For a few months now, I have taken a slight hiatus from writing about politics at length. This was admittedly due to my personal need for a period of rest from in-depth commentary on the state of American (and even global) politics. While there seemed to be some traction observed for the “Left” in much of this country on Election Day 2019, my own involvement in local politics saw a different outcome. What I saw in Licking County, Ohio – specifically in Newark, which is where I live – is a blueprint of sorts for how we could miss the mark in defeating Trump and fascism in 2020. Yes, there is a lot to be hopeful for as we take on this incredibly important election, but we progressives must be careful not to become so confident in our perceived strength that we forget to do the hard work it takes to win.
Confidence is a two-edged, extremely-sharp sword in politics. On the one hand, confidence in your campaign can embolden you and your message, drawing more support to your efforts and bolstering your chances at success. On the other hand, confidence can blind you and lead you to become complacent as you fail to see where you need to double your efforts and fine-tune your message. This is why we must be ever-vigilant in the coming days, weeks, and months as we prepare to take on the forces of fascism which have secured a vice-grip on our politics. The moment we feel confident in our victory could become the moment that our failure is guaranteed.
In a place like Newark, Ohio you see the conditions for the worst that bad politics can produce for the working class and you also see how those same citizens become willing to re-elect the politicians who undeniably ignore the interests of the people who suffer the most from same said policies. In Newark, there has been a steady and depressing increase in homelessness as well as criminal activity. The infrastructure has been neglected for most of the past twenty years. Also, the jobs are increasingly reliant on temporary and part-time positions (none of which pays a living wage). In the City Government, you hear regular debate about which services to cut or privatize while the leaders pursue state and federal grants to help fill the gaps in funding left by their unwillingness to ask the voters to approve a modest tax increase (the State of Ohio requires that local governments have most of their tax increases approved by the voters).
Making matters worse in Newark is the increasing influence of gentrification. Being about half an hour to the East of Columbus, this particular community is perceived to be a place where Columbus workers live, temporarily stay, or just pass through. So, the vast majority of the development plans are geared towards impressing Columbus-bound commuters as opposed to servicing the needs of Newark’s own permanent residents. In essence, this passive attitude towards the challenges that the people of Newark face is what instructs the City’s willingness to tolerate the aforementioned deplorable conditions ranging from homelessness and crime to the depressing infrastructure.
Yet, Newark, Ohio’s challenges are not unique to Newark. More and more of “middle America” looks and feels like Newark. Furthermore, the recent reelection of the mayor of Newark – someone who willfully overlooks everything that the people of Newark need – is a phenomenon that is duplicated across this nation, and which could well offer a peak into how Donald Trump could get reelected. How so? It’s all about the myth of success and fear of the unknown.
In Newark, the local Democrats nominated a great candidate for mayor. A bright and rising star in the local arena, the City Councilman serving many of the city’s poorest citizens in the South End came to the campaign with a great track record. He had started a community organization – called the South Newark Civic Association – a few years back, and this organization had a great deal of success in engaging the people of the South End in a very positive and uplifting way. Moreover, he had a decent background to brag about: he served as a member of a state legislator’s staff for a period of time, had been School Board president, and had even managed a prior mayoral campaign eight years ago. When he was first elected in 2013, he made history in Newark as the first openly-gay elected official in the City.
On Council, he made it a point to be a consistent and vocal champion for the city’s disadvantaged citizens. He spoke out passionately for the homeless, and made it clear that he was not going to stand by silently while people faced discrimination. He even established himself as a bit of an independent thinker when he chose to vote with the other party on a hot button issue which dealt with banning so-called “Breed Specific Legislation” after hearing the pleas of pitbull owners begging for a change so that they could freely own the dogs they love without being harassed about it. This guy in so many ways was demonstrating that he was a true leader.
In October of 2017, there was a significant turn of events in Newark. The mayor suddenly revealed that a beloved landmark in Newark’s Downtown Square – a Gazebo – was going to be removed. The Gazebo had been on the Square for three decades, and had served as a beautiful addition to the area. It also played host to community gatherings, weddings, and so on. Now, landmarks get uprooted all the time, so why was this so special of a case? The problem came with the total lack of debate and transparency. The mayor announced the decision, never seeking the advice of City Council or direct public input, and then within a few days the structure was dismantled and then promptly moved in the middle of the night. Even right now, despite numerous attempts by private citizens and even skilled journalists to get answers, the mayor and his Administration have refused to disclose a paper trail as to how this was all paid for.
Compounding the controversy, the administration actually justified this action in large part by pointing the finger at the growing local homeless population and cited “safety concerns” due to the Gazebo’s proximity to Newark’s iconic Downtown Courthouse. What’s the truth of the matter? Well, according to everyone who pays attention to what’s been happening in the City of Newark and Licking County (for which Newark serves as the County’s seat) overall, it is clear that the mayor was actually serving the agenda of Licking County’s political and economic establishment. Specifically, Newark’s mayor was believed to be doing the bidding of one very powerful County Commissioner – whose son actually serves on Newark City Council -, who leads the other two yes-men County Commissioners in molding the County and its seat in his image. The Commissioner and the area’s quasi-oligarchy (the men and women who have the real money and power here) were done with letting the people of Newark use the Square for public events – particularly political ones – when their goal was to revitalize the Square and attract high-income visitors to do business on the Square.
So, our City Councilman started to seriously contemplate a run for mayor. However, he initially had his sights set higher. Before this debacle with the Gazebo unfolded, the Councilman had announced a bid for State Representative just after he secured a guaranteed second term on Council when he filed for reelection and he did so without any opposition filing against him. As the controversy over the Gazebo raged on, he became even more outspoken, and even tried to submit a budget amendment which would have effectively saved the Gazebo (an attempt which failed as no members of Council – not even from his own party – would demonstrate the courage to second it).
In 2018, his focus was split understandably between his duties on Council and his campaign for State Representative. He continued to speak on matters involving the homeless and demanding transparency all the while campaigning throughout the County for his race. When the race came to a close, and when he sadly lost his bid to unseat the State Legislator (a legislator who just stepped down in December of last year to take another position, which led to another chain of events we will get into momentarily), the pleas for him to run for mayor came rolling in. So, he rose to the occasion and decided to do it.
Early 2019 was a promising time for this candidacy. Despite the fact that this was technically going to be his third consecutive year as a candidate, he was fired up and there was a lot of excitement for him. It didn’t take long for all of Newark’s former mayors from the past three decades to come out and endorse him (two Democratic former mayors and one former Republican mayor). Everything looked like it was set to be great. This candidate even aggressively promoted a message which insisted that we build a Newark for “everyone”, adopted a nice slogan which was all about “Our Newark”, and he didn’t shy away from taking the incumbent mayor to task for ignoring the needs of Newark’s impoverished citizens.
So, why was he not elected? This is something that we are admittedly still attempting to answer, but there are a few snapshots of the campaign and the conditions in the area that one could take from an outsider’s standpoint. For starters, and this is really tragic to have to say, ever since this candidate had run for State Representative there was a disgusting whisper campaign about his sexual orientation. A number of religious interests in the area were not happy when the Councilman led the way to protect public employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or identity. In fact, there was even a repulsive minor movement to run a third party mayoral alternative to him with a “straight” candidate. These people didn’t like the mayor, but they were also disturbed by the idea of an openly gay mayor.
For some perspective, Licking County is very much a rural county. When you explore social media interaction between citizens of the area you easily see a lot of openly-expressed bigotry aimed primarily against members of the LGBT community. This is why the election of an openly gay man to Newark City Council was a big deal, and it is also why the passage of a local ordinance banning discrimination against public LGBT employees became such a lightning rod (although it passed unanimously) while also becoming a very big deal in the end.
Additionally, it did not help the candidate that he had run three years in a row. One could see and hear numerous attacks against him for his choice to run for reelection to City Council, then for State Representative, and then for mayor within the span of three years. Having the image of being “just another politician” (a perception which was likely exacerbated by the aforementioned mayoral endorsements) is an albatross which many well-meaning public servants are cursed with these days in a deeply populist era. Citizens are fed up with “career politicians” and want something revolutionary. This same standard is infecting local elections more and more.
Lastly, he was not in a good position being a candidate with a “D” next to his name in Licking County. It is very possible that he could have won if he had been able to run without the political label. A large number of citizens in the area are unhappy with the mayor and the current state of things in this City, but many of those same people are also unhappy with the political establishment. It is also worth noting that our voter turnout in 2019 was among the worst in our recent history. People are uninspired and many more have tuned out altogether.
There is another explanation for the mayor winning what is now his third term (he is only the second mayor in Newark history to win three consecutive terms). The mayor has benefited from the ability to present an image of success even as so many in the City are hurting. The Square looks beautiful, there is a new nice looking bridge, some interesting investments (including projects to repurpose or otherwise revamp certain buildings) have been made across the City, and despite the bleak conditions of homelessness, local job quality, housing, and our total lack of public transportation, the mayor has convinced a great many Newark citizens that we are at our best right now. Ignore the man behind the curtain and stand in awe of the show he puts on display.
The people of Newark have been successfully convinced to not care about our conditions, because everything LOOKS fine. Despite the open corruption, the few voters who participated returned the mayor to another term and resoundingly chose to give him a stronger rubber stamp in Council by electing three at-large Council members from his party. Of the members elected, one was the reelected son of the powerful Commissioner mentioned earlier, one was a returning veteran councilmember, and one of those members of City Council was reelected only to be picked to replace that State Legislator who stepped down. This political version of musical chairs sent that Councilmember to Columbus before even finishing his first term (he now faces a primary challenge from the right, as he was a notorious thorn in the side of his party whilst on Council).
In 2005, when I was still young in my involvement in local politics, local Democrats experienced a rebirth of sorts. That year, a nice lady who was involved in Catholic-based charity work managed to topple a Republican member of Council in a special election for a Council At-Large seat. That was a key moment, because it was a pick up for local Democrats, and it started a series of biennial progress for local Democrats as they steadily increased their presence on Council with successive elections until they finally landed a majority after the 2013 election for the first time in many years. However, since 2015 that progress has been reversed as they have lost ground with what has now been three successive election cycles to reduce their council presence back to what it was after the 2005 election. There is no doubt that the powerful forces of Licking County noted earlier are content with this, as all seems to be right with the world from their view.
Why did I share this tale with you? Because I believe it is a serious warning of what we could see on a national scale. At this moment, national Democrats all seem largely convinced that voters will absolutely reject what they have seen from Trump and the Republicans since 2016. In their arrogance – just like four years ago – the American people could not possibly be “stupid” enough to turn down the normalcy offered by a status quo Democratic nominee in favor of more chaos. This, my friends, is a tragic mistake.
Like the people of Newark, the American people are not ready to just hand the reins back over to a Democratic Party that they have concluded is unwilling to transform this country for the better. They lost faith in this party long ago. While a majority of voters may express contempt for the open corruption of Trump – like they often complain about it in Newark -, they also can not be bothered to care enough about it to return us to the conditions which brought us here. This is especially made difficult by the illusion of great progress via the onslaught of decent economic news.
The myth that Trump is “making America great again” is mirrored in its falsehood and successful promulgation by the same deceptive messaging which won Newark’s mayor a third term. People can’t be bothered to care about the plight of countless strangers if they themselves are convinced that they need only care about their own condition, which – to them, at least – might not seem worse off than it was before. Trump could win, again, and he could do it just like he did in 2016: by convincing enough people that he is their one true champion and successfully painting his opponent as a status quo flake who will only bring back the failures of the past.
Truth be told, I don’t know if my friend could have done ANYTHING (except for running without the Democratic label) different to improve his chances for becoming Newark’s mayor. He ran the best possible campaign that he could have. I was admittedly caught up in my own excitement for him as well as blinded by my certainty that enough citizens were so fed up with the mayor that they would elect someone new. My friend and I underestimated the mayor and the numerous conditions working in his favor.
My hope is that we avoid duplicating this tragedy on a national level. If we nominate someone to compete with Trump who lacks the ability to effectively pierce through the fog of his lies and win over the hearts and minds of the voters, then he will win. Honestly, he may not even lose the popular vote this time. Given everything that we know about Trump and his fascist policies, if he wins again – especially with a popular vote mandate -, then we have not even begun to see the horrors of which he is capable. Let’s stop that nightmare from coming true by learning from the tragic tale of Newark to avert a sad twist in the story of America.