In modern times, more accepting of hyphenated names, Columbus should simply be called the Mike and Andy machine after our “Mayor for life” and current City Council President (heir apparent should Coleman abdicate). This machine functions essentially the same way as the older political machines, except for one key point – the new Columbus machine does not do favors for a majority coalition of various racial and ethnic groups. Instead ours rewards a handful of “titans” who do not live in the city.

Say you have made a bad investment in the Blue Jackets and need a quarter of a billion in cool cash to bail you out. Mike and Andy, like Domino’s, can deliver. Say you want to take over the city schools instead of leaving it up to elected Columbus School Board officials. The Mayor will appoint many of his major donors and political supporters to an educational commission and finance the “reform” campaign.

If you are in the Third Congressional District, the Mayor will select and finance your next congressional representative after district gerrymandering, Joyce Beatty. Or if the power elite wants to eliminate the history of poor and working class black people living on the Near East side, and gentrify the area, a collaboration will be put together with Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) and city officials. Then they will level the eminently re-usable historical brick structures at Poindexter Village that FDR built during the New Deal.

This is all easily done by the Machine since there are only seven Columbus City Council members, each elected at large, not representing any specific neighborhood or ward in the city. All current Council members were appointed first, that is how the Machine operates. Columbus elections have become increasingly non-competitive. Appointments to Council are the norm. In fact, all seven current Council members were initially appointed to office, and in the last 28 years only three council members have been elected by the people prior to beginning their service on council. All Council members are Democrats, as is the Mayor, creating an absolute one-party system

Once appointed, these members then run for their first elections with all the advantages of incumbency — including significant financial assistance from the Council President who just appointed them. This creates the appearance that the Council members are more accountable to the Party and elected officials than to the citizens.

Further, with the expense of running citywide campaigns with Columbus’ all at-large Council format, competition is negligible. A candidate needs an estimated $250,000 to run a credible campaign citywide.


Columbus City Council history – wards and all


The “burough of Columbus” was officially sanctioned on February 10, 1816. That year, Columbus elected nine city councilmen each representing one ward. The population of the city at that time – 700.

Columbus, under its original city charter of 1834, was divided into three wards, each represented by four council members. Twelve years later in February 1846, it was redistricted into five wards with three council members each.

The Ohio legislature passed a law on May 3, 1852 for the reorganization of municipalities, fixing the number of council representatives at two from each ward. The census in 1850 put the population of Columbus at 6,048 people, and in 1860 there were 17,871. In its transitional phase in 1853 between the old charter and new state law, 20 members, four from each ward, served on the City Council.

In 1862, the city created nine wards, each with two members. Ten years later, they added two more wards bringing the total to 22 council members in 11 wards. In 1871, Columbus annexed Franklinton but did not expand the Council.

Voters adopted the current Columbus charter in 1914 ending the ward system. Columbus drastically reduced its council representatives to seven members, all elected at large. The charter became the city’s authorizing and governing document following the State of Ohio’s enactment of Home Rule legislation in 1912. This charter is still in place nearly a century later.

Part of the impulse to change the charter in 1914 came from the 1912 election, where Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs received nearly 1 million votes nationally, 6% of the electorate. Ohio was a virtual hotbed of municipal Socialism in 1911. Nationally, 56 Socialist mayors were elected that year – ten of them in Ohio. In that election, Columbus elected four Socialists to the city council.

The lost legacy of American Socialism helps explain the undemocratic nature of Columbus’ current political machine. The Socialist movement grew out of the much larger Populist movement of the 1890s. So successful was the Populist Party attack on American robber barons that the Democratic Party merged with them in 1896. The remnant Populists formed the American Socialist Party that played a key role in setting public policy during the Progressive Era from 1901 to 1914.

Middle-class professionals and the wealthy feared the power of emerging immigrant voters and Socialists in the city. Thus, they embraced a new municipal model of “at-large” Council members that would eliminate any possibility of politically diverse representation and allow the “best” people, meaning the wealthy and most educated, to be elected.

In moving from 22 City Council members elected by ward to seven at large, for a city of 181,500 people concentrated in 24.5 square miles, this decision deliberately stifled political debate. The city charter has been amended 61 times since its adoption in 1914, but the not-so-magnificent seven remain, despite the fact the city has grown nearly ten-fold in land size since then to 225 square miles and contains nearly 800,000 people.


The Big D weighs in


There have been attempts to modify the charter.

In 1957, Mayor Jack Sensenbrenner commissioned a Charter Revision Committee that issued a report on December 19, 1958. The Commission concluded that “the present charter is 44 years old. It is no longer in tune with the times. In its present form it will be an increasingly heavy milestone around the neck of a city struggling with vast new problems. The Committee felt it was, “… most important of all, [that] the council, enlarged from 7 to 9 members … [and] would remain the policy-determining body of the city.” But the recommendation did not move forward to the voters.

In 1968, the Columbus Dispatch wrote: “a proposal to reorganize the Columbus City Council under the old-fashioned ward political plan may be placed on the ballot by the Sensenbrenner administration next May. One of the aims of the proposal will be to provide representation to the Negro minority which now has no voice on the City Council.”

Within weeks, Council working with first assistant City Attorney Frank Reda, had prepared several district-based proposals, including three different proposals for 11 members elected to a combination of districts and at-large seats: five at-large, five wards, and one council president (at large); six wards and five at-large councilmen; and seven wards and four at-large council members.

By March, Council had prepared a plan for a 13 member Council that had seven Districts and six at-large seats. The Democratic-controlled Council passed this plan by a vote of 6-1, with Republican Roland A. Sedgwick voting “no” and declaring “any change of this magnitude should have included public hearings.”

Even the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, reversing an earlier position, announced its endorsement of the proposed charter amendment, saying “approval of the proposed amendments would provide area representation on a proportionate population basis, whereby citizens in every part of the city would have assured access to their elected councilmen.”

Ultimately, the 1968 proposal by Democrat Mayor Sensenbrenner and the Democrat-controlled City Council failed at the ballot, with 45,337 residents voting against it, and 33,547 voting for it. Council member Jerry O’Shaughnessey believed a portion of the negative vote may have been due to “a certain amount of white backlash … a fear of some whites that Negroes would be on council.”

In 1975, the issue of creating Council districts arose again, this time sponsored by Democrat John Rosemond, Columbus’s first African American Council member. Rosemond’s 1975 reform proposal was for an 11 member City Council, with five members elected at-large and six members elected from districts. The Columbus City Council voted 5-2 in favor of placing the proposed charter amendment on the ballot. Republicans Charles Petree and Daniel Schoedinger voted against it, while all Democrats voted in favor. The proposal was defeated soundly at the polls by 65,259 in opposition and 43,004 in favor.

Five more years would pass before another Democrat attempted to push charter changes. City Councilman M.D. Portman formed a 12-member City Charter Commission as a successor to a smaller committee, Portman said the charter “adopted by voters in 1913, needs to be updated and made more modern,” because some of the provisions were “archaic.” Despite Portman’s claim that the charter was archaic and old-fashioned, his efforts failed.

Ten years later, in 1991, the Columbus City Council appointed another Charter Review Commission. In March 1993, that Commission reported out a series of 16 recommendations. Primary among those was a recommendation to “set up a special committee to study expanding the council, either by election at-large or by district,” and “require anyone who is appointed to fill a council vacancy to run in the next scheduled election.”

The Council abandoned the recommendation to study changing the council without further consideration, and put the long-discussed council vacancy issue on the November ballot as Issue 1, where it was approved by a 2-1 margin. The 1993 decision by Council not to pursue the recommendation to further study expanding the council by at-large or district-based representation fell a long way from the Democratic traditional support for more representation, and more local representation. It marks a clear break with the long Democratic tradition of support for open elections and full empowerment of citizens.
When Mayor Michael B. Coleman was running for Governor in 2005, he described the Republican Coingate scandal, that laundered money into Bush’s presidential campaign, as "an example of the arrogance of power that comes with one-party rule." Columbus is now a one-party rule city, with a Council that has become increasingly closed off and distant from the people it represents.


Old fashioned, archaic and unrepresentative


The City Council did line up behind a charter amendment in November 2010 reflecting the Democratic Party’s lock-step embracing of the new political machine model. They passed a charter amendment to close City Council meetings for the first time in city history. The Columbus Dispatch ran the following ironic subhead in its editorial in support of Issue 12: “City charter change would provide public with more information.”

In the new Orwellian world, if you voted “yes” on Issue 12, you voted to allow Council to hold closed meetings when discussing certain issues such as personnel matters, property purchases, litigation, collective bargaining and security matters. If you voted “no,” you would be preserving nearly one hundred years of open Council meetings.


Columbus Council comparison with councils from other cities of similar size



2010 population

Members at-large

Members from districts

Citizens per member

Columbus, OH





Indianapolis, IN





San Francisco, CA





Austin, TX





Fort Worth, TX





Charlotte, NC





Boston, MA










Portland, OR






At this point in history what is “archaic” and old-fashioned is the non-representative at-large system adopted in 1914.

If you average the top 50 cities in America, the average city council has 1.9 council members elected at-large, to 11.2 members elected from Districts. Among the top 20 cities, the average council has 2 council members elected at-large, to 13.7 council members elected from Districts.

Clearly, Columbus’ Council, with 7 members at large and none from a District, is an outdated anomaly. After 99 years with this system, it is clearly appropriate to re-examine the rationale for maintaining a system that was designed to concentrate power in the hands of a few and dilute citizen participation in the affairs of local governance. Columbus deserves government that is responsive to, and representative of its citizens – not a smiley-faced one-party political machine.