Mayor Andy Ginther May Not Be the Favorite, But's He's Still a Force to be Reckoned With
Few people consider the Columbus mayor a great leader. But he’s still standing.
Mayors have never had it easy, but the last two years have set a new standard for difficulty. A pandemic, civil unrest, economic uncertainty and polarized politics have put city leaders under unprecedented pressure across the country—and many have had enough. From big cities (Atlanta, St. Louis, Seattle) to smaller communities (Ypsilanti, Michigan; Temecula, California; Pensacola, Florida), mayors are resigning or not seeking reelection.
Andy Ginther isn’t one of them. The Columbus mayor has faced his share of troubles, to say the least, but he says he loves his job today more than ever and is “fully anticipating” seeking a third term in 2023. “I get up every day excited about going to work and love what I do,” Ginther says during a recent interview in his City Hall office.
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That response might surprise some people in Columbus. When you talk to people around town about Ginther, you often hear the same remark: Does he even like being mayor? Ginther’s low-key personality is probably at the root of that comment, especially when compared to his exuberant predecessor, Mike Coleman, whose 16-year mayoral tenure was the longest in Columbus history. “Coleman absolutely loved the limelight,” a political insider says. “Andy’s a different person.”
But the concerns aren’t just about Ginther’s personality. His critics say he’s uninspiring, not as accessible as he should be and lacks the intuitive leadership skills of Coleman. He does get credit for his commitment to social issues such as police reform and tackling economic and health inequities, which he was talking about long before the 2020 racial justice protests. But often the praise is faint. “I don’t think he’s bad for the city,” a nonprofit leader says. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Yet for all the grumbling behind closed doors, Ginther is still standing. He was reelected without opposition in 2019, and at least for the moment, it seems unlikely he’ll face a serious threat in 2023. Though few folks consider him a great mayor, he is unquestionably an effective political operator. “I think the place that Andy is the strongest is in navigating that landscape,” a civic leader says. “I actually think that’s when his leadership shines the most.”
Despite his understated demeanor, Ginther can be punitive. Just ask former Franklin County Sherriff Zach Scott, former Franklin County Recorder Terry Brown and former Franklin County Commissioner Paula Brooks. Or Columbus City Council member Liz Brown. Or former Columbus Downtown Development Corp. CEO Guy Worley. All clashed with Ginther, and all paid a price: Scott, Terry Brown and Brooks were wiped out in a 2016 Democratic primary; Liz Brown failed to get appointed to the Franklin County Board of Commissioners in June; and Worley was pushed out of the CDDC in March and replaced with a Ginther loyalist, Greg Davies, the mayor’s former chief of staff.
“I would say this about my friend Andy Ginther,” says a political ally. “He isn’t afraid of anything. He doesn’t shy from taking on tough issues. He never has. And he doesn’t lose sleep at night worrying about detractors.”
In Ginther’s CDDC power play, the mayor appointed five new directors to the development nonprofit’s board, including Coleman, now the board chair. Coleman’s involvement was critical. Ginther would not be so formidable without his unique and mutually beneficial relationship with Coleman. The former mayor helps shore up Ginther’s support in the Black community and serves as a bridge between the current administration and the city’s business leaders, many of whom have become frustrated with Ginther in recent years. Coleman’s steadfast support also means it’s less likely that Council President Shannon Hardin, Coleman’s ambitious and talented protégé, would challenge Ginther in a primary in 2023.
The Teacher and the Student:Mike Coleman and Shannon Hardin
In turn, Coleman, now a lawyer in private practice at the Ice Miller law firm, gets to remain a power player, both behind the scenes and now in his more public role as the CDDC board chair. Ginther even appears to cede the spotlight to Coleman at times, something that probably never would happen if the roles were reversed. “I can’t recall an ex-mayor who has wielded this much influence as Mike wields right now,” a political insider says.
A supporter says Ginther is figuring out what it means to be mayor. “He walked through the fire,” the supporter says. “These past two years have been the most difficult years of any mayor, any time.” One positive sign is his hiring of new Columbus police chief Elaine Bryant, who replaced Ginther’s first pick, Thomas Quinlan. A nonprofit leader gives Ginther credit for correcting his mistake. “A lot of folks would have just let it be,” the leader says. “I’m glad that he recognized that it wasn’t good for this community, and he did something about it.”
Ginther says emboldened activists have inspired him in recent years, even though many aren’t exactly his fans. He says without their voices, the city could not have established a civilian review board, invited the U.S. Department of Justice to help reform the police department or established stronger incentives for building affordable housing. “Part of my job as a leader is to make sure I’m listening to all voices—those that agree with me, and those that don’t,” he says.
That job also may become more influential. As the city’s power structure grows more diffuse—no longer dominated by one or two business leaders—some civic leaders predict government leaders may gain strength.
Over the next two years, Ginther says his priorities include expanding affordable housing, improving public safety and continuing to develop the LinkUS public transportation initiative. But an emerging municipal income tax crisis may take priority over everything else. With more people working from home than in the past, Columbus and other Ohio cities are in danger of losing significant revenue.
To fix the problem will take strong leadership that brings together city, state and business officials. If Ginther really has grown, this is his chance to prove it.
This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.