The two men stand next to one another, each dressed in blue suit jackets and white shirts, standard politician attire. One is the 66-year-old former mayor of Columbus, the first Black man to fill the role, whose 16-year tenure transformed the city. The other is his 33-year-old protégé, the first Black gay man to serve as City Council president, whose career is still taking shape.
Mike Coleman holds a glossy publication commemorating his City Hall years. The document records his many mayoral achievements (job growth, financial stability, a Downtown renaissance), and he and Shannon Hardin, the man who’s replaced him as City Hall’s top Black political leader, enjoy looking through its 25 pages, laughing and reminiscing in the empty City Council chambers. This is now the home turf of Hardin, council’s leader since January 2018, but he tends to defer to his elder on this Wednesday morning in March. Even in his post-City Hall days, Coleman commands a room, and Hardin, who’s been learning from Coleman since childhood, is used to letting him lead.
“This is the glitzy stuff people will remember the most,” Coleman says, stopping at a page devoted to Downtown redevelopment (new parks, new housing, new vitality).
Hardin notices an item about the defunct Neighborhood Pride program, weeklong outreach efforts in which city leaders descended on neighborhoods to encourage home fix-ups and host free-flowing town halls. He suggests bringing back the initiative. He says it could benefit neighborhoods that feel disconnected from City Hall. “It was good politics and good policy,” Hardin says.
Inspiration is a hot commodity at City Hall right now. The racial justice protests of 2020 have upended civic priorities, energized the public and forced Hardin and his colleagues to take on one of the most intractable issues in municipal government: police reform. With the stakes so high, good ideas are in demand, and it makes sense that Hardin would do what he’s always done: look for guidance in the career and wisdom of the man who’s defined political power in Columbus for a generation, especially for Black leaders. It makes sense that Hardin would ask: What would Mike Coleman do?
It’s an interesting question, but it might not be the right one for this moment.
Coleman’s rise to power didn’t have history on its side.
While cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Atlanta and Chicago elected their first Black mayors in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Columbus’ political power structure remained almost entirely white. Black Columbus politicians captured seats in the Ohio General Assembly and on the Columbus Board of Education and Columbus City Council, but the mayor’s office remained out of reach. African American leaders were handicapped by a smaller Black population in Columbus than in many other similarly sized cities, as well as a reluctance from both white voters and the white business community to support Black candidates.
This dynamic was perhaps best captured in 1981, when Ben Espy, a relatively unknown Black lawyer and former Ohio State football player, was elected to City Council. The Democrat benefited from a TV ad featuring an endorsement from perhaps the most influential man in Columbus—Espy’s former coach Woody Hayes. The ad also was notable for another reason: Espy wasn’t in it. Rather than risk offending white voters, Espy’s campaign advisers chose to hide his skin color. Two years later, in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, Espy’s media consultant, Jerry Austin, credited the decision with helping his client score key votes in neighborhoods such as the South Side and Northland. Bigotry was an ugly and unavoidable reality of the Columbus electorate. “I hope it changes,” Austin said.
To capture the mayor’s office in 1999, Coleman needed to blaze a new path. The then-Columbus City Council president did have a few advantages that earlier Black leaders lacked: a more progressive and diverse electorate, statewide exposure from the 1998 gubernatorial race (he was Democrat Lee Fisher’s running mate) and the strong backing of the Franklin County Democratic Party, which appreciated his team-oriented 1997 council campaign that helped the party win an additional seat on the panel.
What’s more, Coleman had a different profile than an earlier generation of Black Columbus politicians. He was no firebrand, like Columbus Board of Education member and failed mayoral candidate Bill Moss, nor was he a cutthroat combatant like former City Council President Jerry Hammond, whose battles with Republican Mayor Buck Rinehart in the 1980s were legendary. “When you have a Black person who’s not a renegade or schlepping for Black power, it’s a nice look, particularly in that period,” says former Columbus Urban League leader Sam Gresham.
To be sure, Coleman focused on the Black community, earning praise and admiration while on City Council for his advocacy for neglected neighborhoods. But he did it in a different way than his political forebears, including his mentor, Espy, who faced off against Coleman in the 1999 mayoral race. Coleman was more collaborative, careful, cautious—and he didn’t scare the Columbus business and civic establishment, as evidenced by his endorsement from The Columbus Dispatch, the first time the then-Wolfe-owned paper had backed a Democrat in a mayoral race since the early 20th century.
As the 1999 mayoral campaign progressed, it turned into something of a generational choice. Coleman’s relative youth contrasted with his two veteran rivals—Espy and Franklin County Commissioner Dorothy Teater. They had more polish, experience and name recognition (especially early in the race). And Coleman struggled to get his message across in media interviews, as well as in an early debate. “Ben mopped the floor with me,” Coleman recalls. But he made up for those weaknesses with energy, enthusiasm and old-school, press-the-flesh campaigning. “If there was a garage sale, you had a good chance of Mike Coleman showing up,” says Mike Brown, a Coleman campaign staffer who went on to work with him at City Hall for a decade.
Coleman had the elusive quality Columbus Black leaders had sought for decades: crossover appeal. His inclusive message and style resonated with independents, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, even some Republicans—sort of a Central Ohio version of the coalition Barack Obama used to claim the White House nine years later. This strength revealed itself during the primary. Many expected Teater, a Republican, to win easily since she was competing against two Democrats in an officially nonpartisan primary in which the two top vote-getters advance to the general election. But Coleman finished with 39 percent of the vote, ahead of Teater’s 37 percent and Espy’s 24 percent. In the general, Coleman absorbed most of Espy’s voters and clobbered Teater by 20 points.
As mayor, Coleman’s vision expanded. He ran for office on a platform focused on revitalizing neglected neighborhoods, but by 2002, he also started pushing for Downtown redevelopment, which became his most high-profile achievement. After winning a second term without any opposition, Coleman began to shed his reputation for caution. “I think he felt he had more wingspan to be bolder and to start doing things that may not have been as politically safe,” says former Columbus Dispatch associate publisher Mike Curtin, who served two terms as a Democrat in the Ohio House of Representatives.
Coleman changed both the physical and cultural landscape of the city. He didn’t invent public-private partnerships in Columbus, but he seemed to perfect them. He worked with business leaders on complicated and often contentious projects such as the City Center Mall takeover, the Hollywood Casino site relocation, the city income tax increase, the Scioto Mile riverfront park and the Nationwide Arena bailout. Some projects didn’t work out—such as the 2008 streetcar plan and a 2013 failed Columbus schools levy—but few seemed to hold those failures against him because he had accomplished so much. The FBI launched an investigation into the sale of his home in his final term in office, but the probe didn’t lead to any criminal charges. He remained remarkably scandal-free despite his longevity.
As he left office, Coleman’s legacy was ensured. He helped birth “modern-day Columbus,” says Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. He fostered a culture of collaboration among the city’s political and civic establishment, and his brand of business-friendly, moderately progressive politics became the template for the city’s political leadership, including white leaders such as his mayoral successor, Andy Ginther, and Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady.
That last detail underscores an underappreciated Coleman accomplishment: When he left City Hall, he was celebrated as a great leader. Period. No racial qualifier…
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