The end of Coleman's reign as mayor and Wolfe's as publisher creates what one insider calls "the greatest time of change in recent memory" for the city.
This story appeared in the January 2016 issue of Columbus Monthly.
The three Columbus power players were in perfect harmony. When education reform rose to the top of the city's civic agenda in May 2013, they all were ready to play their parts. Ohio State University President Gordon Gee and Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman testified at a legislative hearing in support of a proposal that, if approved by voters, would allow the Columbus school district to share tax dollars with charter schools, among other things. Five days later, Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe, the city's senior statesman, gave the idea his seal of approval in an editorial published in his newspaper. To no one's surprise, the bill was signed into law a few weeks later.
It was classic Columbus-clean, collaborative, efficient. It also marked the end of an era, though no one realized it at the time. The education reform initiative was the last joint civic performance for the trio. Today, Coleman is a lawyer in private practice, Gee is writing his trademark thank-you notes in Morgantown, West Virginia, and Wolfe owns the 91-year-old building atop which the iconic Dispatch sign sits, but not the newspaper any more. "We're seeing a changing of the guard," says a civic insider.
Community leaders use words like "huge," "enormous" and "phenomenal" to describe this transition. One longtime political player calls the shift in the city's power dynamics "probably the greatest time of change in recent memory." Gee, who's now running West Virginia University, proved so good at helming Ohio State (Time magazine named him the best university president in the country in 2009) that the board of trustees twice hired him to do the job. Coleman, the longest-serving mayor in Columbus history, was equally adept in his role-a shrewd, popular and unifying political figure.
Wolfe, meanwhile, occupies a unique place in Columbus history, his family's enduring influence a cultural touchstone. While other Columbus stalwarts have come and gone-the Galbreaths, the Lazaruses, the McCoys, to name a few-the Wolfes have remained a constant at or near the top of the Columbus power structure for more than a century. Sometimes, they played hardball, especially during the reign of J.W. Wolfe, John F.'s second cousin, who used the Dispatch to punish enemies and support pet causes. Other times, their influence was more benign, especially after the 1994 death of J.W., when his more diplomatic second cousin assumed control of the family business and ushered in a more subtle, but no less influential era. Always, they were in the middle of the action, brokering deals, anointing political leaders, donating millions to charity-and doing it all in their trademark quiet (some say secretive) way.
Which is why so many people are struggling to wrap their minds around this latest turn of events. The June sale of the Dispatch and its sister publications, including Columbus Monthly, have forced many in the city to wrestle with an idea that once seemed unthinkable: life in Columbus without a Wolfe holding the biggest bullhorn. Add the departures of Gee and Coleman to the mix, and the uncertainty grows greater, worrying even the city's most powerful man. "I think you have to be concerned," said L Brands founder Les Wexner in a November interview with Columbus Monthly.
In conversations with 20 insiders in politics, business, the nonprofit sector and the civic realm, no consensus emerged as to what all these changes mean. Some observers talk about a power vacuum, a lack of leadership that could derail the civic esprit de corps that has blossomed in the city in recent years-the so-called Columbus Way. "It's a much more complex city, a much more vibrant city, and there's a need for as much of a shared vision as possible to get things done," the longtime political player says.
Others (including Wexner) predict a smoother transition, with a new generation of leaders emerging in the long term, while strong institutions-such as the Columbus Foundation, the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. and (especially) the Columbus Partnership-fill the leadership void in the meantime. Plus, the city's unquestioned alpha dog, Wexner, remains as engaged as ever. "I hear all kinds of concerns: 'Oh my goodness, what's going to happen?'" says a community leader. "But I haven't seen any change…Leaders have come and gone, but we keep going forward."
It may take awhile to find out who's right. With so much power up for grabs, questions abound: Can Gee and Coleman's successors seize the opportunities? Will Wolfe fade into the sunset or continue to play a major role in the city, even without the Dispatch, the traditional source of his family's influence? And does the sale of the Dispatch signal an even more significant generational shift as the city's leadership ages, especially the 78-year-old Wexner? No one has definitive answers, but everyone seems to agree on one thing: Columbus is in the midst of a historic moment. "The story arc is truly amazing," says a civic insider.
* * *
The sale of the Dispatch was somehow both surprising and inevitable. It made perfect sense that Wolfe would want to escape an industry in technological upheaval. Yet he also seemed to double down on print media in 2011-and strengthened his stranglehold on the Columbus media market-with the purchase of rival publications Columbus Monthly, Columbus CEO, The Other Paper and the Suburban News Publications chain of weekly community newspapers.
Plus, it seemed like the window to sell may have closed, given the stunning decline in the value of print media in recent years. Wolfe sold the Dispatch and the other publications for $47 million to the New Media Investment Group, a subsidiary of Gatehouse Media. As a comparison, in 1998, the Minneapolis Star Tribune sold for $1.2 billion. And Wolfe did have two possible family successors, his daughters Rita and Katie. Rita directed his civic and philanthropic interests, while Katie headed his magazine division. "Whether I'm here or not," he told Columbus Business First in a rare interview in 2011, "I don't anticipate dramatic changes in the operations of the company."
But a friend says he never intended to hand the business to his daughters. "I think John would have retained it if he saw an economically viable way to do it, but there isn't," the friend says. "Anybody who has studied this industry understands that if you're a single metropolitan newspaper locally owned with no economy of scale, there's no way to do it."
Since the sale, observers have been trying to parse what it means to the city's power structure. In typical fashion, Wolfe didn't respond to interview requests for this article, and he hasn't said anything publicly about the topic beyond a June letter to readers published on the Dispatch website in which he said his family will maintain its "historic involvement in civic, community and philanthropic endeavors that contribute substantially to the quality of life we all enjoy in central Ohio."
But what will that involvement consist of? And how much influence can he have without the Dispatch? Wolfe is unique among the city's power elite. While most people in Columbus have considered Wexner the city's most powerful person for the past two decades, his interests aren't as broad as Wolfe's. If there was a major project, Wolfe was usually involved. He also paid much closer attention to local politics, casting a bigger shadow over the Statehouse, City Hall and the Franklin County commissioners. "What will John F. think?" was a common refrain at City Hall as staffers went about their everyday business.
That influence, however, should disappear soon, if it hasn't already. Without the Dispatch editorial page to push his views, Wolfe's primary power base in the political arena is gone. The friend expects him to increase political reporting for WBNS-10TV, the Columbus television station he continues to own, but a nightly newscast can't compare to using a newspaper to set the city's civic agenda, such as when the Dispatch led the charge to force Penn National Gaming to move a proposed casino from the Arena District to the west side of Columbus. A civic leader says Wolfe's days as a political king-maker are over. "What's the leverage point?" the leader asks.
Wolfe retains significant assets. In addition to 10TV, he also continues to own the WBNS AM and FM radio stations, as well as WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, a stake in the Columbus Blue Jackets hockey team and significant real estate holdings, including Capital Square, the family's real estate development arm which is a 20 percent partner with Nationwide Realty Investors in the Arena District and Grandview Yard and controls large amounts of farmland in Central Ohio and a major piece of property across the street from the Capitol. These holdings, and Wolfe's status as the city's senior statesman, should continue to give him influence.
Additionally, the collegial civic alliance between Wolfe and Wexner has defined the city for the past two decades, and in a joint interview with Columbus Monthly, both Wexner and his wife, Abigail, predict that won't change. "I think people look at John in the same light," Wexner says. "It isn't like he got unplugged from the paper, so now he's just a guy who lives Downtown. People respect him because of him and appreciate him because of him, not because of the newspaper."
But does Wolfe still want to be a player? That's a harder question to answer. "I know he's going to spend more time in Florida this year," another friend says. "John's 72 years old, and I think his wife is pushing him to take more time off." But the Wexners see no signs of him slowing down. Abigail Wexner cites Wolfe's involvement in a new capital campaign at Nationwide Children's Hospital and the continued leadership he provides as a member of the boards of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and the Downtown Development Corporation. "I don't sense any disengagement," she says. "He may say, 'I'm gonna spend more time in Florida.' But when he's in Florida, he's on the phone."
His friends are pushing for him to remain involved. They say no one else can match his love for Columbus and historic knowledge of the city. And now that he's free from running the Dispatch, they say, Wolfe can focus more on community endeavors. "Our advice is, 'Now more than ever, we need you,'" a civic leader says.
Especially considering the questions that surround two of the city's new leaders.
* * *
Ohio State seemed poised for a different kind of president following Gee's untidy final days. About a week after his May 2013 appearance before the Ohio House committee, Gee resigned as the leader of Ohio State when a recording surfaced of him making mildly offensive jokes about Catholics, Notre Dame University and the SEC. It was a sudden fall from grace, though not completely surprising. Off-the-cuff remarks have long been a part of the Gee mystique.
Gee's successor, Michael Drake, is quiet and low-key-the anti-Gee in many ways. Publicly, Drake, an ophthalmologist and the former head of the University of California, Irvine, seems to be doing fine. In November, the Ohio State Board of Trustees awarded him a $200,000 performance bonus. But Drake's start in office hasn't been easy. Some challenges have been beyond his control; the marching band's sexual harassment and hazing scandal fell in his lap right when he arrived at Ohio State in June 2014. But quiet concerns about his leadership are beginning to float to the surface as well. Several insiders describe him as nonengaged civically. "People have commonly referred to him as Holbrook 2.0," says an insider with strong Ohio State ties, referring to Gee's much-maligned predecessor, Karen Holbrook.
Another insider questions whether Drake is a good fit. "The job may be different in Columbus and Ohio State than what he's used to out in California," the insider says. "The job here, as much as anything, is a job of building relationships, and that's a 24/7 responsibility." It also doesn't help that his predecessor, Gee, was the ultimate relationship builder-a social dynamo who never forgot a name and had a Clintonian knack for connecting with people quickly. "We're used to Gordon," says a longtime business leader. "I mean, Gordon would write you a thank-you note, and he hadn't left your party yet."
Drake, OSU's first African-American president, still has time to turn things around. A good first step might be to hire a capable lieutenant respected by Central Ohio business and political leaders to serve as his community liaison. One insider also says Drake needs to better articulate his vision for reinvigorating the Wexner Medical Center, the top item on his to-do list.
He does have a few fans among the city's power elite. They say concerns are more about style than substance, and they praise Drake for his intelligence and authenticity. "I think he's going to be a superstar," says a prominent business leader with strong Ohio State ties. And unlike Karen Holbrook, he hasn't really alienated people right out of the block, other than a few hard-core, largely unsympathetic marching band supporters. It appears most civic leaders want to see him succeed. There's patience, if not exactly enthusiasm. "Everybody's still waiting to see what kind of leader Dr. Drake is," says a veteran politico.
Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther, meanwhile, took office in January bruised and battered following a difficult campaign in which his name came up in connection with an FBI investigation into influence-peddling at City Hall. Even if he's never charged with anything, and it doesn't look like he will be, Ginther showed poor judgment. A political insider says City Hall leaders believed before the scandal broke that Ginther was too close to John Raphael, the Clintonville bar owner and lobbyist at the center of the affair. "People knew that he was bad news," the insider says of Raphael, who agreed in October to plead guilty to extorting officials from the red-light camera company Redflex for campaign funds.
Ginther's response to the allegations also troubles some leaders. The rushed manner in which he put together his proposal to outfit the Columbus police with body cameras made it seem like a blatant ploy to distract from the controversy. Plus, they question his defiant public stance. "I personally wish that there had been more humility," one community leader says. "It would have been great to say, 'I wish I'd done some things differently, and now I know, and I'm going to make sure this never happens again.'"
Ginther isn't an unfamiliar commodity. The 40-year-old Clintonville resident spent nine years on Columbus City Council (five as president) and prior to that, six as a member of the Columbus Board of Education. For the most part, community leaders give Ginther high marks for his tenure on city council. They praise him for his leadership of the Columbus Infant Mortality Task Force and say the Columbus Way is engrained in Ginther, having learned from Coleman, his friend and political benefactor, the importance of private-public collaboration in projects such as the Columbus Commons, the Scioto Mile and the Scioto Greenways. "I think that will help us in this transition and help us continue that momentum," a civic insider says. "It's not like he's an outsider who hasn't been here and seen all this."
Ginther's cabinet appointments will be critical to winning over skeptics. He appears off to a good start with the respected Greg Davies, Coleman's public utilities director and a former deputy chief of staff whom Ginther named his chief of staff in late November (and before that, a staff writer for Columbus Monthly). Ginther will have to put the lingering questions to rest by being a "damn good mayor," a veteran politico says. "I think Andy and the people on council can form a pretty formidable team," the politico says. "But they're going to have to prove themselves for several years, and they're going to have some big, big challenges."
* * *
In the late 1980s, J.W. Wolfe, then the most powerful man in Columbus, called Wexner into his office. The city had begun to divide into two camps-Wolfe and his allies (the old guard) and Wexner and his friends (the new power). Wolfe was ready to make peace. He asked Wexner to join his inner circle, the group of three or four Titans who ran the city, using their influence to sway political outcomes and development decisions. "I said, 'No way, not with that few people,' and I left his office," Wexner recalled in a 2015 interview with Harvard professor Jan Rivkin. "Within an hour, my banker called me up, said I was crazy and told me to call J.W. immediately to apologize and accept his offer. I refused."
Wexner traces the origins of the Columbus Partnership to that encounter. Rather than continue to do things the old way, Wexner wanted to bring more people to the table. After the death of J.W. Wolfe, Wexner found an ally in J.W.'s second cousin, John F. Wolfe. And together, the pair formed the Partnership, the subject of Wexner's conversation with Rivkin.
Today, the Columbus Partnership is a celebrated civic achievement. Rivkin wrote a laudatory Harvard Business School case study about it in 2015. The year before, the Atlantic outlined how the organization has fostered a unique collaborative community spirit-the Columbus Way, as it's become known-that's boosting the city's economy. Alex Fischer, the Partnership CEO, has emerged as a power player in his own right in recent years with credibility among a diverse range of leaders, from elected officials to nonprofits to corporate chieftains. "The Partnership-and Alex personifies the Partnership-is kind of what keeps everything from falling apart with all that's happened," says a political insider, referring to the current power shift. The insider jokes, "It's why we don't have anarchy and violence in the streets right now." The steady hands of other long-serving respected institutional leaders, such as the Columbus Foundation's Doug Kridler and the Columbus Downtown Development Corp.'s Guy Worley, also may help make the ongoing transition easier.
To be sure, the Partnership has its critics. At first glance, it doesn't look that much different than J.W. Wolfe's boys club-a bunch of business people setting the civic agenda, just with Wexner in the chairman's seat and a few more women involved (though not many). And the Partnership has a tendency to overreach, resulting in a series of failed levies: COSI in 2004, the Columbus City Schools in 2013, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 2014. But supporters say the organization has learned from those mistakes and has become more inclusive. It now includes more than 50 members (the top business leaders in the Central Ohio). "I was skeptical when I was not at the table listening to these conversations," says a newish member of the Partnership. "But I can equivocally say that everyone is focused on what's in the community's best interest versus their own self-interest."
During this time of transition, what's most important, many civic leaders say, is preserving the city's collaborative spirit. They fear a return to the late 1980s (when the Wolfe-Wexner War divided the community) or the late 1990s (when a feud between City Hall and Ohio State led to the construction of two competing arenas). John F. Wolfe and Wexner have been the guardians of the Columbus Way. They've taught it to a new generation of corporate power players-folks like Cardinal Health's George Barrett and Huntington Bank's Steve Steinour-and they purged those who didn't accept its tenants-former CDDC chief Tom Lussenhop, former Ohio State Medical Center leader Fred Sanfilippo, to name two. The big question that remains is whether the students are ready to replace their aging teachers.
Dave Ghose is a senior editor for Columbus Monthly.