Who runs this city? Try three guys named Wexner, Wolfe and McFerson. Beyond that troika, five new names appear in the top 10, including the first woman.

(This story originally appeared in the June 2000 issue.)

Picking the 10 most powerful people in Columbus was different in the old days. There were real hardballers back in the ’70s and ’80s—guys who loved their power and used it with relish. Larger-than-life Titans like J.W. Wolfe, who’d crush an offending bureaucrat like a peanut and leave the crumbled shell on the sidewalk so others would see and turn away in fear.

There was Les Wexner—not even a blip on the radar when Columbus Monthly first ranked the mighty in 1976, but then, Pow!, a billionaire in the ’80s and a noisy one at that, perceived for a time as a real threat to J.W.’s iron rule. And Buck Rinehart, the feisty little mayor who woke up every morning ready to poke a sharp stick into somebody’s cage and didn’t much care whether the somebody was another politician or a fat cat like Wexner.

There were self-made powers like John G. McCoy, the tough-as-nails banker who had little use for the Wolfes and didn’t care if they knew it; John Galbreath, who had carved a real estate fortune out of Depression misery and used it to buy whatever struck his fancy, including the Pittsburgh Pirates and a string of Kentucky Derby colts, and Big Jim Rhodes, the gritty governor who ran Ohio as his personal fiefdom for 16 years and somehow managed to retire from his life of public service a millionaire many times over.

These were men you’d pay to watch a movie about. And writing about them was just plain fun.

But those days and most of those men are gone from the public stage. J.W. Wolfe and John Galbreath are dead; John G. McCoy and Jim Rhodes are long retired; Buck Rinehart, driven from the mayor’s office by Wolfe, is almost invisible now, practicing law and doing the odd lobbying job.

There’s still Les Wexner, of course. He’s over 60, but remains firmly in control at the Limited, still a billionaire and now—with-out serious challenge—the most powerful man in town. Wexner and Huntington Bancshares CEO Frank Wobst, indeed, are the only two on this year’s list who’ve managed to sustain enough power to remain on our list since 1985.

Even Wexner, though, seems somehow not quite as interesting these days. He’s gotten married, had children, settled into a more private life. Sure, he’s still in the news a lot, still the city’s most generous philanthropist, still a man whose approval is critical on major projects. But where Wexner once seemed almost to relish a squabble with J.W. Wolfe over some public policy issue, now he has bonded so tightly with J.W.’s cousin and corporate heir, John F. Wolfe, that a public dispute between the two most powerful men in Columbus would be unthinkable.

As for John F., he’s earned more respect from the other power players since J.W.’s death from heart disease in 1994, and even some genuine admiration as he’s taken firm control of all the Wolfe enterprises and stepped up the family’s civic commitments. Like Wexner, John F. is a must-see on any important project; and like his late cousin J.W., John F. does his homework. But John F. Wolfe will never be J.W. He’s more private, more careful, more deliberate—and so, much less fun to watch.

It wasn’t many years ago that the Wolfes and Nationwide Insurance were on opposite sides of a courtroom, embroiled in a potentially ugly business dispute. But that kind of animosity, too, would seem unthinkable now that John F. Wolfe and Nationwide CEO Dimon McFerson, the third member of the city’s top power triumvirate, have forged a potent financial alliance to build Nationwide Arena and develop the adjacent Arena District.

Maybe that’s what makes power-watching in Columbus so much less entertaining these days—too many alliances, too much silent consensus, too little healthy debate about where the city ought to be going and how it ought to get there. From top to bottom the city’s 10 most powerful people are entangled in a spider web that interlocks them so closely it’s hard to imagine any real disagreement.

Wexner and Wolfe seem joined at the hip, as we’ve noted, and their wives, Abigail and Ann, are even closer friends. Now that Abigail’s assuming her own place on the power ladder—number nine by our reckoning—the Wexner-Wolfe alliance is even stronger. Wolfe and McFerson likewise are bonded by their Arena partnerships, and both of them are linked inextricably to the McConnells—father John H. and son John P.—and to developer Ron Pizzuti through their investments in the city’s National Hockey League franchise. It’ll be just one big happy family in the Nationwide Arena founders’ suites when the Blue Jackets finally take the ice this October.

We’ve given Dispatch Printing Company president Mike Curtin his own power slot—number 10—in recognition of his role as the first non-Wolfe to assume day-to-day control of both business and editorial operations at the city’s daily newspaper. But don’t expect Curtin to start promoting his own civic agenda; his power, after all, lasts only as long as he keeps John F. Wolfe happy.

The two public officials on our list—Ohio State president Brit Kirwan and Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman—both are consensus-builders, shrewd enough to know that advancing their agendas will depend in no small meas-ure on keeping the other power players happy. Those who expect Coleman to make a lot of visible waves as the city’s first black mayor simply don’t know the man. Expect Coleman to be even more careful than his predecessor at City Hall, Greg Lashutka. And Greg was mighty careful.

The man perhaps least tangled in the power web is Wobst, who’s stepped back a few paces from direct civic roles as he’s dealt with serious health problems and serious bank problems in recent years. Wobst, number four on our list, has plenty of power when he wants to use it. But he, like all the others, is a team player. Whatever he may say in private, don’t expect to see Wobst out on a limb in public.

If you think all of these alliances and interconnections make power-watching in Columbus a bit . . . soporific these days, well—yawn—you’ve got that right. Despite their solidarity and predictability, though, these are the people who call the shots—or at least sign off—as important decisions get made. Here’s Columbus Monthly’s take on who they are, how they use their power and what they’re likely to do next.

1. Les Wexner

Imagine if Les Wexner’s parents had moved from his birthplace of Dayton to, say, Toledo instead of Columbus. Imagine no Wexner Center for the Arts. No City Center. No million-dollar-mansions in New Albany. No shopping palace called Easton. No vast charitable contributions to Children’s Hospital, the arts community, Jewish organizations and scores of other Central Ohio institutions. It’s hard to escape the Wexner influence, from the grand—the new, relocated COSI, now on the west bank of the Scioto River—to the functional—the recently expanded section of I-270 that he partially funded to benefit his various northeast-side enterprises.

Wexner has the imagination, the energy and the money to make things happen. Bold things that change the course of this city. He’s not only the richest man in the city, but he also remains the most powerful. And he uses that power, from changing Columbus architecture (see the Wexner Center, the convention center and COSI) to spreading his political influence (hosting fund-raisers for George W. Bush and others, or contributing $40,000 to Bob Taft’s gubernatorial run in 1998).

It wasn’t that long ago that Wexner was viewed with resentment: huge ego, not a team player. Wexner’s big visions (a state performing arts center) and strong opinions (the Ohio Theatre should be demolished) offended the old guard. He also was single and rich, and he flitted about the world, buying property in Florida, Colorado, New York. Word was that Wexner would drop Columbus like a bad date and move to a more glamorous locale when he tired of the Midwest.

But Wexner never faltered in his commitment to the town where he grew the Limited from one shop to a $9.7 billion business. In fact, his support has been stronger than ever since 1993, when at age 54 he built a $30 million-plus estate in New Albany, married for the first time and fathered four children. Friends say he has become more patient, more at ease with himself.

One example of this attitude change might be seen in his reaction to a significant civic decision earlier this year, when the cramped Columbus Museum of Art chose to expand at its current East Broad Street site rather than move. Wexner had been a proponent of its relocating next to the new COSI. In the past, he would have complained that the city lacked imagination—but after seeing the museum’s plans, says a source, “He was fine with that.”

Wexner turns 63 this fall. His business, which struggled during the 1990s, is thriving again after a long and sometimes painful restructuring. Who could blame Wexner if he rested on his laurels and began to pull away from the Limited and his community interests? Yet, indications are he’ll do just the opposite. In fact, a close associate says he is now doing some “noodling” relative to the future of the area that flanks the new COSI on the Scioto Peninsula: what to do with the city health department just south of the science museum, how to tie in retail and housing, perhaps forming an oversight board to coordinate the architecture and general maintenance of the area.

It is this “noodling” that sets Wexner apart from anyone else in Columbus. That and his call to action combined with a seemingly bottomless wallet. He has the ability to change the landscape of this city with the nod of his head and the commitment of dollars. “You have to think that Les will make another grand statement somewhere, somehow,” says one civic leader. “Let’s hope so.”

2. John F. Wolfe

Few knew what to expect of John F. Wolfe when he became the patriarch of Columbus’s dominant family six years ago, after the death of J.W. Wolfe, the city’s most powerful and feared man for two decades. Shy and quiet, John F. was a mystery outside a circle of relatives and associates. Would John F. continue the century-long pattern of Wolfe dominance in city matters or fall victim to a family that, at the time, was increasingly splintered by internal disputes? 

In the years since he inherited control, John F. not only has continued the reign of Wolfe power, but created his own legacy. A major difference between John F. and his second cousin is style: No longer does a Wolfe litter the civic landscape with the tattered remains of smashed projects and ruined careers as J.W. did by using the Dispatch as his blunt instrument. This is a kinder, gentler Wolfe. “He’s not as manipulative and confrontational as J.W.,” says one politico.

John F. also has built strong relationships with other Titans, especially Wexner and McFerson. “Something John and Les have in common is a passion and love for the city,” says a man who knows them both. Adds a civic type, “Les and John F. work closely. John F. serves a productive role as a help in defusing emerging conflicts between Wexner and other downtown interests. He’s a good diplomat.”

He’s also considerably more progressive than J.W., whose motto essentially was: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. John F. has teamed as a minority partner with Nationwide in the development of the Arena District and played instrumental roles in bringing the MLS and NHL here. He worked closely with Wexner and McFerson on moving COSI from downtown to the Scioto Peninsula, and the three together resolved other riverfront issues, including the design of the west-bank floodwall.

And Wolfe has recast the Wolfe business: He’s sold the longtime financial powerhouse (The Ohio Company), launched a new statewide television network (Ohio News Network) and invested heavily in downtown real estate (especially the Brewery District).

Meanwhile, the Dispatch, while still conflicted because of Wolfe’s active civic involvement, has gained credibility in recent years for promoting respected newsman Mike Curtin to editor and then president, and also for raiding other Ohio papers for talented journalists, including current editor Ben Marrison from the rival Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But Wolfe isn’t always so kinder-and-gentler. Just ask state tax commissioner Roger Tracy, a longtime Wolfe family enemy who in 1998 intended to run for the Ohio treasurer’s office. His hopes were crushed when Wolfe made it clear that the Dispatch would oppose him with all of its artillery on alert. Tracy dropped out before the race officially got started.

Wolfe has had his stumbles, however. He blinked first in his stare down with Time Warner over trying to force the national cable giant to carry ONN and, despite publishing two Dispatch front-page editorials, he failed to stop maverick school board member Bill Moss from winning reelection.

For the most part, though, Wolfe has adjusted well to his role as sole head of the family empire. If there are family disputes, none have gone public lately. And while he’s said to be spending more time in Florida—and giving more corporate responsibilities to Curtin—there’s no sign Wolfe isn’t still deeply engaged in Columbus. As an acquaintance says, “He has gradually grown comfortable with being the head of the family.”

3. Dimon McFerson

He was Dick McFerson back in 1996 when Columbus Monthly last did its analysis of power in Columbus. That was before McFerson announced that he was reverting to an old family name, essentially telling the community that from now on, “You can call me Dimon.” But by whatever name, the Nationwide Insurance CEO clearly has established himself in the very top rank of the power structure in town.

Four years ago there still were doubts about just how strong a role McFerson would play in local civic and political affairs, following as he was in the footsteps of former Nationwide chiefs John Fisher and Dean Jeffers, both of whom wielded enormous influence during their tenures. “He’s a nice guy,” a lot of people said, “but he’s no Jeffers and he’s no Fisher.”

Today McFerson is leaving his own personal imprint on the city—one that is equal to or greater than those of his predecessors. His dramatic move to build the Nationwide Arena came on the heels of a disastrous campaign in which voters turned down a proposed sales tax increase to fund a combined public arena and soccer stadium. “He really stepped up when the city needed him,” says one influential downtown businessman. “It was a bold move, and he’s pulled it off very skillfully.”

People say that McFerson showed a lot of savvy by forming an important alliance with John F. Wolfe, getting Wolfe’s Dispatch Printing Company to take a 10 percent ownership share in both the Nationwide Arena and the adjacent Arena District development on the old Ohio Pen site. That move locked in Wolfe support for both projects, assuring friendly treatment in the Dispatch no matter what problems may develop down the road.

McFerson’s decision to build the arena, which will be home to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the city’s new NHL team that begins play this fall, was praised by all, almost as if it were a philanthropic contribution. And indeed it did take guts and money to make the commitment. But careful downtown observers now believe McFerson also made a shrewd business deal. “The key was getting the pen site thrown into the deal,” says one person. “That will prove to be huge in the future.”

McFerson has done all the usual things expected of someone at his level of influence and power in Columbus. He’s served as head of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, head of United Way, chairman of COSI’s board of trustees. He worked hard to raise the private money needed to move COSI to its new location on the Scioto Peninsula, and gets more credit than anyone for that success.

Will McFerson become a low-powered lame duck, now that he’s announced he’ll retire at the end of 2000? Not likely. Whoever’s running Nationwide always has a seat at the table. There’s no word yet on who the next Nationwide CEO will be, but whoever it is, he’ll have to overcome the inevitable belief that “He’s no McFerson.”

4. Frank Wobst

Have age and two heart-bypass operations softened Frank Wobst, made him any less of a tough guy? Not so you’d notice. At 66, Wobst’s authority as chairman and CEO of Huntington Bancshares remains absolute; no significant decision gets made at what is now Columbus’s largest home-owned bank without his direct involvement. At Huntington, rule number one is the same as it has been for 20 years—Frank’s way or the highway.

Sure, Pete Geier’s recent promotion to president and chief operating officer has some people speculating that Wobst may finally have chosen an heir. But if Wobst has retirement plans, he’s not confided them even to senior staffers or members of his handpicked, intensely loyal board of directors. And some people who know him don’t expect him to leave unless Huntington is sold, or his health fails. “Frank’s the bank and the bank is Frank,” says one friend. “I don’t think he could just walk away.”

As long as he’s running Huntington, Wobst will have an automatic seat at the power table. That he still ranks fourth on the list is more a tribute to his dominating (some would say intimidating) personality than to his recent civic activity. Wobst remains on the senior council at the Chamber, and he’s a powerful, albeit rarely out-front, force at the Columbus Symphony and the Columbus Museum of Art.

Much of Wobst’s nonbank energy in recent years, though, has been spent on a project in his native Germany—the massive effort to complete the rebuilding of Dresden, which was obliterated by Allied bombing in World War II. It’s entirely Wobst’s doing, indeed, that Dresden and Columbus have forged an active sister city relationship. When he suggested a kind of Dresden gift mall on the grounds of Columbus City Hall last Christmas season, everyone saluted.

Some say Wobst’s wife, Joan, would like him to slow down, step back, spend more time at their second home in Florida. And Wobst surely could get along on less than the $2.1 million in salary and bonus that Huntington paid him in 1999. Even at the bank’s recently depressed share price, Wobst’s Huntington stock is worth some $40 million, not counting unexercised options. But those who know him well don’t expect him to take it easy unless he has no choice. They say he’s grown used to being near the top of everyone’s must-call, must-invite, must-keep-happy lists.

 

5. John H. & John P. McConnell

These days, talk always shifts quickly to “the McConnells” (plural) whenever anyone is asked about the patriarch, John H. McConnell, and his current and future role in the power structure in Columbus. Which means McConnell power now involves not just the old man but also his son, John P., who has replaced his dad as chairman and CEO of Worthington Industries.

Though people may consider the McConnells as a single unit, it’s been John H., the father, who has provided the big-time fireworks. His boldest and most dramatic move came two years ago when he secured a National Hockey League franchise for Columbus, muscling out sports mogul Lamar Hunt in the process. Although he has local partners in the deal (including John F. Wolfe and the Dispatch Printing Company), McConnell clearly is the top dog as the Columbus Blue Jackets prepare to begin their inaugural season. “His one act of bringing major-league sports here will forever change Columbus,” said one man who puts John H. high on his list of most powerful.

Although it is less well-known than the Blue Jackets, McConnell also in recent years created a multimillion-dollar, world-class sports facility in Central Ohio: Double Eagle Club, an ultraprivate golf course in southern Delaware County. The club really serves as John H.’s personal playground, where he can wield a different sort of power, handpicking who is and isn’t allowed in, much in the way the late Fred Jones did back in the 1970s at The Golf Club.

For years people have described John H. as a straightforward, simple man, one who isn’t very interested in civic power and local politics. That’s still pretty much the case. And people are wondering whether son John P. will be much like his father in that regard.

“The potential is there for him [John P.] to be a top community leader,” says a downtown power figure. “But I’m not sure he’ll take advantage of it.” Others voice the same opinion. “He doesn’t seem to care all that much about politics; he doesn’t have the patience to engage in the game,” says one. “His priority is the business of Worthington Industries. He has reorganized the business and reconfigured the board and the management team,” says another. “And the stock still is not doing well.”

Others, however, believe John P. will be a top leader in Columbus. “He’s going to be the next chairman of the Chamber, and we’re seeing him around more often,” says one man impressed with the younger McConnell, adding that “He’s getting good advice from John Christie,” the former Chamber president who now is on McConnell’s payroll as president of Worthington Industries.

 

6. Mike Coleman

At first glance, Mike Coleman seems like another Greg Lashutka: a likable, competent mayor who wants to get along with everyone and offend no one. But there are important differences between Coleman and his immediate predecessor. Coleman tells people that while Lashutka wanted harmony for harmony’s sake, he uses consensus as a means for achieving his top priorities. For example, if Coleman supports the Chamber on one of its business initiatives, the Chamber will help him on an east-side redevelopment project. “His inclusiveness spiel—which sounds so trite in campaign speeches—is actually happening,” an observer says.

Another big difference between the new mayor and the last one is how they were elected. Lashutka was tapped by the power structure after Buck Rinehart fell out of favor, and then squeaked by a candidate—Ben Espy—who ran specifically against that structure. Coleman, a pro-business Democrat, was elected by a whopping 20 percent margin in what was truly an open race. “Greg really owed his power to, at that time, all the power brokers, because in a sense he was ordained,” says a veteran elected official. “Mike was ordained by the voting public.” Therefore, “Mike has this mandate behind him, which is very powerful.” In fact, the official says, “I don’t think he appreciates how powerful he is.”

“He is not owned by anybody the way other mayors have been,” says one player in the business community. But nor is Coleman mistrusted. “Les likes him a lot. John F. likes him a lot.” Several observers say that the decentralization of Columbus power—the lack of a J.W. Wolfe—works to Coleman’s benefit. He’s “the right man at the right time,” a source close to Coleman says. “He’ll move up one spot every year.” Columbus, some have said, is evolving into a city in which the mayor is no longer a person who reports to the Titans. Coleman, they say, has the opportunity to get the downtown power structure to work for him.

All this, of course, depends on Coleman’s performance as mayor. A single major misstep could cause all that early confidence to evaporate quickly. And if he tries too hard not to offend—something of which he was guilty at times as a city councilman—people will doubt whether he has what it takes to lead. What almost everyone agrees on, though, is that the potential is most certainly there for Coleman to become the most powerful mayor in recent memory.

  

7. William E. (Brit) Kirwan 

Brit Kirwan had some big shoes to fill, stepping in as president of Ohio State University following the 1997 resignation of E. Gordon Gee, the witty, energetic, bow-tied fellow who seemed to be everywhere. Kirwan gets high marks from most people when it comes to running the university, receiving credit for his efforts to attract cutting-edge researchers to campus and for forming new alliances between business and academia. But so far the opinion on Kirwan as an overall power player in the city is mixed.

“I think Kirwan has either intentionally or unintentionally avoided playing the power game that Gee played,” says one local politician.

“He’s not Gordon Gee,” says another political type. “Gee knew how to play the game, and did it well.”

“Brit is doing a nice job at the university, but he’s not yet surfaced as a major force in the community,” says one prominent figure who’s active in both civic and university affairs. “In some ways he’s finishing Gee’s agenda,” says this person, referring to the huge Campus Partners development and the ongoing expansion of athletic and academic facilities.

Others, though, are more impressed with Kirwan’s early performance. “He’s not a Mr. Glad Hand, but he’ll leave a better school,” says one person who notes that Gee and former Mayor Greg Lashutka engaged in periodic hostilities, creating tension between the university and the city. Now both players have changed, with Michael Coleman in the mayor’s office. “Kirwan quietly goes about his business, and he has a positive relationship with Coleman,” says this observer.

One man who has been at the center of power in Columbus for many years says he’s very impressed with Kirwan. “He has a healthy amount of common sense. He’s genuinely interested in the city. He has immediate power as a result of his position, and I expect he will do enormous good.”

Continuing, the man also says, “If people expected another Gordon Gee, they didn’t get that. Nor did we need that.”

Despite uncertainty about how Kirwan’s personal style will translate into communitywide power, nearly everyone puts him on the most-powerful list. Ohio State, with its substantial land holdings, sizable population of students and staff, immense financial impact and beloved athletic programs, is a bit like the 2,000-pound gorilla. “The president of OSU is always going to be one of the most powerful people in town,” says one who still has doubts about Kirwan’s larger role beyond the university.

  

8. Ron Pizzuti

Although he’s dropped one spot to No. 8, you can’t blame him for lack of effort. Ron Pizzuti’s been in the middle of most major civic doings over the past few years: president of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, active with the Chamber and the Ohio Arts Facilities Commission, involved in bringing professional soccer and the NHL to Columbus.

He’s currently president of the Columbus Museum of Art, helping to guide the institution’s ambitious expansion plans and to oversee the marriage with adjacent Columbus College of Art and Design to create an arts education campus on East Broad Street.

And then there’s Miranova, his risky endeavor to build an upscale residential/ office high-rise complex on the Scioto River where no one else had dared venture before. After considerable delay, the project now is the latest architectural addition to the growing downtown skyline.

Despite all of his community investment, there’s a lack of recognition of Pizzuti as a top-tier power player. For one thing, unlike the others on this list, Pizzuti lacks the backing of a large organization that provides its CEO with immediate respect and prominence, and allows him to marshal the troops for a civic project. Maybe that’s why, as a first-generation real estate developer, he is perceived as working too hard to become a Titan. “He has a big ego,” says one person powerful in his own right. “But then we all do.”

For another thing, there have been whispers through the years that Pizzuti’s attention would venture outside of Columbus if he isn’t embraced as a heavy hitter. He’s had civic commitments in Orlando and significant business interests in Charlotte and Chicago. He’s also built a new home in Santa Fe.

Apparently, the whispers are wrong. Pizzuti appears to be deeply rooted in Columbus. Two of his children now live here, with a son working at Pizzuti Inc. And he plans to make his primary residence in Miranova.

Pizzuti, though, may start to get more recognition as a power player. “People weren’t sure about him at first,” says one civic leader, “but he has won respect with all that he’s done and is doing.”

9. Abigail Wexner

Unlike others in this group, Abigail Wexner may care less about making any Power lists. “She’s not interested,” says a close associate. But on Jan. 23, 1992, the day she married a billionaire named Les Wexner, she immediately gained power. Her name alone guaranteed her influence and access. The question was how she would use it.

The answer has begun to emerge, as Wexner has proceeded thoughtfully. Although active since her arrival, she kept a low profile for several years. For one thing, she’s given birth to four children. But over time her presence has been felt through her service on such boards as Children’s Hospital, the Wexner Center Foundation, The Limited and the Wexner Center. She headed the capital campaign for the $15 million renovation proj-ect of the YWCA. And she’s president of the city’s most significant philanthropic institution, the Columbus Foundation, and this year co-chairs with her husband the United Way campaign.

But it was in 1998 that she stepped out of the shadows for the first time to demonstrate her clout. Wexner single-handedly made workplace and family violence—an issue languishing for want of attention—into a hot topic, essentially by deciding to do so. She formed the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence, held a forum on workplace violence for the city’s top 100 companies, started a court-watching program and raised more than $2 million. “Any issues that are related to kids, people run them by her now,” says one community leader. “If power is being able to transform people’s lives, then Abigail belongs on the list.”

And, incidentally, she also has introduced a new sport to the city: the New Albany Classic, a world-class equestrian event held on the grounds of her home to raise money for the coalition.

There’s more to Abigail Wexner than the fact she bears the name of the city’s richest man. An attorney, she came to Columbus from New York with proven skills in the high-pressure field of negotiating mergers of public companies. And Abigail, who one day may oversee the family’s vast wealth, has been using that experience to shift the Wexners’ huge charitable donations in new directions, recently adding the Children’s Defense Fund and Big Brothers/Big Sisters to the portfolio.

She’s made a splash in political waters, contributing large amounts to Democrats, such as $35,000 to Lee Fisher’s 1998 run for governor and $12,500 to Mike Coleman’s mayoral campaign. While cynics contend the Wexners simply are playing both sides of the fence (Les is a heavy Republican backer), she says her giving is rooted in philosophical differences with her husband.

In any case, Abigail Wexner has mastered the difficult task of becoming Les Wexner’s wife with charm and grace; it’s rare to hear a critical word about her. She’s also praised for her hard work on issues. “Doors open because of her name,” says one civic observer. “But the achievements are hers.”

 

10. Mike Curtin 

They’ve come and gone at the Dispatch through the years, men with names like DeBloom, Feck, Smith, Franks and Johnson.

Some, such as DeBloom and Smith, worked at the paper for decades and left in dignified retirement. Others were shown the door, like Franks, who found all his personal belongings in boxes in the Dispatch lobby one morning.

They came, they went. And always the bottom line was the same: Nobody whose last name wasn’t Wolfe ever had any real power at the Dispatch, and nobody ever would.

Until now. In the whole 95-year history of Wolfe ownership of the Dispatch, surely there’s never been a more astonishing personnel move than the promotion last year of Mike Curtin from editor to associate publisher of the paper, and, even more surprisingly, to president and chief operating officer of the whole Dispatch Printing Company.

Just five years after Dispatch publisher and CEO John F. Wolfe tapped him to succeed Bob Smith as editor, Curtin has been placed, more or less, in day-to-day charge of the entire Dispatch empire. That means not just the newspaper, but the WBNS TV and radio stations in Columbus, the TV station in Indianapolis, the Ohio News Network cable venture, even the tax-abatement-seeking Capitol Square Ltd., Wolfe’s real estate development operation that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dispatch Printing Company.

Suddenly Curtin, the sturdy, trusted newsman, a reporter for most of his career, has officially become a corporate bigwig.

Curtin serves only at John F. Wolfe’s pleasure, of course. One wrong move and he could find his belongings in cardboard boxes in the lobby. But for now the man some jokingly call “John F.’s adopted son” enjoys unprecedented trust and authority.

Curtin has not yet been named the first non-Wolfe publisher of the Dispatch—John F. is still holding on to the titles of publisher, chairman and CEO—but everyone believes he will be. He’s the man to see for people trying to worm their way into the Dispatch’s good graces. If you’re hoping to get something done in Columbus, Curtin’s one of the people you want to please, and one of the ones you inherently fear. He’s a pleasant guy, but he won’t gloss over the way it’s going to be. Roger Tracy decided against making a political comeback after talking to Curtin a couple years back. So did Buck Rinehart.

The word used most often about Curtin is respect. Even people who dislike Wolfe say they’re impressed with Curtin. “Mike is extremely inquisitive, tough,” says one prominent public official. “His questions cut right to the core of the matter in a very direct and penetrating way, so if you are going to meet with him and you’re going to seek some kind of support or let him know some information, you’d better be prepared.”

People also give Curtin credit for being willing to admit when the Dispatch makes mistakes and to acknowledge where the paper needs to take a new direction. In other words, Curtin has many former skeptics believing he wants the Dispatch to be a real newspaper.

It may surprise some of the suits who today sit across from Curtin at a power breakfast at The Clarmont that he’s still a guy who gets excited about going to 10-cent Slyder Night at Cooper Stadium. For all of Curtin’s new-found power, influence and presumable wealth, one acquaintance says, “He’s a Columbus west-sider through and through.” Curtin, in fact, still lives in the decidedly middle-class Golfview Woods development, well inside the outerbelt on the city’s west side. “I’ve been very impressed with his performance so far,” says one of Columbus’s most powerful men, “especially for someone who’s never been out of the state of Ohio.”

Curtin’s biggest challenge, of course, is always to walk that delicate line by protecting—or at least not trampling on—the wide-ranging business interests of his boss, John F. Wolfe, while still maintaining the journalistic integrity of the Dispatch. It’s not an easy chore; just ask former editor Luke Feck. Sure, J.W. Wolfe is dead now and things are different. But John F. is still a Wolfe, and Wolfe family history says if Curtin screws up big time, he’s gone. But until that fateful moment comes, if it ever does, Mike Curtin, local boy made good, finds himself among the city’s power elite. 

***

The Influentials

There they are, swimming in the power pool, gliding smoothly up to a Titan, a governor, a sweating CEO on the treadmill at New Albany Country Club. Sometimes they’re messengers, sometimes deal-makers, sometimes just buddies firming up relationships on the putting green, around the conference table or at the polished mahogany bar. They may have clout of their own—sometimes a good bit—but they don’t pack enough institutional weight or write big enough checks to make things happen without help. They’re better at organizing tight power formations than at flying solo.

They’re the Influentials, men whose faces are familiar in boardrooms, clubrooms and offices all over town. They have important jobs, get paid important money, but sometimes those jobs are only a sliver of what they really do. Suppose, for example, that you desperately needed to get a message delivered, in person, to Les Wexner, the most powerful man in Columbus, within the next 24 hours. It might take some doing, and in at least one case it might cost you some cash, but any one of the six men listed below probably could get the job done.

Alex Shumate is the managing partner at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, where he counsels major clients and makes a lot of rain for his partners. But Shumate also is a smart, levelheaded, universally trusted all-purpose civic leader. He’s done a nine-year stint on the Ohio State University board of trustees—arguably the most powerful “volunteer” position in town. In February, he became chairman of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce. And on May 15 he was elected a director of the Limited—a public signal of his solid relationship with Wexner. For talking things through, bringing people together, straightening out misunderstandings and moving ahead, there’s nobody better.

Except maybe Jack Kessler. Once a power in his own right, Kessler got hammered in a commercial real estate development downturn awhile back and sought shelter with his friend (and then New Albany Company partner) Les Wexner. Now Kessler is the nonowner chairman of NACO, a job that lets him exercise his considerable charm and maintain his unmatched network of contacts. Himself a former OSU trustee, Kessler also chairs the real estate arm of Marsh and McLennan and sits on the boards of Bank One and Abercrombie & Fitch. Last December, he tried unsuccessfully to talk John B. McCoy out of resigning as CEO of Bank One, then soldiered on as a member of the search committee that picked McCoy’s successor, Jamie Dimon.

Like Shumate, Kessler can move easily in any crowd and seems to know everyone who counts. He’s a one-man clearinghouse for the latest information on what’s going on around town. And when he says he’ll do something, it gets done. Some say his relationship with Wexner isn’t as close as it once was, but if that’s true, you’d never know it.

Then there’s Wexner’s banty rooster, Al Dietzel. Past 65 now, Dietzel doesn’t have as much clout as he once did at the Limited, where he served for years as Wexner’s civic deal-maker, political surrogate, troubleshooter and gatekeeper. Others have assumed some of those roles recently, and for the last couple of years Dietzel has spent a good bit of his time helping Abigail Wexner as she has begun advancing her own civic and charitable agendas. But Dietzel still knows nearly everyone in town who matters and has relationships going back to his days as United Way and the Chamber of Commerce boss in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Fiercely loyal to his boss, Dietzel can help—or hurt—those who need Les Wexner’s support.

The role of another former Chamber president, John Christie, is a bit of an enigma these days. After his Chamber days, Christie did a civic gunslinger turn at Battelle, then hopped to the McConnell camp, where he handled family investments and helped land a National Hockey League franchise for Columbus.

Now Christie is president of the McConnells’ Worthington Industries—an unusually potent title for a guy who’s spent his entire career in civic and government affairs jobs and has zero background in the steel business. Will Worthington CEO John P. McConnell (son of founder John H.) give Christie serious line management duties or keep him mostly out of the smelting pot? Either way, as long as Christie has solid McConnell backing he’s a man whose phone calls must be returned.

Among those who probably are on the phone with Christie a lot these days is Greg Lashutka, the former Columbus mayor who’s now a senior vice president at Nationwide. Lashutka’s knocking down $300,000 to be Dimon McFerson’s go-to guy for tough civic and political chores, but he’s been almost invisible locally since he left the mayor’s office last December. Internal politics at Nationwide can be byzantine, and the guess is that Lashutka’s on a learning curve. “Greg’s safe as long as Dimon’s running the show,” says one observer, underlining Lashutka’s obvious patronage. But the betting at Nationwide is that McFerson will retire by the end of 2001. Then we’ll see how influential Lashutka really is.

Finally there’s Neil Clark, a man who sells his influence gleefully and publicly to almost anyone who’s willing to fork over a $5,000 or $10,000 monthly retainer. Arguably the most successful lobbyist at the Ohio Statehouse, Clark has an ego the size of Montana and a track record to back up his boasts. His State Street Consultants, jointly owned with former Ohio Democratic Party chairman Paul Tipps, has raked in enough cash to buy Clark a million-dollar home in New Albany. Although he spends most of his time on state issues, Clark’s financial ties to former Columbus City Council president Jerry Hammond give him ready access to most Columbus power players. Not everyone likes Neil Clark—he plays rough and sometimes nasty—but few people dare to blow him off.