Demo­cratic stran­gle­hold on city gov­ern­ment is em­bar­rass­ing

The Columbus Dispatch - - Opinion -

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.

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