Politics: Why can't Zach Klein stand still?

Dave Ghose

Columbus voters will see a familiar name on the November ballot. For the third year in a row, Zach Klein, the president of Columbus City Council, is running for a different public office in Central Ohio. All politicians are ambitious, of course, but Klein's constant campaigning has solidified his reputation as a man with “ants in his pants,” as one veteran Democrat puts it.

After voters re-elected him to city council in 2015, Klein waited just a month before launching a bid to unseat Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien. Last year, Klein lost that hard-fought election, the most expensive countywide race in Franklin County history. But rather than regroup and return to city council, the Democrat again waited just a month to announce plans to seek another new office in 2017—Columbus city attorney. “Zach's only interest is finding the next rung up the ladder,” says Brad Sinnott, chairman of the Franklin County Republican Party Central Committee.

It's not just Republican operatives criticizing the move. In a letter published in theDispatch in December, a former assistant city attorney named Jeffrey Stavroff blasted the decision of his ex-boss, Rick Pfeiffer, the current Columbus city attorney, to support Klein as his successor. “His endorsement of Klein reeks of a perpetual system of political cronyism that has infected city government (specifically, city council), which values status in the party far over experience and fitness to serve,” Stavroff wrote.

Klein's opponent, criminal defense attorney Don Kline, also is stealing a page from O'Brien and questioning Klein's lack of legal experience. “As a city attorney, you have to have experience,” says Kline, who unsuccessfully ran for Franklin County Common Pleas judge in 2016.

Klein says he didn't expect to run for office again this year. But after he lost to O'Brien, Klein says he received a phone call from his fellow Democrat, Pfeiffer, who said he didn't plan to seek re-election and urged Klein to run. “I certainly didn't wake up in the morning to set out to run for a third race,” Klein says. “But I'm not going to relent on my passion toward criminal justice reform and my passion for using legal issues to solve community concerns.”

“I said, ‘You just ran a million-dollar campaign,'” Pfeiffer recalls. “‘You've got to follow up on that right now.'” But Pfeiffer's endorsement came at the expense of his longtime chief of staff, Bill Hedrick, who was widely perceived as the next in line to become the city's top lawyer. “I was disappointed,” says Hedrick, who now says he supports Klein. “I was interested in the job, but there are a lot of reasons that Zach would be a stronger candidate than myself.”

If Klein is successful in succeeding Pfeiffer in November—and there's a good chance he will be, given the heavily Democratic leanings of Columbus—the city attorney's office could serve as a good launching pad for Klein to make another run for Franklin County prosecutor, or even a statewide position like attorney general. But given his track record of late, it might make sense for Klein to settle into the job rather than look for the next opportunity. “I'm committed to running [in November] and running for re-election,” Klein says, when asked if he's willing to pledge to stay in the office for a while if he wins. “I think this job is important.”