The Teacher and the Student: Mike Coleman and Shannon Hardin

Mike Coleman is the most successful Black political leader in Columbus history. His career provided a road map for his protégé, Shannon Hardin. Then the world changed.

Dave Ghose
Columbus Monthly
Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin and former Mayor Mike Coleman

The two men stand next to one another, each dressed in blue suit jackets and white shirts, standard politician attire. One is the 66-year-old former mayor of Columbus, the first Black man to fill the role, whose 16-year tenure transformed the city. The other is his 33-year-old protégé, the first Black gay man to serve as City Council president, whose career is still taking shape.

Mike Coleman holds a glossy publication commemorating his City Hall years. The document records his many mayoral achievements (job growth, financial stability, a Downtown renaissance), and he and Shannon Hardin, the man who’s replaced him as City Hall’s top Black political leader, enjoy looking through its 25 pages, laughing and reminiscing in the empty City Council chambers. This is now the home turf of Hardin, council’s leader since January 2018, but he tends to defer to his elder on this Wednesday morning in March. Even in his post-City Hall days, Coleman commands a room, and Hardin, who’s been learning from Coleman since childhood, is used to letting him lead.

“This is the glitzy stuff people will remember the most,” Coleman says, stopping at a page devoted to Downtown redevelopment (new parks, new housing, new vitality).

Hardin notices an item about the defunct Neighborhood Pride program, weeklong outreach efforts in which city leaders descended on neighborhoods to encourage home fix-ups and host free-flowing town halls. He suggests bringing back the initiative. He says it could benefit neighborhoods that feel disconnected from City Hall. “It was good politics and good policy,” Hardin says.

Inspiration is a hot commodity at City Hall right now. The racial justice protests of 2020 have upended civic priorities, energized the public and forced Hardin and his colleagues to take on one of the most intractable issues in municipal government: police reform. With the stakes so high, good ideas are in demand, and it makes sense that Hardin would do what he’s always done: look for guidance in the career and wisdom of the man who’s defined political power in Columbus for a generation, especially for Black leaders. It makes sense that Hardin would ask: What would Mike Coleman do?

It’s an interesting question, but it might not be the right one for this moment.

***

Coleman’s rise to power didn’t have history on its side.

Mike Coleman in 1981

While cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, Atlanta and Chicago elected their first Black mayors in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Columbus’ political power structure remained almost entirely white. Black Columbus politicians captured seats in the Ohio General Assembly and on the Columbus Board of Education and Columbus City Council, but the mayor’s office remained out of reach. African American leaders were handicapped by a smaller Black population in Columbus than in many other similarly sized cities, as well as a reluctance from both white voters and the white business community to support Black candidates.

This dynamic was perhaps best captured in 1981, when Ben Espy, a relatively unknown Black lawyer and former Ohio State football player, was elected to City Council. The Democrat benefited from a TV ad featuring an endorsement from perhaps the most influential man in Columbus—Espy’s former coach Woody Hayes. The ad also was notable for another reason: Espy wasn’t in it. Rather than risk offending white voters, Espy’s campaign advisers chose to hide his skin color. Two years later, in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch, Espy’s media consultant, Jerry Austin, credited the decision with helping his client score key votes in neighborhoods such as the South Side and Northland. Bigotry was an ugly and unavoidable reality of the Columbus electorate. “I hope it changes,” Austin said.

To capture the mayor’s office in 1999, Coleman needed to blaze a new path. The then-Columbus City Council president did have a few advantages that earlier Black leaders lacked: a more progressive and diverse electorate, statewide exposure from the 1998 gubernatorial race (he was Democrat Lee Fisher’s running mate) and the strong backing of the Franklin County Democratic Party, which appreciated his team-oriented 1997 council campaign that helped the party win an additional seat on the panel.

Ben Espy (left) congratulates Mike Coleman (right) after Coleman received the Democratic Party endorsement to run for Columbus mayor.

What’s more, Coleman had a different profile than an earlier generation of Black Columbus politicians. He was no firebrand, like Columbus Board of Education member and failed mayoral candidate Bill Moss, nor was he a cutthroat combatant like former City Council President Jerry Hammond, whose battles with Republican Mayor Buck Rinehart in the 1980s were legendary. “When you have a Black person who’s not a renegade or schlepping for Black power, it’s a nice look, particularly in that period,” says former Columbus Urban League leader Sam Gresham.

To be sure, Coleman focused on the Black community, earning praise and admiration while on City Council for his advocacy for neglected neighborhoods. But he did it in a different way than his political forebears, including his mentor, Espy, who faced off against Coleman in the 1999 mayoral race. Coleman was more collaborative, careful, cautious—and he didn’t scare the Columbus business and civic establishment, as evidenced by his endorsement from The Columbus Dispatch, the first time the then-Wolfe-owned paper had backed a Democrat in a mayoral race since the early 20th century.

As the 1999 mayoral campaign progressed, it turned into something of a generational choice. Coleman’s relative youth contrasted with his two veteran rivals—Espy and Franklin County Commissioner Dorothy Teater. They had more polish, experience and name recognition (especially early in the race). And Coleman struggled to get his message across in media interviews, as well as in an early debate. “Ben mopped the floor with me,” Coleman recalls. But he made up for those weaknesses with energy, enthusiasm and old-school, press-the-flesh campaigning. “If there was a garage sale, you had a good chance of Mike Coleman showing up,” says Mike Brown, a Coleman campaign staffer who went on to work with him at City Hall for a decade.

Coleman had the elusive quality Columbus Black leaders had sought for decades: crossover appeal. His inclusive message and style resonated with independents, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, even some Republicans—sort of a Central Ohio version of the coalition Barack Obama used to claim the White House nine years later. This strength revealed itself during the primary. Many expected Teater, a Republican, to win easily since she was competing against two Democrats in an officially nonpartisan primary in which the two top vote-getters advance to the general election. But Coleman finished with 39 percent of the vote, ahead of Teater’s 37 percent and Espy’s 24 percent. In the general, Coleman absorbed most of Espy’s voters and clobbered Teater by 20 points.

As mayor, Coleman’s vision expanded. He ran for office on a platform focused on revitalizing neglected neighborhoods, but by 2002, he also started pushing for Downtown redevelopment, which became his most high-profile achievement. After winning a second term without any opposition, Coleman began to shed his reputation for caution. “I think he felt he had more wingspan to be bolder and to start doing things that may not have been as politically safe,” says former Columbus Dispatch associate publisher Mike Curtin, who served two terms as a Democrat in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Mike Coleman visits a hair salon in 2007 to talk about the importance of voting in elections.
Mike Coleman in 2015

Coleman changed both the physical and cultural landscape of the city. He didn’t invent public-private partnerships in Columbus, but he seemed to perfect them. He worked with business leaders on complicated and often contentious projects such as the City Center Mall takeover, the Hollywood Casino site relocation, the city income tax increase, the Scioto Mile riverfront park and the Nationwide Arena bailout. Some projects didn’t work out—such as the 2008 streetcar plan and a 2013 failed Columbus schools levy—but few seemed to hold those failures against him because he had accomplished so much. The FBI launched an investigation into the sale of his home in his final term in office, but the probe didn’t lead to any criminal charges. He remained remarkably scandal-free despite his longevity.

As he left office, Coleman’s legacy was ensured. He helped birth “modern-day Columbus,” says Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer. He fostered a culture of collaboration among the city’s political and civic establishment, and his brand of business-friendly, moderately progressive politics became the template for the city’s political leadership, including white leaders such as his mayoral successor, Andy Ginther, and Franklin County Commissioner John O’Grady.

That last detail underscores an underappreciated Coleman accomplishment: When he left City Hall, he was celebrated as a great leader. Period. No racial qualifier necessary. “Michael understood if Columbus was going to thrive, and if Black people were going to benefit, then he had to look at all communities,” says U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty.

Mike Coleman after a short send-off program on his last day as mayor in 2015
***

Through his mother, Shannon Hardin got an up-close view of Coleman’s City Hall. Kennetha Hardin worked as an administrative assistant for Coleman at both City Council and in the mayor’s office. A single mom, Kennetha often would bring her children to City Hall, and many staffers (especially Coleman) took to her son Shannon, who impressed them with his good manners, intelligence and inquisitive nature. The mayor would give young Shannon errands and assignments to complete: deliver an envelope to City Auditor Hugh Dorrian, photocopy a report. Sometimes, Hardin would read the documents and ask questions about them, even when he was as young as 12. “You could just tell, at a very young age, he wanted to be in the arena,” Coleman says.

Shannon Hardin (bottom left) visiting his mother, Kennetha Hardin, at the Columbus City Council office in the late 1990s

Public policy became a passion as Hardin grew older. While at Columbus Alternative High School, Hardin and another student, Tyneisha Harden, proposed changing state law to allow 17-year-olds to help out as poll workers on Election Day. The pair took their idea, developed for their Advanced Placement government class, to then-Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty in 2004, and she shepherded the change through the legislature. Their efforts resulted in Youth at the Booth, a program offered all across Ohio that’s given tens of thousands of high school seniors a chance to serve as poll workers. “Shannon hates when I say this, but it was the first time I realized he would probably be my boss for most of my life in some capacity,” says Harden, who now serves as a legislative aide for Columbus City Councilmember Shayla Favor.

Hardin kept coming back to City Hall, too, completing internships in high school and college. During one, Coleman offered him a job after he finished at Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. Hardin took Coleman up on his offer, and the mayor named him his community affairs coordinator in 2010. “I saw something unique about him,” Coleman says. “I knew there was a specialness in him.”

Indeed, Hardin has a unusual perspective. He’s a city kid who grew up in the Southfield neighborhood of Columbus, but as a child, he’d spend every other weekend in rural Kentucky, where his father raised quarter horses on a 100-acre farm. Hardin is a proud progressive, but both his father and his grandmother, Marie Hardin, were Republicans. That personal bipartisanship has continued into adulthood: Hardin says his husband, Ben Zachrich, is a Republican, too.

Hardin also has experienced tragedy in his life; his father died during his freshman year of college, while an older sister, Shena, died of a heart problem days after giving birth to her son, Christian, who’s now being raised by Hardin’s mother with help from Shannon and the rest of his family.

During his four years as a Coleman staffer, Hardin impressed the mayor even further. Much to Hardin’s chagrin, Coleman started calling him “Baby Barack.” It was a bit of a joke, a way for Coleman to needle his protégé. But the sentiment behind the nickname was real. “He was talented far beyond his years,” Coleman says. “And he had this charisma that I recognized, and he probably did not.” Coleman says Hardin has the capacity to “be molded into a role far higher than I will ever achieve.” Yet that isn’t what Hardin wants. He’s adamant that his political ambition stops at City Hall.

Shannon Hardin at the 2018 Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade with his husband, Ben Zachrich

In 2014, the resignation of Troy Miller created an opening on City Council. Flying back to Columbus from a U.S. Conference of Mayors event, Coleman and Hardin discussed whether he should make the leap from a behind-the-scenes role to elected office. Coleman wanted him to seize the opportunity; Hardin had doubts.

“I’m young,” Hardin said.

“I know you’re young, Shannon.”

“I’m young, and I’m Black.”

“I know you’re young and Black.”

Finally, Hardin gave the full explanation. “I’m young, and I’m Black, and I’m gay.”

Hardin’s sexual orientation wasn’t a secret, but the two had never spoken about it before. After pausing for a few seconds, Coleman responded. “That’s why you should do it. That’s why you should step up. This city is growing and becoming more diverse, and people need to see themselves in their representatives.”

The conversation provided the validation Hardin needed. He realized his story wasn’t a weakness; it was an asset. “Columbus was ready,” Hardin says.

***

For all of Coleman’s 16 years as mayor, he hung in his City Hall office a framed photo of Margaret Dean, his great-grandmother. Dean was born into slavery in 1839 and died in 1941 at the age of 102. The photo shows Dean sitting on the front porch of a Kentucky farm, circa 1930. In the background is a faint outline of a relative in a doorway holding a small child, Coleman’s father, John. Coleman didn’t give chapter and verse to all visitors to his office about the significance of the image. But it was important to him for everyone to see his great-grandmother—a visual reminder of his heritage.

That photo reveals how Coleman navigated race during his tenure: always there, but not always at the fore. He didn’t avoid the topic; he’d speak out on racial issues when they arose, in public or, more frequently, in private. His unique status as the city’s first African American mayor also required a delicate dance. “I know for a fact that there was fear among some that the first Black mayor would do only things for Black people and not anyone else,” he says.

Mike Coleman with a photograph of his great-grandmother, Margaret Dean

So how could Coleman support his Black base without potentially offending the city’s white majority? He came up with a semantic solution: He avoided the word “Black.” He championed “neglected neighborhoods,” launched programs with “urban” in their names (the Urban Growth Corp. and the Urban Infrastructure Recovery Fund) and invested millions in inner-city neighborhoods such as the King-Lincoln District, Weinland Park, American Addition, Southern Orchards and Franklinton. While Downtown and other high-profile initiatives attracted most of the publicity, he says these neighborhood-based projects were the most meaningful to him, a continuation of the work that made his reputation while on City Council. He called this his “urban agenda.” In reality, it was a “Black agenda”—except he couldn’t say that. To “bring people in the tent and keep them in the tent,” Coleman needed to watch his words carefully.

But was his surreptitious Black agenda enough? While the overall Columbus economy thrived during the Coleman years, the city’s poverty rate—higher than most other comparable cities, according to a 2016 Columbus Foundation study—didn’t change much. And much of that inequity was in Columbus’ predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Coleman also has a mixed record on the racially charged issue of police reform. In his first term as mayor, with a U.S. Justice Department civil rights lawsuit hanging over the Columbus Division of Police, Coleman established several significant changes: adding cruiser cameras, increasing officer training, collecting data on race and gender during traffic stops and beefing up the internal affairs bureau. But that initial flurry was a bit of an anomaly, and reforms became much rarer in his later years in office.

During his nine years on Columbus City Council, Kevin Boyce tried at least three times to establish some form of civilian disciplinary oversight of the Columbus police. Each time, Coleman rejected the idea. “We weren’t on the same page about police reform,” says Boyce, now a Franklin County commissioner. Coleman says his views on a civilian review board evolved over time, and he twice unsuccessfully pushed for one during closed-door contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, which represents the Columbus police. “I thought it was a necessary thing to do, but I didn’t have a burning platform, and I didn’t have people demanding it,” Coleman says.

The same can’t be said for Shannon Hardin.

***

On May 30, five days after the killing of George Floyd, Columbus police pepper-sprayed a crowd of protesters gathered near Broad and High in Downtown Columbus. In the crowd were the top three Black elected officials in Columbus—Beatty, Boyce and Hardin. Columbus Dispatch photographer Kyle Robertson captured the chaotic scene, and his images became some of the most iconic of the city’s season of racial discontent.

Shannon Hardin (at left, pointing) after being pepper-sprayed by police during a Downtown protest last May. With him are Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce (center) and Congresswoman Joyce Beatty (back turned).

After recovering from a direct shot of pepper spray to the face, Hardin phoned Coleman. Hardin was furious, telling the former mayor that officers overreacted. He said he was going to say so publicly. No cautious let’s-wait-and-see statement, the typical response from a Columbus politician. If he didn’t speak out, Hardin believed it would invalidate his leadership, and the public would lose trust. Coleman’s response? “He thought I had lost my mind,” Hardin says. Coleman told Hardin to think carefully and avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Later, the former mayor sent Hardin a text, urging him to put “anger into action” and “pain into policy.” Says Coleman: “He had some good ideas.”

A day later, Hardin and Beatty called for a civilian review board, urging the Ginther administration to push for one in upcoming contract negotiations with the FOP. Ginther and other city leaders quickly backed the idea. Over the next several weeks, City Council hosted a series of public hearings on police reform. The response was off the charts. For instance, a June 30 virtual hearing lasted six hours and attracted 906 written comments and 69 speaker testimonies. In July, council approved several new pieces of legislation: a no-knock warrant ban, adding hate-group affiliations to background checks for officers and putting on the November 2020 ballot an amendment to the city charter for a civilian review board, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters.

Then, on Dec. 22, Columbus police officer Adam Coy shot and killed Andre Hill, a 47-year-old, unarmed Black man. The killing attracted national headlines, and Coy was charged with murder. In response, council approved “Andre’s Law,” which allows authorities to file charges against police officers who fail to turn on body cameras or render first aid to citizens injured by police. Council also funded the initial steps for creating a new alternative response bureau. This new unit, expected to roll out over the next few years, will handle nonemergency situations, as well as mental health and addiction calls. Hardin says that if such a unit was in place last December, Hill might not have died, because the original call to police was a noise complaint.

Columbus City Council president Shannon Hardin

The racial justice protests and their legislative aftermath have shined a light on Hardin. His rise has been quick at council. After just two years on the panel, he was elected president over his more experienced colleague Priscilla Tyson in a contentious January 2018 vote. Throughout his time on council, he’s earned praise for his diligence, inclusive leadership and wonkish command of public policy, particularly in transportation and urban planning. But like other council presidents in recent years, the Democratic domination of City Hall has made it difficult for him to make a significant mark: He doesn’t have a mayor of the opposite party to push against to draw attention to his ideas. He also has made a few missteps. Shortly after joining council, he accepted a junket from lobbyist John Raphael, who was later sentenced to federal prison on extortion charges. Then, during their 2018 battle over the council presidency, Tyson accused Hardin of lying about graduating from Morehouse in 2009. Back in 2018, Hardin said he learned three years earlier he was one credit short of graduation and received his degree from Morehouse in 2016 after earning his final credit from Franklin University.

When thousands took to the streets this summer, the protests gave Hardin a huge opportunity. And challenge. Coleman likes to say he saw everything during his 16 years at City Hall (often two or three times). Well, he never saw this: a racial reckoning, combined with a record-setting surge in homicidal violence and, oh yeah, a global pandemic. No Coleman template exists for this unprecedented moment.

That’s a lot of weight to put on a relatively untested legislator. And there’s no shortage of advice out there for Hardin: push harder, pull back, speak louder, watch your words, take command, share the stage. At times, he’s done a little bit of all those things. In September, he joined with three council colleagues to table a proposal that would have reduced the police department’s helicopter fleet from six to four and put limits on the use of chemical agents and military gear, angering progressives. Earlier this year, he attempted (unsuccessfully) to cut funding for a new police recruit class, drawing public pushback from Ginther and the police department. Hardin says the moment demands “radical transparency”—in other words, letting an increasingly engaged public see up close the legislative process, including disagreements and differences.

Even if it isn’t always a pretty sight, Hardin’s work is earning high marks across the spectrum, from the top of the power structure to the grassroots. Fischer, the Columbus Partnership CEO, praises Hardin for his curiosity, independent thinking and outreach. “I’ve felt like he’s come into his own, and he hasn’t shrunk from the responsibility.” Community activist Jasmine Ayres says he’s begun to find his voice. “What he thinks is possible has grown and expanded.”

***

The two men sit next to each other, each in a rolling chair in City Council chambers. One is the teacher, a wise man of Columbus politics, whose imprint is all over the city. The other is the student, a high-achieving upstart, whose moment has arrived.

As they talk, the roles reverse. The student, Hardin, speaks about what he’s learned from an unusual outreach effort he launched two years ago while the teacher, Coleman, listens quietly. Back then, inspired by a conversation he had with the activist Ayres, Hardin began calling the families of every homicide victim in Columbus under the age of 25. Hardin says the difficult conversations ground him, make the harrowing statistics of the past year real. The city set a murder record in 2020 and is off to a horrific start this year as well. “I didn’t have to read in the paper that our homicide numbers are up because I’m having those conversations,” Hardin says.

Shannon Hardin (left) and Mike Coleman

Hardin wants to let the families know that “someone Downtown sees them and cares about their pain.” The calls help him understand the weight of his job, the city’s failures and the hurt of victims. Sometimes, the parents bring up policy issues or guns, but mostly the conversations are more personal. He says he’s not sure if the calls are beneficial to the families.

“I guarantee it is; it has to be,” Coleman says. “To have the president of council call a parent or family member about the death of their son or daughter—they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives. Keep doing it.”

A role reversal also occurs when Hardin and Coleman pose for a photo in front of the council president’s desk. A gavel sits on the desk, and Coleman notices the handle faces him.

He turns it to face Hardin.

***

The Pioneers

These leaders paved the way for Columbus’ current Black political establishment.

The Rev. James Poindexter

The pastor of Second Baptist Church became the first Black man elected to Columbus City Council in 1880, a decade after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. He was an abolitionist, an Underground Railroad conductor, a champion for Black schoolchildren and the namesake of Poindexter Village, the city’s first public housing complex.

Constance Nichols

The Ohio State graduate co-founded the Vanguard League in 1940, which emerged as an influential civil rights organization in Columbus during a period in which Black people lacked political power. The Vanguard League helped desegregate Columbus movie theaters and restaurants, secured jobs for African American women at Columbus’ Curtiss-Wright plant and pushed for racial equality in the Columbus school district.

Dr. John Rosemond

In 1914, Columbus voters approved a city charter that eliminated the old City Council ward system, a change that made it impossible for Black citizens to win elected office at City Hall for decades. Rosemond, a respected physician, became the first Black man to win an at-large council spot in 1969, overcoming the political obstacle. Rosemond served three council terms and ran for mayor in 1975, losing to incumbent Tom Moody in a lopsided race.

Jerry Hammond

Before the emergence of Mike Coleman, Hammond was the city’s most significant Black political leader. He served 16 years on Columbus City Council, including six as the city’s first African American council president. He was beloved for his style, confidence, charisma and political savvy. He battled fiercely in the political arena—especially with Columbus Mayor Buck Rinehart—but he also groomed a new generation of leaders known as “Jerry’s kids.”

Bill Moss

In a town that loves to get along, the shoe-pounding, camouflage-wearing, five-term Columbus Board of Education member refused to play the collegial game—and was the scourge of the city’s civic establishment as a result. In the mid-2000s, music lovers rediscovered his pre-politics record label, Capsoul, including his song “Sock it to ‘em Soul Brother,” the perfect epitaph for the iconoclastic and fearless Moss.

Ben Espy

The former Ohio State running back made his mark at both City Hall and the Statehouse. After 10 years on Columbus City Council, he was appointed in 1992 to the Ohio Senate, where he eventually rose to become minority leader. His 1991 run for mayor was a significant moment in local Black history. He didn’t win, but his strong showing proved that a Black candidate had a real shot, paving the way for his protégé Coleman’s successful campaign eight years later.

Jennette Bradley

Columbus has a long tradition of Black Republicans—U.S. District Judge Robert Duncan and the Rev. Leon Troy Sr., a close Rinehart ally, to name two. In 1991, Jennette Bradley—a moderate, business-friendly Republican—became the first African American woman elected to Columbus City Council, and though she was in the minority during her time on the Democratic-controlled legislative body, she emerged as its most popular member. In 1999, Bradley was the leading vote-getter among eight candidates for four council seats. In 2003, Bradley was elected Ohio lieutenant governor, and Republicans have never been able to regain a seat at City Hall since.