Democratic stranglehold on city government is embarrassing
In this municipal election year, Columbus is experiencing a failure of democracy. Some would argue that democracy has been on life support here for years, given the extent to which one party has dominated city government. But it has reached a new low this year with the Franklin County Republican Party not even bothering to field candidates in any city race.
Columbus voters seemingly have no choice but to re-elect Mayor Andrew J. Ginther. In a city of nearly 900,000 people, that’s an embarrassment.
There will be some choices for Columbus City Council races between incumbent Democrats, who can be described fairly as establishment candidates, and Democrats who belong to a progressive faction of the party called Yes We Can. But the insurgent Democrats will face the same challenge that keeps Republicans from even filing: incumbents’ overwhelming fundraising advantage.
The point isn’t how good or bad a job Ginther and the establishment Democrats on the council are doing; it is that, without any strong challengers, a key element of political accountability — the possibility of being voted out of office — is missing.
This validates all those who criticized the city’s ostensible campaignfinance-reform law passed in January. The law sets limits on individual contributions, which would be a good thing if they were at all meaningful. But at more than $12,700, the “limit” allows the big spenders who have been financing establishment campaigns for years — real-estate developers, unions and wealthy individuals — to continue giving far more than less-connected candidates can hope to raise.
A Dispatch analysis last year by reporter Rick Rouan and data editor Doug Caruso showed the disproportionate weight of big contributions in city politics. From mid-2014 through 2017, city officials raised about $8.4 million in campaign contributions from nearly 5,000 contributors.
Most of the money — more than 60 percent — came from fewer than 4 percent of the donors, meaning the biggest donors gave an average of $25,000 each over that time period. The $12,700 annual limit likely won’t cramp the style of any of those donors.
Ginther and city council incumbents say that campaign contributions don't influence their official actions. Such statements are virtually impossible to prove or disprove, even though the correlation between who gives lots of money and who does business with or seeks action from the city is striking.
But whether or not campaign contributions influence official action, they harm the public interest by fortifying incumbents against challenge. City council long has been a selfperpetuating institution; most members obtained their seats via appointment by the incumbents, after which they have the advantage of incumbency — including sharing in the fundraising wealth — and easily win elections to stay.
Columbus is thriving in many respects, and some of that no doubt can be credited to its elected leaders. But with persistent high poverty, too many low-wage jobs, a lack of affordable housing and a troubling gap between the have-most and have-least, it’s hardly perfect.
All of the city’s best and brightest should be at the table helping to make progress against these stubborn problems, and it’s unlikely that one entrenched group has a monopoly on the best ideas.
One way to open up democracy in Columbus is to revisit those campaignfinance limits that don’t limit much of anything other than competition. And Republicans should do something to recruit candidates.