Politics: Rick Pfeiffer's last mosey

Chris Gaitten
City attorney Rick Pfeiffer walks down Parsons Avenue near the United Methodist Church for All People

The Old Franklinton Cemetery is the kind of place most people would miss, all but hidden between light industrial complexes on River Street. It's just a stretch of grass with a smattering of headstones, obscured by trees and a short stone wall. Rick Pfeiffer is standing in front of four modest white markers bearing the names of soldiers from the Revolution and the Civil War. He pauses momentarily and remarks on their historical significance. Then he's off again.

He seems nearly incapable of standing still during the course of today's “mosey”—the habitual jaunts he's taken around the city for as long as he can remember. The goal of moseying is to explore, to learn, to talk to people on the streets. It's primarily a driving tour, everything dictated by the urban landscape. He's the city attorney of Columbus by title, but in practice he's a historian, sociologist and anthropologist.

He slows his silver Honda Civic to a crawl over the Arthur Boke Bridge in Franklinton, imploring our photographer Tim to read the historical marker that offers a tribute to Boke, Columbus's first African-American resident. Then he speeds off. He stops abruptly near a grassy boulevard on Martin Avenue and jumps out to comment on a memorial rock, which marks the area where Gen. William Henry Harrison met with leaders from four Native American tribes to create “permanent peace.” The car glides past Avondale Elementary School; Pfeiffer says it's the most beautiful building in Columbus.

He pulls up to Gleason's Market on Rich Street. He buys packs of 25-cent gum and a lottery ticket while firing questions at the man behind the counter. He's back to the car before the Gleason's clerk has even processed the interaction, wondering why some fast-talking septuagenarian just rushed through his store with a photographer and a writer in his wake. The pace may be accelerated by our presence, but time is also running short. In 67 days, Pfeiffer will retire from office, ending a political career of more than four decades.

Despite all signs to the contrary, Pfeiffer says he once was an introvert. His older sister Patty was the popular one—a cheerleader and a homecoming queen candidate. Pfeiffer, on the other hand, had trouble talking to others while growing up in Clintonville. His friend Tom Winters says he'd overcome it by the time they met in 1973, or at least he'd invented an effective diversion: “He masked his shyness by being very inquisitive.”

To this day, meeting Pfeiffer involves a prerequisite interrogation: Where'd you grow up? Where'd you go to school? What did you study? Where do you live? Where do you work? Do you like it? And on and on. His machine-gun questioning was developed over years of campaigning after he realized people really like talking about themselves. “The beauty of that is, everybody's got a story to tell,” Pfeiffer says.

His own political story stretches decades, notable for its scope, trajectory and his idiosyncratic style. He's a loyal Democrat who isn't afraid to voice opposition to those in his own party. He's an unabashed politician at a time when most people would prefer to be anything else, and yet he's wary of hyper partisanship and the big money flooding into elections. Pfeiffer's political buddies think of him as innovative, but he favors maps and atlases to GPS, TV ads to social media

presence. Yet he threw out his television months ago. Everything about him has an edge—his features angular, his sense of humor wicked, his candor piercing. He's the boy who grew up shy and hasn't stopped talking since.

It all began inauspiciously, after he returned from Vietnam, got married to his wife Janet and enrolled in law school at Ohio State University. In 1970, he walked into the Ohio Democratic Party offices to volunteer; two years later he was appointed majority counsel in the Ohio House of Representatives (“right place, right time, right people,” Pfeiffer says of his ascent). That's where he met Winters, a Statehouse bill room clerk, Aristotle Hutras, a page, and Rich Murray, a legislative intern.

They all were aligned with Vern Riffe, arguably the most powerful Ohio General Assembly Democrat of the 20th century, who became speaker of the House in 1975 and held the job until 1994. He named Pfeiffer his executive assistant and counsel, his chief of staff; Murray says Pfeiffer also became Riffe's confidante. They had contrasting styles, Winters says; Riffe, who died in 1997, was the master of the carrot and stick. Pfeiffer is more direct, seeking to convince people of the merits of the right course of action.

Pfeiffer was a whiz and a workhorse when it came to campaigning, helping Democrats retain the majority they earned in 1972. He decided to strike out on his own in 1979, running for Franklin County prosecutor against Republican Mike Miller. His ambition surprised his friends and probably Riffe as well. Riffe told Pfeiffer he'd have to quit his House position to run for office—his way of telling him not to do it, Pfeiffer figures. Pfeiffer obliged and spent a year campaigning without a job. He lost the race by six-tenths of a percent. Hutras blames the loss on Riffe's lack of support, particularly with fundraising; Pfeiffer thinks he was hurt by the impression he was Riffe's surrogate, his “political boy.”

Pfeiffer re-entered the fray in 1982, winning a landslide victory for the open 15th District seat in the Ohio Senate, previously held by John Kasich. Pfeiffer helped write the collective bargaining bill for public employees, as well as legislation that created a new Franklin County Environmental Court to combat city code violations and confront the owners of run-down properties. Then, in 1991, he won the race to become that court's first judge, spending 11 years using his position—sometimes creatively—to help improve neighborhoods by enforcing housing standards.

In 2003, he was appointed Columbus city attorney, an office with a $14 million budget and 125 full-time staff members. He won re-election later that year and has run unopposed three times since then, until announcing last year he wouldn't seek another term. He plans to retire to Charlotte, where Janet has been spending most of her time with their middle daughter Sonya, their son-in-law and their only grandchild. His retirement was surprising to some, because even at 73 he appears to be brimming with energy. People tell him he still looks 63. He laughs. Like that's any better.

The Honda Civic is zipping along Dublin Road when Pfeiffer sees the billboard: George W. Leach for Judge. He's concerned for Judge Andrea Peeples, his friend and Leach's opponent. She's a good judge, he says, but the Republicans are putting a lot of money into those races this year. Plus, George W. Leach is a good judge's name. Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. knows something about that subject.

When he was running for Senate, he began introducing himself in memorable fashion—Rick Pfeiffer, P-f-e-i-f-f-e-r, that's three Fs—and it caught on, becoming his political brand. His first race had also taught him a valuable lesson about the power of television. He says a Columbus Dispatch poll came out just days before the election, showing him down to Miller 58-42 percent (though he doubted the spread was that wide). His campaign concurrently ran an effective ad during the last 10 days, and he nearly erased the gap. “They've got to like you in the living room,” Pfeiffer says of TV's sway. “Now do they really know who you are? Name is important.”

He's also not averse to running an unconventional campaign, like his race for the environmental court. One evening, he and Republican nominee Charles Schneider took the stage together at a candidates night. People enjoyed the amicable bipartisan tone, so the two candidates continued doing it, never disparaging the other. When Pfeiffer won, Schneider says he sent congratulatory flowers to his opponent's home with a card: “To Frick, from Frack,” the nicknames bestowed upon them during the campaign. When Schneider was appointed to the municipal court a few years later, Pfeiffer nominated him for administrative judge. The two remain friends.

Party affiliations are important in November, Schneider says, but after that, good governance is what matters. Pfeiffer eschews the modern hardliner mentality. Hutras says he sees the influence of Riffe, who would hold court with both Democrats and Republicans at the Red Lion bar under the former Neil House hotel on Capitol Square. Pfeiffer sees the value of dissent in the two-party system, and while he's dismissive of the Republican-held state legislature, he's also concerned by the Democrat-only City Hall, of which he's a member.

“One-party government's not good. I'm a Democrat and I like our city, but … you need more public debate that justifies why you're doing things before you do it,” Pfeiffer says. “General Assembly is one-party rule, but over there, there are Democrats who can ask questions. And there are questions that should always be asked.”

Pfeiffer points out the pavement as he drives through Franklinton. See all the oil spots? People here can't afford to fix their leaking cars, a sign of economic struggle, he says. That oil doesn't accumulate in wealthier areas. Pfeiffer is always observing. He checks the condition of alleys, scans for graffiti. He looks at roofs, foundations, the mortar on chimneys.

He began examining these telltale signs as the judge of the environmental court, where Pfeiffer became known for ditching the robe and bench in favor of sitting across from defendants at a table. His most notable work was cracking down on slumlords, like Stuart Kaplow. In 2001, Pfeiffer ordered Kaplow to live in one of his own run-down apartments until he brought all his nearly 700 units into compliance. Pfeiffer even did a mosey to make sure Kaplow was living there. It earned nationwide media attention and solidified his reputation for creative sentences and solutions.

“I also think it set a benchmark for other landlords: ‘Look, this could happen to you,'” says Bill Hedrick, the case's prosecutor and now Pfeiffer's chief of staff.

Pfeiffer's interest in housing traces to his early campaign days. When he went door to door in areas under economic distress, he was struck by the contagious negative effects of properties that had fallen into blight and decay. Those neighborhoods often tended to be predominantly African-American, due to the city's legacy of redlining and segregation. Mike Curtin, who covered the 1980 prosecutor's race for the Dispatch, says Pfeiffer was always very self-aware of being a “good-looking, blond-haired, Teutonic guy” in a diverse city, cognizant of involving himself in the communites he represented.

In typical fashion, Pfeiffer is blunt: “You're a white Democrat, and you're told you got to go to the black churches.” While it may have been a politically expedient campaign tactic, Pfeiffer never left; even with no more elections to win, he says he still attends those churches. He ingrained himself in the neighborhoods and learned firsthand from residents about the issues—like housing—that matter to them. He wants to hear everything for himself, and he says he's never taken a poll in his career.

His political approach also had meaningful effects on his children: Sacha, Sonya and Seth. In an email, Sonya wrote that through her father's campaigning, “we were exposed to communities and immersed in experiences that most middle-class white kids in Columbus, Ohio, were not,” like services in different churches, playing with children from other socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and eating meals with newly settled immigrants. It gave her a broad perspective on life in Columbus, and life in general.

Pfeiffer wanted to show his work to his kids, he says, but he was hoping for that profound outcome as well. He grew up when segregation was more explicit than today—he was 20 when the Civil Rights Act passed—and he thought Chatham Road in Clintonville was all there was. He wanted his children to realize the world was much bigger than their own neighborhood. “You want them to be tolerant,” he says. “You want them to understand.”

Driving south on Parsons Avenue, Pfeiffer rolls past Nationwide Children's Hospital, commenting on how the ever-expanding campus is altering the area. He heads toward the United Methodist Church for All People, hoping to drop in on his friend, Rev. John Edgar. The church is like a one-stop community center, with a free store of donated goods, a pantry, medical services and a development arm that supports affordable housing. Pfeiffer bursts in and rattles cages until he finds Edgar in an upstairs hallway.

The two men worked together in 2009, in the aftermath of the housing crash, when the neighborhood was on fire. Arsonists were torching vacant buildings in Reeb-Hosack, south of Children's, and as city attorney, Pfeiffer helped local leaders deal with blighted homes targeted by firebugs. He has been present, visible and passionate at a neighborhood level, Edgar says. Pfeiffer listens as his friend sings his praises; he may not be on the ballot anymore, but he's still media savvy.

In 2010, with the housing crisis deepening, Jaiza Page became an assistant city attorney within the zone initiative, a program Pfeiffer created in 2008 to embed attorneys in each of the five police zones. They do ride-alongs, work with code enforcement officers, go to area commission meetings and talk to residents (basically, he created a team of professional moseyers). Page, now a city councilmember, remembers getting together with Pfeiffer, former Mayor Mike Coleman and Boyce Safford, the city's director of development, to discuss the glut of vacant buildings, which had become havens for crime.

In 2012, the mayor's office created the Vacant and Abandoned Property Initiative, with the goal of demolishing 900 such structures within four years. By 2015, VAP had met its goal, and Safford and Coleman say Pfeiffer was instrumental in its success.

Several people also praise Pfeiffer's independence at City Hall, despite the consternation it sometimes caused. Coleman and Dan Williamson, the mayor's former deputy chief of staff for communications, say Pfeiffer told people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. “We didn't always agree, but it was always good to receive a perspective that he didn't shy away from,” Coleman says.

“I think what would be accurate to say is that everyone respects Rick,” Williamson says, “and a lot of people get frustrated by him.” Pfeiffer is autonomous by nature, but it's also essential to his job; the Columbus City Charter made the city's attorney and auditor independently elected roles. Curtin, who also served in the Ohio House, says it's crucial for those officeholders to understand that they don't function as appendages of the mayor or City Council. Hugh Dorrian, the iconic city auditor for the last 48 years, is also retiring at the end of 2017. “[Pfeiffer and Dorrian] are the two Titans,” Hutras says. “Those two guys always had the chutzpah to stand up to anybody.” (In November, Zach Klein won the city attorney's race, and voters elected Megan Kilgore to replace Dorrian. Pfeiffer's friend Judge Peeples won by 33 percent.)

Pfeiffer's old Statehouse friends, reflecting on his retirement, rue that he never held statewide office. He could have been an Ohio Supreme Court justice, Hutras says. He should have been governor, Winters adds. “He'd have driven everybody nuts,” Murray replies.

It's not that Pfeiffer didn't consider it. He did—especially the Ohio attorney general's race in 1990. But he's never enjoyed fundraising, and he's not very good at it, he says. He frequently mentions his discomfort with the increasingly blurred lines of campaign finance and corruption. “People don't give you all that money because they think you're an intellectual, that you're going to give good judgment,” he says. “They want you to do something.”

Plus, there were many evenings away from his wife and kids while he was in the Senate— an empty plate at the dinner table. Janet, a teacher, was never that interested in politics anyway. So he took a gut check in 1990 and decided he couldn't do it. It's all history now, and the kids are grown. Seth runs a community TV station near Boston. Sacha is there too, reporting for the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal (she was played by Rachel McAdams in the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” film). Sonya is a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer in Charlotte, where her father will soon take up residence. No more campaigns, no more Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. with three Fs.

Sacha says those close to her father are wondering what will occupy his time without politics. “How do you make life still feel meaningful, and how do you still feel like you're doing important work?” she asks. “I'm not even sure he knows the answer to that yet.”

After leaving the Church for All People, Pfeiffer heads to the Residences at Career Gateway, a new multifamily complex nearby that was created in part by Community Development for All People, the church's housing arm. It also includes a workforce training center, with hopes it will provide employees to Children's Hospital. The buildings look clean, modern, well-kept. But it's subsidized, like so many residential developments in low-income areas. Ever since Pfeiffer was in the Senate, he's struggled with how to get the private market back into affordable housing. He's served as a mentor to Page—who interned with him during high school—and he's pushing her to use her platform with City Council to figure it out. “This utopian mixed-income is a dream,” he says, “but I don't know if human behavior will get you there.”

He's felt his octane dipping recently, and today is overcast. When he visits the South Side on dreary days, Pfeiffer gets dispirited. Are conditions even improving? The work is slow, the results mixed. It's time to go.

He's already made some retirement plans. He's going to ride bikes with his granddaughter. He's going to try to play the piano. He's going to study Charlotte—go to City Council and school board meetings, walk around the courthouse, attend churches. He's going to mosey. Charlotte's not a grid, though—it has streets that twist and turn and change names. He'll try to figure it out.

Today's mosey has actually been refreshing, despite the weather. His energy is up. “What rejuvenates me is to get out,” he says. And there are signs of hope. Pfeiffer spots new roofs and renovations to homes underway. He drives by The Barrett Apartments, an attractive old school in Merion Village that's been converted into luxury units. People are taking care of these properties—decorative pumpkins adorn the doorsteps. “You got to be a pumpkin observer,” he jokes.

It's time to call it a day. He turns north on Third Avenue. Katzinger's—that's where presidential hopefuls eat when they come to town. He creeps forward in rush-hour traffic. See that church there? It was built in 1865. He hangs a left onto Broad Street and drops us off, with a box of Franklin County atlases and two bags of maps he wants Tim to give to his kids' classmates. Then he's off again—gone.