Joyce Beatty Seizes the Political Moment After Years of Honing Bipartisan Skills

A political bridge-builder seizes the moment.

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
Joyce Beatty

In early November, Joyce Beatty stood in a hallway in the U.S. Capitol outside a closed-door meeting of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Behind the door, members of the left-wing group of lawmakers debated whether voting for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill would destroy the group’s leverage on a separate, trickier—and to the progressives, even more desirable—$1.85 trillion social welfare package. Until now, the group had demanded that both bills move to a vote in tandem, but progress had stalled, hung up on disagreements between factions within the party.

While the fifth-term Congresswoman from Columbus stood calmly in the hallway, tapping away on her phone, Axios’ Andrew Solender live-tweeted the apparent standoff. “To recap,” he wrote. “Beatty came to the Progressive Caucus meeting, but they haven’t decided to let her in. … She was asked to move away from the door to clear foot traffic. It’s been about 25 minutes, and she’s still waiting.” Reporters gathered to watch the spectacle.

Related:Tariq Tarey on Photographing Columbus U.S. Rep Joyce Beatty

For her part, Beatty didn’t fuss about being excluded. “I’m not worried about anything,” Solender quoted her as saying. “These are my colleagues in there, and friends.” After she waited patiently for about 90 minutes, the progressives finally let her in.

Beatty hoped to break the legislative logjam and deliver President Biden and the Democrats a much-needed win by decoupling the two spending packages. She’d hammered out the compromise that morning in a brainstorming session in the Capitol’s Lincoln Room with Democratic Whip James Clyburn and a small group of top Black congressional leaders, as well as majority leader Steny Hoyer. The deal called for pairing the infrastructure bill, which would provide jobs, clean water and broadband to areas in need, with a procedural vote assuring progressives that the social welfare bill would reach the floor before Thanksgiving. It also promised moderates that they would get a better indication from the Congressional Budget Office as to whether the nation’s coffers could handle the extraordinary cost. Beatty called Pelosi from the meeting, and the speaker gave the plan the green light.

“I felt we’d come too far to lose,” Beatty tells Columbus Monthly three days after the vote. “Sometimes you have to take that first step, even if you can’t see the whole staircase.”

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Pelosi asked Beatty to announce the plan, leading The New York Times to speculate that the speaker may have thought the well-liked leader of the powerful Black caucus was the emissary who could best persuade the progressives to get on board. It seems to have been a shrewd move. At 11:20 that night, the House passed the infrastructure bill 228-206, with the support of 13 Republicans. Only six Democrats voted against it.

To be the fulcrum on which this trillion-dollar behemoth turned was remarkable for Beatty, whose trademark passion for civility and cooperation has been viewed as out of step in a divided and bitter political climate. But on this day, it seemed Beatty’s bipartisanship skills, developed during her decades of public service, had become useful for another purpose: managing divisions within her own party. It’s a job—and a moment—she’s been preparing for all her life.

Beatty has Positioned Herself Between Traditional and Activist-Based Politics

Things looked a bit different for Beatty two years ago. Her first-ever primary challenger, Morgan Harper, was well-funded and endorsed by the Justice Democrats, the progressive PAC that helped elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other members of the so-called “Squad” in 2018. During the campaign, Harper, a 37-year-old Black woman who began her life in foster care, accused Beatty, who sits on the House Committee on Financial Services, of raising too much money from corporations. She also charged Beatty and her husband, Otto Beatty Jr., with “brokering behind-the-scenes real-estate deals that are gentrifying our communities.” (Harper, who is now running for the U.S. Senate, declined to be interviewed for this article.) Beatty fought back, criticizing Harper as a johnny-come-lately candidate who drew more contributions from out of state than locally. Despite her modest roots, Harper had gone on to attend Columbus Academy, Tufts, Stanford and Princeton; had worked in the Obama administration and had only recently returned to Columbus.

Beatty was undeniably favored in the race, but when in-person voting was canceled due to the pandemic and turnout in the state’s first mail-only election was uncertain, some of her supporters were worried. In the end, she still won handily, garnering 68 percent to Harper’s 32 percent. Beatty says her experience resonated with voters.

Beatty and Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin after being pepper-sprayed at a Downtown protest in May 2020. Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce is behind Beatty.

A month after the election, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, and millions of Americans took to the streets in protest, dramatically altering the politics of race in America. Beatty threw herself into the fray. In June, she got a face-full of pepper spray from a Columbus police officer while participating in a Downtown protest. And more recently, Beatty flew back to Washington during the Congressional recess to lend her support to Rep. Cori Bush, a progressive newcomer who had won her seat by defeating an incumbent member of the Black Congressional establishment. In a decidedly nontraditional move, Bush was camping out on the Capitol steps to pressure the Biden administration to extend the pandemic moratorium on evictions.

Beatty with members of the Congressional Black Caucus

While Democrats were struggling to maintain a fragile balance between traditional liberals who had been in the trenches for decades and progressive newcomers impatient with the slow pace of change, Beatty, the daughter of a Dayton brickmason who was the first in her family to go to college, was asserting her bona fides as a liberal and a defender of the voiceless. It’s an essential part of her high-profile role in national politics these days. In December 2020, her peers elected Beatty the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, making her one of Washington’s most influential Black leaders.

But it’s a fragile balance for Beatty as well. Known for her polished style, she is today a wealthy woman who married into Columbus’ Black elite and counts as friends such titans as billionaire Les Wexner and other members of the powerful Columbus Partnership.

Beatty with her husband Otto in 2007.

“Beatty has been incredible in terms of reading this political moment and the transitions that are happening in Black politics,” says Wendy Smooth, a professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies and political science at Ohio State. “She has been able to position herself between a kind of traditional politics, where she’s thinking about institutional equity in terms of finance and banking and entrepreneurship as it relates to communities of color in Central Ohio,” Smooth observes, “and at the same time be able to … position herself as a leader in activist-based and protest-based politics.” Beatty’s role as chair of the CBC, Smooth points out during a prescient conversation just a few days before the infrastructure vote, “has accelerated her ability to do both of those things.”

Beatty's Life Lesson: Be Bold, Take Risks, Look the Part

Beatty learned to negotiate diverse environments early in life. She spent her youngest years living in a Black neighborhood of Dayton on a street where many of her neighbors were family—and others were almost family. But when she was about to enter third grade, her Sunday school teacher persuaded her parents that she was a talented student and needed a better school than the one in her neighborhood. Her father managed to save enough money to move the family to a white neighborhood, paying $7,000 in cash for the home.

“There was a backyard with a hill!” Beatty recalls. “There was a driveway where three cars could park behind each other. It was, for us, the prettiest thing we’d ever seen.”

But Beatty also remembers a trash can burning on her lawn, and a neighbor who used the N-word and wouldn’t allow her daughter to play with the Black newcomers. Beatty’s mother was protective but also realistic. “She said, ‘Look, this is gonna happen.’ And she didn’t make a big deal about it. She sat down and explained to me that there were good people and bad people … and that mother who lived behind us was not a nice person. And that’s why you should be nice.”

Beatty comes from a long line of spirited women. Her grandmother, family tradition holds, once put on a homemade dress that duplicated an outfit in the window of a fancy shop in downtown Dayton that didn’t cater to Black people. As the story goes, she recruited her brother to wear a bellhop’s uniform, commandeer his employer’s car while it was being serviced, and drive her to the shop, where she reveled in the confused looks on the faces of the salesgirls. “She called it ‘dressing up and playing white,’” Beatty chuckles. She doesn’t know if the story is true, although she has verified some details. But she took a lesson from it: Be bold, take risks and always do your best to look the part.

Beatty with former Ohio State University president Gordon Gee in 2009.

Indeed, Beatty’s stylish presentation has become part of her brand. Former Ohio State University president Gordon Gee, known for his massive collection of bow ties, considers her a sartorial soulmate and says that when Beatty worked at the university from 2009 to 2012, whenever he spoke to her on the phone, he would ask what shoes she was wearing. Beatty’s attire made national headlines when she spoke at the 2016 Democratic convention wearing a fitted white dress with bell sleeves that was remarkably similar to one Melania Trump had worn a couple of weeks earlier to speak at the Republican convention. The move was a sly reference to charges that Trump had plagiarized a Michelle Obama speech.

Beatty was coy when news outlets asked her if the dress was exactly the same as Trump’s. “I just know I used my own words when I wore the dress,” she said.

After college and graduate school, Beatty worked in public administration. But it was her marriage to Otto Beatty Jr. in 1992 that set her on a political path. Otto Beatty was a state legislator and a successful lawyer and real estate owner in Columbus, and he came from a prominent Columbus family. His parents owned the Novelty Food Bar, a Long Street restaurant that was an obligatory stop for Black celebrities who visited Columbus. But it was the family’s early civil rights credentials that set them apart. His grandmother, Mayme Moore, was a co-founder of the National Colored Women and was on the stage with Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. “The name Beatty in Columbus is like the name Kennedy in Massachusetts,” says former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, a close friend. “It carries a lot of weight.”

When Otto retired from his legislative office, Joyce was appointed to complete his term. She was subsequently re-elected four times, remaining in the legislature until term limits forced her to leave. When Chris Redfern left his role as House minority leader to focus on chairing the Ohio Democratic Party, Beatty became the first woman—not to mention Black woman—to serve as House Democratic leader. Ray Miller, the publisher of the Columbus African American and a former state lawmaker who was her counterpart in the Ohio Senate, remembers her as bold and outspoken. “She’s courageous,” he says. “She’s not afraid to go for it.”

Beatty speaks on the floor of the Ohio House for the first time, after being sworn in at the Ohio Statehouse in 1999.

Miller and Beatty met weekly with Gov. Ted Strickland to lay out their priorities. If the governor pushed back or disagreed, Miller recalls, Beatty would stand up. “She’d say, ‘Listen, Governor. You would be much better off listening to Sen. Miller. If I have to tell you this one more time, this may not be pretty. … You are much better dealing with Ray Miller than you are having to deal with me.’”

He chuckles. “I just enjoyed it so much, serving with her.”

An unlikely early power base for Beatty was her High Street clothing store, located near the Statehouse, directly across from City Center Mall. The shop, called Pieces for Wear, started out as a hobby—Otto owned the building and rented her the space for a dollar a year. She enjoyed the process of creating and decorating the shop and devising ways to gain customers. She created a partnership with Marshall Field’s where they would offer her customers free gift wrapping to gain foot traffic. She hosted weekly events for political friends in the store. “We would sell out the store,” she says. “We would make enough on that one celebrity-hosted day to carry me the entire month.” For three months prior to the Franklin Park Conservatory’s annual Hat Day, she would fill the store with fancy hats and encourage well-connected friends to let it be known that they’d purchased their Hat Day selection from Beatty. “We would sell close to 1,000 hats,” she recalls. She didn’t sell the store until her first year in Congress.

Asked about her greatest accomplishments in the Statehouse, Beatty points to three things: securing $1 million for the King Arts Complex, passing legislation for gender equity in clinical health trials and becoming the legislature’s first female minority leader. “It’s always about creating a pathway for others,” she says.

When Beatty retired from the legislature, Gee recruited her to the position of senior vice president of outreach and engagement. “Let me tell you: Joyce Beatty is one of those unforgettable people,” says Gee, speaking by phone from University of West Virginia, where he is now president. “I think the world of Joyce.” Gee says she was an extremely effective liaison between the university and communities that it had not built strong relationships with in the past. He says she helped “jump-start” Campus Partners, the community development initiative in the campus district, which was met, early on, with significant neighborhood resistance. “Joyce was just great at getting the right people, pulling them together and helping them to understand what we were doing.”

While Beatty’s $320,000 salary raised eyebrows when it was reported in the press (Beatty points out that it was no more than her colleagues were making), Gee says she was worth every penny. “If you have prima donnas and they can sing, make sure that they sing and that they’re paid for doing so,” he says, “and she certainly did that very well.” Beatty says she loved the job and thought she would spend the rest of her career at OSU.

Beatty Takes a Step Towards the Capitol

It was Mike Coleman’s idea to draft Beatty to run for Congress.

During a meeting in John Boehner’s D.C. office around 2011, the then-U.S. House speaker asked Coleman if he was interested in running for Congress. He wasn’t, but he suggested another possibility. “I immediately said, ‘I know someone who would be great,’” Coleman recalls. “And I mentioned Joyce’s name in that meeting.”

New district lines were being drawn following the 2010 census. Boehner, a Republican, and Coleman, a Democrat, had a mutual interest in creating a compact Democratic district in Columbus, which would also result in the creation of safe Republican districts in the suburbs around the city. Coleman says that once the idea of Beatty for Congress had set in, he couldn’t shake it. He called Gee and, as Gee tells it, they “became a conspiracy of two,” teaming up to persuade her to run.

Alex Fischer, CEO of the Columbus Partnership, joined the recruitment team. He had seen Beatty push his corporate members without alienating them. “Joyce has got a unique ability of punching you in the nose and making you feel good about it,” he says. “I’ve seen her stretch the thinking on policy issues with me, personally, but also with our CEOs. Things that might be stereotypically pro-business or anti-business—Joyce has got a way of bridging the gap between the two.”

Beatty recalls that when Gee asked her to run, she was incredulous. As the only woman and the only person of color in his cabinet, she felt she was doing important work. “Every time I opened my mouth, I talked about women and Black people. And they were listening.” But she told Gee she would talk to Otto. She was sure her husband didn’t want to live in Washington. “So I went home, and I said, ‘You’re never going to believe what happened today.’ And he looked at me for a minute, and said, ‘How wonderful! Of course you said yes!’”

Coleman has a lot of praise for Beatty, but the quality he dwells on most is her ability to relate to people who are having a hard time—including himself. When a nighttime electrical fire forced him and his family from their Berwick home in 2001, he says, Beatty was the first to instinctively understand that despite his brave façade, he was homeless and struggling with basic needs. His kids needed clothes. He needed socks and a shirt to wear to work. “I was mayor. I had to be strong. But Joyce was calling: ‘What do you need? What do you need?’” She brought over some clothes and toiletries to get them through. “And what she did for my family during a challenging time, I’ve seen her do for others in this community.”

Beatty was no shoo-in for the Democratic nomination. The new seat had drawn a lot of interest; Mary Jo Kilroy, who had held the seat in the old district, was running. So was Ted Celeste, the brother of former Gov. Dick Celeste, and Priscilla Tyson, a Black Columbus City Council member.

“I never thought I’d win,” says Beatty, who campaigned tirelessly and benefited from strong support from Coleman and his political machine. Polls told her she was behind. On election day, she wrote one speech: a concession. She never gave it; she won the primary by a margin of 1,479 votes.

Formation of the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus

“Dear Colleague,” runs the 2018 letter. “Reps. Steve Stivers and Joyce Beatty invite you to join the newly formed Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus … dedicated to advancing the need for civil debate and respect for different opinions and beliefs. We can disagree, without being disagreeable. … If we cannot debate respectively, we will fail to find solutions that work for all Americans.”

The initiative begun by the Republican and Democrat from Central Ohio didn’t make a lot of headlines, which at the time were dominated by showdowns between the parties over President Donald Trump’s words and policies. But it was a unique undertaking. Members could not join alone but were required to recruit a partner of the opposing party. Each pair must work to promote civility in both their own and their partner’s district.

Stivers says the idea grew from their own friendship and mutual respect. They first met when he was a lobbyist for Bank One, now part of JPMorgan Chase, and Beatty was in the legislature. Beatty had called him, angry about the fact that the bank took a percentage when people brought in state-issued child support checks to be cashed. They disagreed at first—the bank had not contracted to cash the checks for free—but he understood her point and was able to get the fee waived. A couple of years later, Stivers became a state senator, and the two collaborated on bipartisan issues like cancer research. The relationship continued when both were in Congress. “Joyce helped me a ton during the Obama administration,” says Stivers, who retired last spring and is now the CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, “and I helped her with the Trump administration. We each looked out for each other.”

Today, the Respect and Civility Caucus has 39 members (it’s down a Republican since Stivers’ retirement). It might just be the most bipartisan caucus in Congress.

What's Next for Joyce Beatty?

Beatty at her Downtown condo, filled with art and memorabilia. Beatty sewed tiebacks for the drapes, secured by her late husband’s cufflinks.

Since the sudden and unexpected death of her husband of nearly 30 years in May, Beatty has not really stopped moving. She bought, renovated and decorated her new Downtown condo overlooking the Scioto in a whirlwind, creating a new nest for herself where she is surrounded by photos, memorabilia and art objects from a life lived at the edge of historic changes. “I Was There” is the working title of a memoir she is writing, and in it, she says, she touches not only on the factual events of her life, but on those that inspired her, like the moment Rosa Parks took a seat at the front of the bus. “I was a little girl when Rosa Parks was arrested,” she says. “I was there because that’s when my parents started talking about civil rights, to my recollection, in front of us—because Rosa Parks got arrested, this seamstress, this quiet, beautiful Black woman, and then she dedicated her life to civil rights. I wasn’t physically in the space. But I was there.”

Photos of Beatty’s July 2021 arrest are displayed in her home.

Last summer, Beatty, too, was arrested, her hands zip-tied behind her back, while protesting inside a Senate office building in favor of voting rights legislation that would prevent Republican-controlled states like Ohio from making it harder to vote. “#GoodTrouble,” she tweeted, referencing another hero, Rep. John Lewis, who was arrested many times while demonstrating for civil rights.

It was her second run-in with police in a year, and whether it was calculated or not, it was bold. Beatty might be wealthy and powerful, but she still had work to do, she seemed to be saying.

The earlier, pepper-spraying incident in Downtown Columbus? It was a key moment for the contemporary civil rights movement, says Smooth, the OSU professor. “It was not only effective or important for the ways in which she was managing her representational roles locally, but it was also important for the Black Lives Matter movement nationally. To see this very well-respected Black woman politician be treated in this way [amplified] the claims of the movement that no Black life is protected or safe, regardless of class or educational attainment or stature. That Black bodies are always vulnerable.

“I think—I don’t think, I know—that it endeared her to a whole new generation of younger voters.”

Will Beatty run for a sixth term in 2022? She hasn’t said. She jokes about coveting a role as ambassador to the Bahamas. And it is still unclear how her district, created after the 2010 census, might change in the current round of redistricting. But she’s put herself in a position to have a say in that process. And she’s at the height of her career.

She is there.

This story is from the December 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.