Flier with faces  of men and women running for office with words Democratic Party sample ballot

When you arrive at the polls this November 7, will you go in empty-handed? Or will you bring a list of candidates you prefer? As usual, the Franklin County Democratic Party will distribute partisan sample ballots – postcard-size fliers listing all the endorsed Democratic candidates – for its members to consult when voting this fall. Many who use the cards know only the candidates' professed political affiliation and nothing else about them.

The cards are distributed recommending the Democratic candidates for Columbus City Council and other city offices, despite the Columbus City Charter providing for “nonpartisan” elections. In placing this provision in the charter, Columbus citizens evidently subscribed to the position that political affiliation is irrelevant to which persons can best provide city services. And they apparently believed that cooperation between persons of different parties is more likely if elections are nonpartisan. According to the National League of Cities, those considerations are the reasons for nonpartisan municipal elections.

Former Columbus Dispatch reporter Bob Vitale, who covered City Hall, called Columbus’ purported nonpartisan elections a “charade.” Last December, at his final meeting of the Columbus Charter Review Committee before resigning from it, Vitale suggested a local party should not distribute partisan slate cards if city officials truly want the elections to be nonpartisan.

The University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, a leading urban-studies expert, affirms that municipal issues often transcend partisanship. He recently wrote: “When I travel across the country, I can hardly tell whether the mayors and local leaders I meet with are Republicans, Democrats, or independents: their economic and community development agendas are driven by local needs rather than partisan ideology.”

Even for local issues where partisan ideology is arguably relevant, it’s doubtful the slate cards are helpful. The Free Press reported last year that Columbus City Council President Zach Klein, currently the Franklin County Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate for city attorney, has deep Republican loyalist roots.

Klein was a campaign volunteer for the Franklin County Republican Party, interned for its chair Doug Preisse, volunteered for Republican congressional candidate Pat Tiberi (OH-12th) in 2000, celebrated the Bush-Cheney victory at the 2001 presidential inauguration ball, belonged to the conservative legal group the Federalist Society and worked for two Republican judges. But when Klein applied in 2010 for an appointment from the all-Democratic city council to an open council seat, his Republican background had been removed from his resume.

The campaign contributions received by Columbus’ elected officials raise further doubts about their commitment to the party’s principles. The 2016 Democratic National Party Platform strongly supports limiting the power of big money in politics and enabling candidates to win elections without depending on large contributions from the wealthy.

But Columbus’ Democratic officials have shown little interest in campaign finance reform for city elections. Although the city charter has for years permitted limits on campaign contributions, the all-Democratic city council has enacted no ordinance setting any.

They instead eagerly seek substantial donations from the wealthy, and their big donors include ones who give generously to Republicans at the state level. Large corporate interests obviously view elected Democratic officials in Columbus as equally deserving of their backing, and responsive to their desires, as Republicans at the state level. Their view is supported by the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax abatements and other corporate welfare that Columbus city officials hand to wealthy special interests while ignoring neighborhood needs.

Because the partisan slate cards are contrary to nonpartisan elections and can list candidates who are Democrats in name only (DINOs), a strong case can be made for ignoring the cards and researching the candidates.

That’s the position of activist Adrienne Hood, whose son Henry Green, a 23-year-old African American, died after being shot seven times last year by two plainclothes Columbus police officers. One of the officers, Zachary Rosen, was recently fired after a cellphone video showed that he stomped on the head of an African-American suspect who was handcuffed behind the back and lying stomach-down on the ground.

After becoming frustrated with City Hall Democrats on issues of police reform and accountability, Hood said in a recent speech endorsing the Yes We Can/Working Families Democratic challengers for city council and school board: “Don’t just be a Democrat and go in there with your ticket and see all the Democrat names and you don’t know (anything) about them. We can’t do that anymore. . . Don’t go in there naïve. Do your research. . .  Read. . . Educate yourself about who you are putting in office, because it’s crucial out here. We’re losing lives out here . . . because we keep putting the same status quo in there.”

Hood and many others believe that the real progressives in the city races – those who are truly on the public’s side – are not listed on the Democratic Party’s slate cards. Voters can recognize them only by looking beyond the cards.

Joe Sommer is a Columbus attorney and activist who is retired from Ohio’s state government

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