What's Next for Mayor Coleman?

Michelle Sullivan

When Mayor Michael B. Coleman announced in November that he wouldn't seek re-election in 2015, it came as a shock to his supporters. Even his family and close friends didn't learn of his decision-which he told them he'd made on his 60th birthday a week earlier-until the day before the announcement. Columbus' longest-serving mayor, Coleman will have held the position for 16 years when he completes his fourth term in December.

He has made it clear he won't be retiring-60 is the new 40, he says. But his next move, politically or otherwise, remains to be seen.

"I frankly really haven't given any thought about my future," Coleman says. "I'm not sure yet what that'll be. We'll just have to wait and see. Hopefully I have some options."

One of those options is running next year for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Rob Portman. As soon as Coleman announced he wouldn't run in the next mayoral race, talk began that he could take on Portman. Coleman hasn't confirmed rumors that he's considering a run, but he hasn't denied them, either.

"Political office is not on my priority list," Coleman says. "Because I haven't said no, everybody's thinking about it."

The Democratic National Party has urged Coleman to run against Portman, but the pool of potential Democratic candidates is growing. U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and former Gov. Ted Strickland have publicly said they are considering a run; eight other possible candidates are thought to be considering one.

Coleman would be a formidable candidate, but he might be more interested in an office closer to home. "If he wants to stay [in Columbus]," says Paul Beck, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State, "the governor's seat is open in 2018." The position could open sooner should Kasich run for president or vice president or if he's otherwise called to Washington, D.C., by the next presidential administration.

Coleman, however, has said he won't run for governor-much to the dismay, no doubt, of Democratic supporters who see him as an ideal candidate.

"An African-American has not won a statewide contest in Ohio," Beck says. "He's somebody who is well-positioned to draw from all over Ohio, but he's going to calculate his odds." Beck adds Coleman would be in a good position to raise money, both from the Democratic Party and the business community.

Few would deny that Coleman has had a successful run as mayor of Columbus. He's seen the city through two recessions, kept it operating under budget and spearheaded neighborhood development, including Downtown's revival. He's well-liked and well-respected, and he won the last three mayoral elections handily.

But, like any longtime officeholder, he has encountered his share of political potholes. In 2005, he abandoned a run for governor after his campaign manager and his now-ex-wife, Frankie Coleman, were both arrested for drunken driving. Two years later, the Ohio inspector general determined Frankie, then an employee of the Ohio Department of Development, had been paid for dozens of hours she didn't actually work. In November 2013, in the wake of the Columbus City Schools data-rigging scandal, voters soundly defeated an education-funding levy championed by the mayor. It was the district's first such setback in 23 years. And last September, a Columbus Dispatch investigation discovered 6,500 calls to the city's 311 complaint hotline, a service Coleman created in 2006, had been ignored.

Could these blemishes make it harder for Coleman to earn the trust of voters outside of Columbus? Not likely, says David Niven, a professor of political science at University of Cincinnati.

"The mindset of the voter is like a child with a short attention span," says Niven, who lives in Columbus and briefly worked as a speechwriter for Coleman. "They focus on what's right in front of them. What's compelling about [Coleman] is the Columbus record-the idea that in a sea of rust-belt cities, Columbus is growing, and he's been at the helm of that."

Nonetheless, campaigning statewide would be an adjustment for Coleman, Niven adds.

"For somebody who has essentially been mayor for life, it would be a challenge to have to present himself anew to people," Niven says. "But it's certainly something he's capable of doing."

With the filing deadline for the 2016 Senate election still a year away, Coleman doesn't have to make an immediate decision.

"He's got plenty of time between now and then to see what the lay of the land is," Beck says. "Is there a shift back from Democratic voters in Ohio or nationwide? What's the state of play in terms of the Ohio budget and other issues in Ohio? Has Gov. Kasich worn out his welcome so it's harder for a Republican to win again? All of those things he could get a good gauge of by sitting tight and waiting."

The private sector might be a good place to do that.

"I think the mayor has an outstanding reputation not only locally but also nationally," says Guy Worley, CEO of the Columbus Downtown Development Corp. Worley served as Coleman's chief of staff in 2005 and 2006. "In the mid-2000s, the Midwest wasn't doing that well. Columbus continued to grow under his leadership, through several recessions. He's well-respected nationally."

Though Coleman, a lawyer, wouldn't speculate about future job prospects (he did joke he might enjoy landscaping-or writing for Columbus Monthly), he says he's intrigued by urban design and architecture.

"I have a lot of interests," he says. "I've developed a lot of skills. [As mayor], I've run one of the largest companies in the state of Ohio as a CEO. I've put together hundreds of deals in my time that have moved the city forward. I've developed national relationships and, in some cases, international relationships. I don't have a specific game plan yet, but I'll get there."