The Other Columbus: Four tools to effect change in Columbus politics right now

Scott Woods
Columbus City Hall

I recently wrote online about some local taxes that are all but guaranteed to become part of the New Normal for Franklin County paychecks everywhere, and how these taxes reflect an ongoing breach of public trust through tax abatements. The short version is pretty straightforward: Don’t support new taxes for things that should have been funded by not handing out tax abatements like Halloween candy. Yes, even for things like public schools and an expansion of services at Columbus State Community College (Issue 21). At some point, you just have to remind people that you are not an ATM.

Contrary to all that is holy on Al Gore’s internet, someone responded to my post with a genuinely good question. She asked what action should be taken after voting no, because these schools might need more funding. The question was not theoretical: She has children in the system who would be affected by further mismanagement of school funds. Out of respect for her good question and the stakes involved, I gave her a good answer, or at least a longer answer than I usually offer under such circumstances because of the need for nuance to even approach the question. It takes time to get to the right answers, and there is always more than one.

Sometimes the question is that simple: What do I need to do to effect change in my world? I get that question a lot. It happens less because I have answers, and more because I am always telling people what’s broken. Most of us aren’t ready for certain answers because we haven’t interrogated the questions enough, and if you don’t do that, you end up working toward the wrong things. But sometimes you just have to break it all down to, “What’s next?”

Columbus has some answers that are applicable to its citizens specifically, and across political issues. I was speaking of educational funding, but I could have just as easily given my answer to a question about police brutality or disconnected civic servants. Every city has the answers that work in the context of its history, values and ability to organize.

By my count there are four general tactics for change that work here, or would if we supported them better: money, education, votes and shame. This is the teacher’s key to pretty much every article I’ve ever written about local politics. If I die tomorrow, let it not be said that I did not once try to help.

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1. Money

Money is the easy one: Almost everything you read in the media about Columbus politics ends up boiling down to money. The problem is residents don’t have it, or rather, we do not have enough of it individually to play in the Columbus political sandbox. So unless you’re rich, you can skip ahead to the next section. If, however, you are a well-to-do person reading this who thinks the city could be doing better, there are a couple of things you can do right now that would have an almost instantaneous effect on local politics:

a) Donate Real Change levels of money to people doing that work.

In 2002, heiress Ruth Lilly donated what would amount to $185 million to Poetry magazine, which at the time had an annual budget of $700,000. This endowment changed not only the journal’s fortunes, but poetry itself. Think of an organization that is doing Real Change work in the political sphere, not just treading water between grant cycles; people trying to actually move the needle on an important issue in this town. Now imagine them with an extra $1 million they didn’t know they were going to get that year. That’s enough to launch and support a reasonable dream project. That’s enough to get a small organization out from under debt and well on its way. That’s enough money to set up a group of volunteers to do the work full-time for several years instead of between jobs. Think about the meetings they’ll start getting called into. And because you’re rich, you know you don’t have to shoulder the $1 million yourself. You have rich friends. Get a few of the more progressive ones to pony up some of this, and you all come out looking nice at a discount. It’s not just an investment. It’s a legacy.

b) Throw your weight around.

I stopped seeing politicians as people a long time ago. I only really care about what they can accomplish. They see me as an ATM; I see them as tools to leverage change. The problem is, a hammer don’t hit a nail on its own. Someone has to wield it. Sit down at a table with people who have needs and know how things work and figure out where to throw some support. Politicians don’t listen to people; they listen to people with influence. And in this town, that often means people with money.

2. Education

Knowing something can compel you to act on its behalf. You can’t fix what you don’t care about, and you can’t care if you don’t know. If you want people to step up their political game, you have to be willing to dive into the bad news and break down why it’s bad for them. You have to do it in concrete terms. You have to turn the nutritional values on the side of the cereal box into the prize at the bottom. If you are part of the activist community, you have to double whatever amount of time you currently spend on educating people, and find more resilient ways to do it: websites, email lists, online videos, apps and all the other ways that people consume information now.

Columbus feels comfortable even in its struggles compared to other cities, so discomfort taps people out. You have to work with that. In Columbus, education can have more power than it seems. Plus, it’s easier than it appears. Our political scene is so used to people not knowing how it operates that it doesn’t hide things very well. Just look at the recent revelation about the Nationwide/Crew stadium/City Hall deal. They’re apparently not very good at corruption to begin with.

3. Voting

Politics has two currencies: money and power. Voting more or less determines who gets the power, which is why there is so much money to be made in it. Votes are so important that Mike Bloomberg spent half a billion dollars to acquire them, all while knowing he would likely lose his presidential bid. With that amount of money, he could have eradicated homelessness in Los Angeles for a year and had the most resilient platform of any candidate running. Columbus isn’t at the point where a swing in votes wouldn’t change the landscape of how the city operates. If you vote out 30 percent of the school board, you’ll see some changes in your school system. If you vote out two sitting City Council members, you might see some changes in your public policy. If you vote out three, you definitely will. (FYI: The next City Council election is in 2021. The next mayoral election is in 2023.)

Here’s the thing about voting: It takes five minutes. It is the least taxing thing you could do in the name of change. You could probably do more with $50 than you could with your single vote on lots of issues. But let’s be clear: The only wasted vote is the one that doesn’t happen. It just feels like a waste of time because regular folks seem to lose no matter how they vote with dulling regularity. And that happens because too many people don’t vote. I don’t mean “vote in a way I don’t like.” I mean “don’t vote at all.” I’m willing to take the moral hit to my revolutionary ego so I can say I spent more time engaged with the political process than I did waiting on a Hot Pocket to heat up.

4. Shame

Remember Howard Dean’s “yaah” scream in 2004 on the campaign trail? Remember how it practically torpedoed his campaign overnight because he became the butt of a thousand jokes? That happened before we were all on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. No one even remembers what his platform was, what he cared about, what world problems he was trying to solve. Dean was shamed out of politics over a screech.

Shame works because votes still work, and since people are still out here voting like it’s a popularity contest instead of a tool test, shame is part of the game. Columbus isn’t so large that shame doesn’t work on its politicians. With enough attention on an issue or candidate, you can get someone to speak to it. And if they’ll speak to it, they’ll pledge to act on it. And once they pledge, they’re responsible. It may not feel like work because it’s easy, and you’re using the same tool to effect political change that you use to blast cat memes to a couple thousand people every day, but it works.

I’m not talking about canceling anybody here. If you demolish somebody, then you can’t use them later (though some politicians are irreparable and should go). I’m talking about steering a candidate that is “close enough” with shame so they can right-correct their work — not their personality, not their history — in your interest. All politicians are already programmed to respond to shame. It’s why they lie so much. I’m suggesting we begin to collectively weaponize that to save people instead of just win votes aimed at maintaining the status quo. This unfortunately means you’ll have to post more political stuff on social media, so I recommend a 1:1 ratio of shame posts to cat memes.