The Titans Are Gone. Power Is Shifting. Who Will Lead Columbus Into the Future?
Uncertainty reigns as Les Wexner’s civic role changes and Alex Fischer leaves the Columbus Partnership. Here’s a look at the city's current leadership landscape.
On a recent October morning, Fifth Third Bank regional president Francie Henry and Ohio State University president Kristina Johnson share the stage at the Cardinal Health Ballroom on the second floor of the Lincoln Theatre. Music echoes through the space—courtesy of a single saxophonist in the back of the room—but Henry and Johnson are harmonizing on something else: a $20 million capital investment from the Cincinnati-based bank that could help transform the neighborhood that surrounds the Lincoln.
Columbus’ new power dynamics are also on display. Henry is part of a group of emerging (and often outspoken) female community leaders who’ve pushed the city’s civic establishment to focus more on affordable housing, diversity and racial inequality in recent years. And as Johnson speaks enthusiastically about the mission of PACT—Partners Achieving Community Transformation, the Ohio State-led nonprofit collaborating with Fifth Third on the initiative—it’s easy to see why she often draws comparisons to her Bricker Hall predecessor Gordon Gee, a master of community engagement and one of the founders of PACT.
In the back of the room, keeping an uncharacteristically low profile, is Alex Fischer, the CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the city’s most influential civic organization. In recent years, Fischer has been perhaps Columbus’ most visible power broker, in the middle of seemingly every major community initiative, from Save The Crew to Smart Columbus to Downtown development. These days, however, he’s a lame duck of his own making. In early January, Kenny McDonald, the head of One Columbus, the Partnership’s sister economic development agency, will replace Fischer, who surprisingly announced a few months ago he was leaving the organization. And that’s not the only major Partnership leadership change in the works. For the first time since its founding in 2002, Les Wexner is no longer the group’s undisputed guiding force. Also in January, Huntington Bank’s Steve Steinour and AEP’s Nick Akins will become the new co-chairs of the civic organization, assuming a role that Wexner has occupied since the birth of the business group.
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These changes have inspired both hope and fear in Columbus. When asked if this is the most uncertain Columbus leadership landscape he’s ever seen, one longtime politico responds, “That’s an understatement. It’s times two—and on steroids.” A nonprofit leader describes the current power structure as “confused” and “scattered,” while a veteran civic leader adds, “It’s a very, very curious time. It’s a very transitional time.”
To get a clear view of the city’s evolving power structure, Columbus Monthly spoke with 29 nonprofit, political, business and civic leaders, most talking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic. Almost everyone agrees that power distribution is widening—a phenomenon that isn’t entirely new. Columbus has been moving in this direction for decades as it has grown larger, more sophisticated and less beholden to the so-called “Titans,” as this magazine has long called the group of Columbus business leaders who once exercised iron-fisted authority over politics, health care, development, education and philanthropy in the city. Still, the decentralizing trend has accelerated in recent years—first following the 2016 death of Columbus Dispatch publisher John F. Wolfe (Wexner’s friend, civic ally and Partnership co-founder) and now as Fischer and Wexner make their leadership transitions.
What do these shifts mean? Some envision positive outcomes: more freedom, transparency, openness. Some hope for new leaders to emerge—perhaps a breakthrough moment for women and minorities. Some hope for collaborative decision-making. Some would like to see ideas embraced that come from all corners of the city, not just from a handful of people with access to those at the pinnacle of power. Today, “You can get things done if you have the base to get them done without having to check in somewhere,” says a political insider. “I don’t think anybody has veto authority in Columbus.” But the changes also could have a downside: factionalism, paralysis, helplessness. Some civic leaders fear Columbus may struggle to pull off the kind of complex public-private partnerships that have been so critical to its success over the past two decades without a Titan (or two or three of them) rallying the community around an ambitious vision. “We are rudderless,” says a nonprofit executive. “There is no plan.”
No matter where folks fall on the spectrum of optimism and anxiety, most agree on at least one thing: The era of the Titans is over. Even though the region is coming off a record-setting decade of economic growth, it still faces plenty of challenges: violent crime, inequality, a failing city school district, an overdose crisis, a housing shortage—all of which seemingly have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And solutions to these problems will have to emerge in a new leadership environment, probably without bigger-than-life powerbrokers setting the agenda. “You don’t know what you miss until it’s gone,” a civic leader says.
Finding the next generation of leaders in Columbus: Alex Fischer steps up
In the mid-2000s, when the Columbus Partnership was still fairly new, its leaders decided they needed to better understand Columbus’ strengths and weaknesses. With that in mind, the group hired 10 MBA students at Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business to produce white papers in five key areas: education, economic development, arts/culture, health care/human services and philanthropy/leadership.
A former elected official recalls being generally unimpressed with the students’ work, which compared Columbus to similar cities such as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. But the official did pay close attention to the leadership findings, which speculated on whether a new generation was ready to inherit the mantle from the previous one. At the time, a power duo stood far above everyone else in Columbus: Wexner (the billionaire retail tycoon) and Wolfe (the newspaper publisher with an unrivaled commitment to the city). The elected official spoke to Wolfe about the report. “Look,” the politico told Wolfe, “if something happens to you and Les, what happens to this community?”
In many ways, the Partnership was a response to that question. After the 1994 death of the city’s most domineering Titan, J.W. Wolfe, the Dispatch Printing Co. chairman and second cousin of John F. Wolfe, Wexner ascended to the top of the city’s power hierarchy, boosted by his extraordinary philanthropy and cosmopolitan vision for the city. J.W. Wolfe was a fierce rival to Wexner, but his younger and more gracious relative developed a friendship and civic partnership with the L Brands founder after taking over the leadership of the Dispatch Printing Co. empire. Together, Wexner, Wolfe and New Albany Co. chairman Jack Kessler formed the Partnership to serve as a vehicle for Columbus' top business leaders to solve community challenges and develop a culture of civic engagement among the city’s corporate elite.
When the unthinkable finally did occur—John F. Wolfe’s 2016 death from cancer—the Partnership had matured into a nationally acclaimed group known for a collaborative culture called the Columbus Way. Today, 80 CEOs are part of the organization, with members leading large nonprofits, giant public corporations, emerging tech companies and higher education institutions. Partnership leaders have said that the organization’s outreach efforts have developed a deeper community bench that helped fill the void created by Wolfe’s death. But in reality, there was no way to truly replace him. Though Wexner was widely considered the city’s most powerful person, Wolfe was the Titan with the broadest interests, focusing closely on politics, the nonprofit sector, philanthropy, Ohio State, real estate development—pretty much everything in Columbus.
As the CEO of the Columbus Partnership, Fischer was perhaps the only other player in town with such a broad portfolio of civic interests. To be sure, he was a “staff guy,” not a traditional power broker who commands a billion-dollar company, a publishing empire or a giant public institution. But he was uniquely skilled—diplomatic, cool under pressure, with an uncanny ability to read a room. Moreover, he had the respect and admiration of both Wolfe and Wexner. Particularly Wexner. He and the L Brands founder seemed to be perfectly in sync, and that made Fischer powerful. “When you see Alex, you’re looking at Les Wexner’s money,” a political insider says.
Around the time of Wolfe’s death, Fischer’s influence began to grow. “When he sees a void, he steps into it,” says a Partnership member. Fischer's CEO bosses began to treat him as one of their own rather than their employee, giving him more leeway to speak his mind and pursue his own ideas. He replaced Abigail Wexner, Les’ wife, as the chair of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital board and joined the Ohio State University board—two of the most important appointments in the city. “Alex Fischer became the focal point for the business community about the time that John died,” says a former City Hall official. “He filled the void and became very consequential.”
Perhaps nothing showcased his skill and influence more than Fischer’s involvement in Save The Crew, the multipronged effort to keep the professional soccer team in Columbus. After then-owner/operator Anthony Precourt announced plans to move the Crew to Austin in 2017, few thought it was possible to keep the team in the region. But Fischer was willing to lead the fight, which turned into one of the city’s most improbable civic victories.
Then in 2019, another void began to open. Wexner became a less visible power player as he was forced to focus more on his own company’s struggles—particularly, the cultural backlash that was upending Victoria’s Secret, then the signature enterprise of L Brands. But even more significant was the reputational damage Wexner endured because of his connections to Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced pedophile financial adviser. Epstein, who hanged himself in a New York City jail in August 2019 while facing charges he abused dozens of underage girls, became the subject of a media feeding frenzy that led to the most unflattering press coverage of Wexner’s relatively scandal-free life. Wexner’s public appearances disappeared, while Columbus community leaders say he became less active behind the scenes as well. No doubt the pandemic exacerbated the isolation, but a prominent Central Ohio elected official says, “It’s been two years since I’ve even seen the guy.”
Partnership leaders also began talking with Wexner about stepping down as chair. It took a little while for Wexner to accept the idea, but he eventually came around, and in October, he told the organization’s membership that he would relinquish the position. Having resigned as CEO and chairman of L Brands in May 2020, it didn’t really make sense for him to remain the leader of an alliance of chief executives.
Wexner’s diminishment made Fischer even more important to Columbus. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, Fischer pushed the Partnership to focus more on racial issues and became a co-chair of a successful campaign to establish a civilian review board to oversee the discipline of Columbus police officers. Indeed, if this story came out a year ago, Columbus Monthly might have named Fischer the city’s most powerful person, an improbable choice considering that many of his bosses on the Partnership’s executive committee would have been below him on the power rankings. “If Alex doesn’t have power, then who does?” asks a political insider.
But that honor wasn’t to be. In July, Fischer announced he planned to step down at the end of the year. Unbeknownst to almost everyone in town, he’d actually been considering resigning since 2020, but the pandemic interfered with that plan.
Fischer will remain in Columbus and stay involved in community affairs in a yet to be determined role. He cites exhaustion and a desire to take on new challenges for his exit, but it’s possible he also is reading the room, so to speak. With the Partnership changing—Wolfe gone, new co-chairs ascending, a broadening membership group developing—maybe Fischer no longer is the right person for the job. “He had such a great relationship with Les and John F.,” a civic leader says. “I don’t know if it could continue with the new regime.”
What to do once the Titans are gone?
With the Titans disappearing, some observers predict Columbus will need to rely more on shared responsibility. In this scenario, empowered and respected nonprofit and public sector leaders—the Columbus YWCA’s Christie Angel, Columbus State Community College’s David Harrison, the Columbus Foundation’s Doug Kridler, the Columbus Urban League’s Stephanie Hightower, to name a few—may play bigger roles, digging into problems in a more organic, grassroots way. In fact, this phenomenon seems already to be happening.
When the pandemic lockdown occurred in March 2020, Columbus Metropolitan Library CEO Pat Losinski worried about inequities in broadband internet access. The library, essentially, is a public computing utility; at its 23 locations, visitors used the library’s computers or accessed its wireless network 1.8 million times in 2019. He wondered what they would do without that service at a time when internet access was more critical than ever. “How do you exist in today’s world without broadband access?” Losinski says. “It just creates an unlevel playing field.”
Losinski shared his concerns with Kridler, the CEO of the Columbus Foundation. The pair and other nonprofit leaders began meeting every Wednesday over Zoom to talk about the issue. Eventually, the group, now known as the Franklin County Digital Equity Coalition, grew to about 40 individuals representing about 35 local organizations, including the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, Jewish Family Services, the city of Columbus, COTA and Ohio State University.
Coalition members have remained engaged. They’ve met with internet service providers every six to eight weeks to talk about holes in the current infrastructure. They’ve developed pilot programs for 200 households on the South Side and the Near East Side that provide affordable internet connections through emerging wireless technology. They’ve distributed about 500 refurbished computers to low-income families at three events in 2020 and secured grants that made additional low-cost laptops, desktop computers and Chromebooks available to more families. Members “didn’t wait to get permission,” a nonprofit leader says. “There wasn’t any voice saying, ‘Excuse me. You’re kinda getting out of your lane.’”
Losinski and his collaborators tackled the problem on their own, without receiving signoff from folks at the top of the power structure, the traditional method of accomplishing things in Columbus. In a world without Titans, it could be a new way to achieve civic progress. But is this ad hoc, scattered approach enough to address Columbus’ biggest challenges?
Most people aren’t worried that Columbus’ current leadership fragility will cause a sudden decline in the city. “The flywheel of growth is spinning pretty well right now, so I don’t think any of the transitions are going to disrupt that growth,” says a civic insider, who expects mistakes will go less noticed as a result.
Many predict the Partnership will become more focused on job growth under Kenny McDonald, moving away from the social initiatives that Fischer embraced. Since 2010, McDonald has been the CEO of One Columbus (formerly Columbus 2020), the regional economic development agency, and by all accounts, he’s excelled at the job. While Fischer, a former Tennessee deputy governor, is a political animal, McDonald is not. “Alex is a unicorn,” a former elected official says. “He could engage in these big civic issues and be a productive part of it. Kenny is unknown in that way.” A political insider describes McDonald as “an economic development savant.”
In the past, the Partnership—with Wexner, Wolfe and Fischer at the helm—was largely responsible for rallying the city around big themes and ideas. Will a new, more jobs-focused Partnership still be able to do that? And will it even want to? “I think there’s going to be a good amount of collaboration, but I just don’t know if there’s going to be that heroic vision,” a nonprofit leader says. Some worry that ambitious projects will fall to the wayside without a visionary in control. “That’s the biggest danger that I see,” a civic leader says.
Wexner’s future isn’t settled, either. A civic insider says he was in “a really bad place” a year ago, beaten down by the nonstop assault on his character and business. The Epstein case has spawned a cottage industry of podcasts, documentaries and books detailing the sordid saga—and damaged Wexner’s reputation in the process. But the insider says Wexner has emerged from his funk and now believes he can continue to play a role in Columbus. He’s not running the show at the Partnership anymore, but he retains the title of “chairman emeritus” and will stay involved in an advisory capacity. Abigail also remains a member of the Partnership, and a civic leader expects she’ll continue to be the major force behind KIPP Columbus, the charter school on the East Side.
In this new phase, civic leaders believe Wexner will focus on the things that have long mattered the most to him: Ohio State, New Albany, the Scioto Peninsula. What’s more, he sold more than $2 billion worth of L Brands stock in July. Such financial liquidity suggests he might be positioning himself for another—or several—blockbuster gifts. “I think his biggest impact may come in the next decade,” a civic insider says. That’s a pretty bold statement considering his and his family’s philanthropic track record: $20 million to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, $25 million to the Wexner Center for the Arts, $40.6 million to the National Veterans Memorial and Museum, $100 million to Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
If the new gifts do occur, they could be both transformative and nerve-racking for their beneficiaries. Wexner is forever tainted by Epstein, a predator who rose to power largely because of his connections to Wexner. That association puts philanthropic recipients in an awkward position. While his money could do so much good for their missions and institutions, the gifts also could attract harsh publicity and perhaps even protests. And what if new damaging revelations emerge? In December, Wexner was supposed to be deposed as part of a defamation battle between Alan Dershowitz and Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who claims that Epstein sex trafficked her to the famed attorney. Dershowitz’s lawyers want to question Wexner under oath about allegations Giuffre tried to extort him. (Wexner has denied the claim.)
So what should a Columbus institution do if presented with a Wexner gift? One local nonprofit executive would take the money, as of right now. The leader says no true smoking gun has emerged showing that Wexner was aware of Epstein’s crimes while they worked together, and Wexner’s honorable history in Columbus bolsters his credibility. But the executive acknowledges that decision would be risky. If evidence comes out implicating Wexner later, “then I’d throw up and probably lose my job,” the leader says.
For Wexner, the Epstein saga isn’t over—and you can’t help but wonder if it ever will be. “He made a tragic mistake in getting involved with Epstein,” a business leader says. “He’s paying a dear price now.”
Wexner will never be the same, nor will Columbus.
This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.