Seven Questions: Franklin County Commissioner Erica Crawley on her Rapid Political Rise
The county's newest elected leader discusses her legislative priorities.
Back in early 2018, Erica Crawley was a long shot to win her first bid for public office. A political newbie and a relative newcomer to Columbus, she faced a sitting member of the Columbus Board of Education in the Democratic primary for Ohio House District 26. But Crawley beat those tough odds, earning more than twice as many votes as rival Michael Cole. She then went on to win the heavily Democratic district on Columbus’ East Side.
This summer, Crawley pulled off another upset. When Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown resigned in May 2020, Crawley decided to seek an appointment to fill the seat. Again, she faced a more experienced and well known rival, but Crawley prevailed once more, earning the appointment over Columbus City Councilmember Liz Brown in a 63-54 vote of the Franklin County Democratic Party Central Committee.
That June 24 decision was a coming-out party of sorts for Crawley, but she was already on the rise before the victory, with some local political hands even floating her as a potential candidate for Columbus mayor down the road. What makes Crawley stand out is her unique perspective. She’s a Youngstown native and a single mother who’s overcome tremendous hardships in her life, as the late Columbus Dispatch political reporter Jim Siegel described in a 2019 profile of Crawley. That background seems to resonate with both voters and her fellow political leaders. Prior to the central committee vote, the two other Franklin County commissioners, Kevin Boyce and John O’Grady, endorsed Crawley, who will fill the final 18 months of Marilyn Brown’s term and run in next year’s primary and general election.
“I talk about being a single mom,” says Crawley, who was sworn in as a commissioner in early July. “I talk about being someone who struggles with depression and anxiety. I talk about being in a situation where I have been laid off from my job, and housing was an issue, and food insecurity was an issue. I’m not from politics. I didn’t grow up in this space. All I know is that I care about people who come from that same experience and feel like they don’t have a voice.”
Recently, Columbus Monthly spoke to Crawley about her new job, her legislative priorities, her relationship with fellow commissioners and balancing running for reelection with taking the bar exam. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
You've said that affordable housing should be the nation's No. 1 priority. What can you as a county commissioner do to address the issue?
We do need to have a regional housing strategy, and I know MORPC has worked on that, and I know the county has housing priorities in different agencies, and it's a little disjointed from what I've learned so far. As commissioners, we can centralize that effort, bring in someone, maybe a consultant or someone internally, who can lead that steering committee and bring in other internal and external stakeholders working with our local electeds—from the city of Columbus, the suburbs, township trustees, as well as our housing partners, to really look at what is impacting housing.
Do you see an opportunity for police reform in connection to the Franklin County sheriff’s office?
Absolutely. Obviously, the sheriff is a wholly separate elected [position], but as commissioners, we approve the budget. So we are having conversations about police reform and the budget. One thing we heard yesterday is a need for a social service agency to work with our sheriff's department that will go out and handle some of those calls when we're dealing with the opioid crisis, which we know is a huge problem here in the county, or addressing mental health crises instead of having just a sheriff go out.
We also know that body cameras are an issue. We saw that with Casey Goodson Jr., that the sheriff’s deputy did not have on a body camera. As county commissioners, we are approving the budget and setting aside money for body cameras. So I think that's where we have a say.
Do you have a timetable for when you expect to see body cameras on sheriff’s deputies?
I don't have a personal timetable that I've spoken with the commissioners about just yet, but I would like to see that within the next six months.
How are you managing your relationships with the other commissioners? It’s a lot different than the Ohio House, where there were so many legislators.
I'm excited about working with a smaller group of people. My relationships with Commissioner O'Grady and Commissioner Boyce have already started off really, really great. They both are familiar with the work that I've done in the legislature. I am one that communicates a lot and asks a lot of questions but then also offers my advice and insight, even before I got the appointment. And they've been open to hearing from me.
As you’ve shifted from representing a district to the entire county, are you changing your approach and priorities?
I won't change my priorities. I think what will change, when it comes to my work, is I've never really spent a lot of time on the West Side and the Southwest Side and some of our townships. I had two townships in my [House] district, Truro and Madison, but it will require me to spend more time on the other side of the county and then spend time in our rural areas so they can know who I am, that I'm interested in their concerns.
You’re a Capital Law School graduate and you were working as a law clerk when you decided to run for the Ohio House, but did you actually ever get to practice law?
I have not. I took the bar while I was campaigning and didn't pass. So, I plan on taking the bar next February. That's my goal, so I can get my license. I would love to practice.
You’re going to take the bar while working as commissioner and running for election in 2022?
[Laughs] The thought is that I will, but we'll see how this campaign goes. One thing for certain is I might not always have the opportunity to run for office. So my priority is retaining my seat on the board of commissioners.