Harvey J Graff


Columbus’ reigning Democratic political class falsely presents itself as progressive and democratic. This seldom goes beyond empty, poorly formulated and awkwardly articulated slogans. Their uninformed rhetoric is contradicted at least weekly when not more often by their policy- and program-free actions and especially inactions.

It is astonishing to me as historian and life-long urban resident that Columbus is the only city in the US of any size and self-proclaimed (if exaggerated) significance that proudly lacks representative, democratic city government. Almost all  US cities moved from lack of representation or at-large city coucils in the second half of the 19th century, not the 20th century. Along with its lack of an identity, this is Columbus’ only justifiable claim to uniqueness or exceptionality.

More than ironic, it is outright contradictory and self-incriminating that not a single elected representative advocates representative city government in the 21st century. Moreover, the new council president pro tempore Rob Dorans, joined by president Shannon Hardin, blabber on about how increasing council from 7 to 9 and establish one at large councilor for each arbitrarily defined districts in any way substitutes for representation. These council members supposedly will “serve” as “communications” link. Insultingly, we are told that this sham “perfects democracy in Columbus.” (Columbus’ 7-member council has both a president and a president pro tempore).

Do they actually believe this fraudulent political cant? This is offensive to all residents. But our anti-democratic Democrats stumble on, following the leadership of a mayor scarred by scandals and specializing in conflicts of interest. The Columbus Way in action and inaction.

More critically, how many of them could gain appointment (the majority route to council membership), then election, and re-election in a truly representative, democratic political system with actual constituents and genuine public responsibilities? Would the party machine of pre-selection, identity building (“grooming”), and campaign finance machinations be operative? I have my doubts.

Central to the anti-democratic and anti-public Columbus Way is the historical dominance of private interests over public needs regardless of city, state, and national laws, and American values. The latter, that is, in principles and promises, not always practices.

The City and consequently the city has always been for sale. Kevin Cox’s Boomtown Columbus: Ohio’s Sunbelt City and How Developers Got Their Way (2021), even if Columbus was never even a southern Ohio city.

In almost every possible way, the City, mayor, councilors, and the major divisions privilege private interests. Today’s officials follow the well-greased paths of their predecessors. Most dramatic (and poorly camouflaged) is the underfunding of all public services—from public schools to police and safety, trash collection, repair of the physical city, preservation and improvement of the environment, and enforcement of city codes. This is complemented, indeed inseparable, from the lack of knowledge of Columbus and cities in general among both elected officials and staff.

There is no relevant expertise anywhere. Most obvious is the absence of city planning and traffic engineering. Consultants [sic] paid by private interests represent the antithesis of the civic and the public. But they are followed without question.

My two decades of residence and homeownership, life in 6 cities, and almost 50 years teaching urban history, in addition to the limited documented research, taken together confirm that these mounting failures are an inseparable blend of commission and omission, not one or the other. Even the city’s poor excuse for a non-daily, unedited, city-boosting newspaper, the declining USA Today/Gannett owned Columbus Dispatch cannot miss this completely.

Not only are mayor and city council the willing tools of private interests—especially property developers and those funneled through the Columbus Partnership, former mayor Coleman’s Columbus Downtown Development Commission, and more erratically the Columbus Foundation. Is it any surprise that the declining Short North and the ragged downtown are favorites, and that older, even historic neighborhoods a decline with the collusion of the City in favoring property developers and large landlords, and not serving the residents?

For additional confirmation, scam the mayor’s proposed election year budget and  the almost completely slogan-based and small change city councilors’ self-promoting “amendments,” all advertised in advance with no details. Slogans, hobbyhorses, self-promotion intersect like a game of bumper pool with its tiny prizes, too.

When not underfunding public services and ignoring community needs with giveaways by excessive tax abatements, outrageous contracts, and TIFs never with detailed plans, budgets, timetables, or any measures of accountability, city council channels funds to both for-profits and purportedly not-for-profits without demanding proof of qualification, legitimacy, or licensing.

The director of development and the mayor either purposefully or ignorantly confuse numbers, percentages, change over time, and any statistical, logical, or concrete sense of significance in claiming achievement when there is no evidence. This colors discussions ranging from unaffordable affordable housing, spillovers from private development, and crime.

Almost unbelievably in 2023, our fraudulent undemocratic and numerically illiterate Democratic officials endorse “trickle-down economics.” Although I doubt that they have ever heard or read about the long repudiated ideological capitalistic “theory,” their deeply imbedded presumptions and practices of favoring private over public, and selling the City/city to the highest bidders, and preserving unrepresentative anti-democracy confirm their faith.

It shows in every corner of the failing city from the sidewalks and streets of Linden and The Hilltop to the stark unevenness of Franklinton and new assaults on the Scioto River and Metro Parks. It marks the loss of the University District as a zoned residential district along with parts of Clintonville and Weinland Park.

Despite uncontrolled favoritism for the ragged, undefined downtown of concrete parking lots, Columbus does not have one nationally known building designed by a noted architect.

Responsible modern urban development is not stated modus operandi of the Division of Public Service (as I showed recently in “J’accuse: The City of Columbus Division of Public (aka Private) Service”). Zoning Enforcement which will not cite large landlords like NorthSteppe, HomeTeam, OSUlive, or Buckeye Real Estate for their violations, destroys entire areas with zoning variances. Money changes hands above and below proverbial tables.

Mayor, city council, and City Attorney will not pursue the dishonest failures of American Electric Power (AEP), Columbus Gas, Rumpke Recycling, and other large corporations and contributors.

Illegal secrecy and conflicts of interest lubricate the wheels of the “private city,” to borrow historian Sam Bass Warner, Jr.’s 1969 title of his landmark book on Philadelphia history.

Council and other committees do not follow public meeting ordinances, not even the new showy but powerless Civilian Police Review Board. They do their best, illegally and extra-legally to deny the public their rights to be heard.

Regardless of city and state statutes, conflict of interest stands out among the City’s operating procedures. The mayor and/or his office lobby for increased power in City Charter revisions and for his own salary. The director of Public Service awards contracts to her husband’s business. These stand out among many forms of corruption in a city that will not police itself. (See my “The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The Columbus Way, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 13, 2022;

“The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The Columbus Way, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 16. 2022; Andy Ginther as Columbus, Ohio’s very own shabby 21st century limitation of New York City’s 1860-1870s Boss Tweed,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 19, 2022; “Columbus’ anachronistic, private interest-dominated ‘area commissions’ and ‘neighborhood organizations’ must go,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Dec. 3, 2022)  

Another contradiction that follows from the Columbus Way is that the city’s first Black mayor and now a minority-majority city council lead to no significant improvement in the social, economic, and political conditions of the city’s major racial and ethnic groups.

Columbus is a very segregated city with nationally high rates of overall mortality, maternal and infant mortality, and disease with growing health and food deserts. The disparity includes schools, health care, and safety. More and more poor slogans lead to no significant improvement. The city also stands out nationally in levels of young Black men shoot to death by police. In the wake of yet another national uproar about police killing of Black men, Columbus tonelessly reinstitutes its notorious “Jump Out Boys” police gang unit. Slogans and a mismanaged, disconnected police force, weakened by the mayor’s irrational buy-outs for early retirement without controls, weaken a force already teetering.

More resources are directed to protecting the Council president’s and City Attorney’s front lawns from peaceful protests by a senior citizen, the differently-abled, and a clergy than to protect the residents of The Hilltop or Linden, or the homeowners of the University District.

That in particular but all of the above—and more--stand together to constitute the official City’s disrespect and dismissal of its homeowning, taxpaying, and voting residents. This is what I call “Columbus, Ohio: Rude and Crude: The little big city that refuses to represent. serve, or respect its publics” (Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 15, 2022; Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Jan. 19, 2023).

Of course, city councilors fear representative democratic government.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.