democratic, just, and equitable community that also plays a vital role in moving our state, country and world in a more progressive direction.
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Paid for by The Committee to Elect Damon Krane