In our January issue, we asked: Who will carry the city's torch forward for the next generations? Here, the next City Hall powerhouse (minus the swagger)
The comparisons are inevitable. Since he was a kid, Shannon Hardin has been groomed to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman. As a high-school student, he interned with Coleman's office and spent four years as a community affairs liaison for Coleman after graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 2009 en route to his appointment to Columbus City Council in 2014. Political insiders call the 30-year-old, openly gay Hardin the “future of the city of Columbus,” “the person to watch” at City Hall and a “transformative leader” with the intelligence, energy and deep community ties to represent a more cosmopolitan, ambitious and diverse city in the coming years.
That admiration can be awkward at times. At a May 2016 public event, for instance, COTA's then-chief executive Curtis Stitt introduced Hardin as the city's “future mayor.” During an interview in his City Hall office in late November, Hardin grimaces when asked about such public declarations. “We have a good mayor right now,” he says, referring to his fellow Democrat Andy Ginther, who succeeded Coleman in 2016. “A really good mayor.” But Hardin appreciates the sentiment. “The idea that people would think that one day I could be mayor of the city means a lot to me,” he says. “I don't take it for granted.”
Indeed, despite having friends in powerful places, Hardin comes from humble roots, unlike his mentor Coleman, whose father was a Toledo doctor. Hardin grew up on the working-class South Side of Columbus, attended city schools—Columbus Africentric and then Columbus Alternative High School—and was raised by a single mother who supported Hardin and his siblings on an office assistant's salary. Hardin came into Coleman's orbit through his mother, Kennetha, who worked for Coleman as an administrative assistant at City Hall. “She was a single mom who needed flexibility, and she would bring Shannon and his twin siblings, who were three to four years younger, to work from time to time when she needed to be there later in the evening or needed some assistance with childcare,” says Christie Angel, Coleman's former deputy chief of staff.
In many ways, City Hall became a second home for Hardin, sparking an interest in municipal government. What's more, Coleman became a sort of surrogate parent to Hardin, especially following the death of Hardin's father—the owner of a quarter horse farm in Kentucky—during Hardin's freshman year in college. “[Hardin] would hang out in our office and talk about wanting to be in politics at an early age,” says Larry Price, Coleman's first community liaison.
Naturally, Hardin identifies Coleman as one of his biggest influences, along with his mother, who taught him the value of hard work, and Sarah Thornburg, his government teacher at Columbus Alternative High School who nurtured his passion for public service. But Hardin is not a Coleman clone. He's more reserved, more humble. He has his own unique perspective and lacks “swagger,” to use Coleman's favorite word. “I've always felt like my public service does not necessarily need to be public,” Hardin says. “And I think that's the difference between Coleman and I. I think I could be just as happy being behind the scenes as I am being where I am.”
To be sure, Hardin remains a work in progress, like most people his age. His political career got off to a rough start when he and three other councilmembers accepted a junket to watch the December 2014 Big Ten football championship in Indianapolis with lobbyist John Raphael, who less than two years later was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to extorting campaign contributions from red-light camera vendor Redflex. But his supporters say Hardin has grown since then. In November, he and fellow council incumbents Mitchell Brown and Priscilla Tyson fended off a challenge from an insurgent faction of Democrats. And while others were beating their chests at a victorious election-night party, Hardin struck a different note, calling for unity. “It is our responsibility as the winners to reach out and pull these folks back into the party,” Hardin said at the event. That speech didn't get a lot of applause, but Angel says it showed courage and leadership. “He is unafraid to speak up when he needs to speak up and challenge when he needs to challenge, but he's always respectful, and he's very diplomatic,” Angel says.In mid January, the respect he's earned among his peers was evident when Hardin was named council president over Priscilla Tyson, the governing body's most experienced member. It's a big responsibility, but Hardin says he will continue to learn, grow and take on the issues he cares about, such as improving the lives of young men of color and advocating for a more inclusive transportation system. He's young, patient and in it for the long haul. He says his political ambitions stop at City Hall. “I'll never serve in any other area of government,” he says.