FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, April 20, 2023
[UPDATE 4/26/23 — Covered so far by The Athens Messenger and The Athens County Independent]
To help Ohio swing blue again, Athens Democratic leaders must stop opposing student turnout, contested races, and any Democrat who grows a spine.
I’m running for mayor against the Dems this year to help make that happen.
By Damon Krane
Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine some Democrats lived in Athens. How would they help their party win local, state and national elections?
First, Democrats would be hard pressed to miss the fact that Athens is a college town, 80% composed of young people, where about 70,000 Ohio University students live each decade before moving on to every corner of Ohio and America.
Next, it would be just as difficult for Democrats to miss the fact that young people generally don’t like Republicans. Voters under 30 preferred Democrats by a 28-point margin in the 2022 midterms, and youth turnout of 51-55% ushered in the last three Democratic presidents – compared to just 40-44% for their Republican counterparts.
So, given that young people…
1) overwhelmingly prefer Democrats,
2) make up by far the largest portion of our city’s population,
3) pass through here in droves before moving everywhere else, and,
4) by virtue of being young, have the most votes left to cast in their lifetimes
…if some Democrats lived in Athens, wouldn’t they do everything possible to maximize youth turnout?
Wouldn’t Democrats’ top priority be turning OU students into habitual voters?
Wouldn’t every election be a precious opportunity to do this?
Well, as it turns out, some Democrats really do live in Athens – including the Democrats who occupy every elected city office. But here’s where things get weird. Instead of nurturing habitual student voting, Athens Democratic leaders have actively opposed it, along with Democratic voting more generally. I know from running against them – not as a Republican, but as an independent democratic socialist.
Running for mayor in 2019, I allied with Ellie Hamrick, an independent socialist running for city council. While registering students at OU dining halls, we never encountered Democrats doing the same. We became the first candidates to text bank to students about a city election. Democrats never followed suit. I encouraged student groups to hold a campus candidate forum before the voter registration deadline. By the time they wrangled the Dems, the deadline had passed.
Running for city council in 2021, I was again the only candidate calling for a campus forum. One was scheduled in response to Democrats’ stated availability, but after a meeting with their county chair the Dems all announced they would not attend – opting instead for a campus forum held after the registration deadline, from which independent candidates were excluded, and which the Dems still failed to promote.
Meanwhile, Democratic Athens Mayor Steve Patterson (not even up for re-election in 2021) didn’t just snub overwhelmingly Democratic students, he secretly colluded with the county Republican chair to boost Republican turnout against progressive independents, even though this would also hurt vulnerable (and ultimately defeated) Democratic Congressional candidate Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington), whom Patterson had publicly endorsed in that year’s special election for Ohio’s 15th Congressional District.
To Patterson’s dismay, not all Republicans were willing to keep his shenanigans a secret. Instead, some Republicans recorded the nominally Democratic mayor as he met with them behind closed doors; regurgitated far-right talking points to mobilize local Trump supporters against progressives; praised Larry Householder protégé, state representative Jay Edwards (R-Nelsonville); failed to defend fellow Democratic officeholders from Republican attacks; told more lies about me than I’ll list here; and joined Republicans in laughing off Iris Virjee – a young woman candidate of color – as merely a “girl” and “bartender” whose non-Anglo Saxon name Patterson said he couldn’t even remember. Then Republicans leaked the full recording to the press, and it was front page news the day Patterson hosted Russo’s visit to Athens.
Worse yet, Patterson’s reprehensible behavior is apparently the best local Democratic leaders can muster, since they’ve consistently failed to give Democratic voters any alternative to Patterson in a Democratic primary race. (Not in 2015, not in 2019 – and not even in 2023, after the debacle of 2021.)
And speaking of Democratic primaries, it’s certainly hard to turn young people into habitual voters –or to keep Democrats of any age in the habit of voting– if you won’t even give them an election to vote in.
Never have local Democratic leaders failed to find a Democrat to run for every city office, but very rarely do Democratic voters get to choose between multiple candidates in contested Democratic city primary races. With 11 city offices up for grabs this year, (including the mayor, every city council seat, law director and auditor) exactly 11 Democrats are running, so Athens city (and Athens County) will not even hold a Democratic primary election this year. And with no Republicans running for any city office, the city general election in November may be the same as no election at all.
Athens Republicans know that preventing contested city races is the best way to reduce Democratic voting here. That’s why Republicans don’t run in Athens – only two have run since 2011, and none has been elected since 2003. It’s not just that Republican candidates would lose here – it’s far worse than that. They would actually harm their party by running. Republicans are so greatly outnumbered in Athens by both registered Democrats and would-be Democratic student voters that if Republicans gave their opponents someone to vote against, Republicans would only bring about a net increase in Democratic turnout and habitual Democratic voting among young people. So Athens Republicans very wisely sit out Athens city elections to encourage would-be Democratic voters to get used to staying home on Election Day.
Yet when Athens Democratic Party leaders prevent contested Democratic primary election races (in addition to opposing student voting), this depresses Democratic turnout and habitual voting just as surely as when Republicans prevent contested general election races. By failing to give our city’s overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning population any reason to maintain or begin the habit of voting, both parties are doing the same thing here in Athens, and it’s as smart of Republicans as it is dumb of Democrats.
Granted, back in 2019, Democratic County Treasurer Ric Wasserman told me party leaders like him were not to blame for there being little reason to vote in city elections. “We would never discourage anyone from running,” he assured me. Yet the very next year Wasserman and then County Democratic Chair John Haseley told The New Political they both actively discouraged Democratic Athens City Council Member Pete Kotses from challenging Wasserman in the 2020 Democratic primary for County Treasurer, and Haseley said that’s just standard operating procedure for him – he always works to protect incumbent Democratic officeholders from the threat of Democratic voter choice.
After Democratic leaders turned on Kotses for giving voters a choice, not only did Wasserman trounce him in the treasurer’s race, Kotses resigned from Council and bowed out of local politics, while issuing a statement criticizing local government’s lack of diversity. Democratic leaders then appointed Ben Ziff to council to fill the seat vacated by Kotses in April 2021. But after Ziff’s wife put up a yard sign in 2022 for independent Bill Hayes (who committed the sin of giving voters a choice in the County Commissioners race), party leaders turned on Ziff, too.
Now, keep in mind, local Democratic leaders never censured Mayor Patterson for mobilizing Republicans to the detriment of a Democratic Congressional campaign. Yet the same party leaders opted to punish Ziff for his wife’s yard sign by removing him from the very executive Democratic committee on which Patterson still sits.
So now, like Kotses before him, Ziff is also finished with city government, having declined to run for re-election. And once more Democratic party leaders have lined up exactly one candidate to replace their outgoing officeholder, allowing Democratic voters no choice in the matter.
Granted, Democratic voters almost had one contested primary race to vote in this year. Two Democrats attempted to run for the Third Ward council seat, but one of them, Jason Schroer, failed to collect the 25 valid petition signatures he needed. In comparison, with only a small socialist organization behind her in 2019, Ellie Hamrick gathered over 200 signatures. Her fellow independent council candidate, Chris Monday, single-handedly gathered about 100 signatures – just as I did in 2019 and again in 2021, and as Iris Virjee did in 2021. Yet we’re supposed to believe the local Democratic Party –with all its resources and expertise in election rules– couldn’t give Schroer the support he needed to collect a measly 25 signatures so Democrats could have a primary to vote in this May?
Given local Democratic leaders’ vociferous opposition to student voting, contested primary races, and any Democrat who grows a spine, it’s no surprise that turnout in Athens elections is extremely low, especially among OU students — and not only in city elections.
To be certain, local turnout is at its worst in city elections. The most populous, student-heavy voting precincts often contribute one vote each in primaries and barely more in general elections. When rare contested city general election races do occur, Democrats win in a landslide, but with the support of only about 10% of eligible voters.
But what about mid-term elections, when Athens city voters help determine the outcomes of races for Ohio Governor, US House of Representatives, and US Senate?
In the 2014 mid-term, Athens County had the second lowest voter turnout of all of Ohio’s 88 counties. Worse yet, from the 2018 midterm to the 2022 midterm voter turnout only fell by 3% nationally, but here in the City of Athens –population center of Southeast Ohio’s only blue county– turnout plummeted by more than 10 times that amount –a whopping 35%! That is, from the already low turnout of over 7,600 voters in 2018, to fewer than 5,100 voters in 2022.
Athens is a city of 25,000 people, with an eligible voting population of more than 20,000. So for Athens to have been on par with national turnout, about 10,000 people should have voted here in 2018, and 9,500 in 2022. So while Athens turnout was already about 24% lower than national turnout in 2018, Athens turnout fell to the incredible low of approximately 46% below national turnout in 2022!
Thus while all across the country in 2022 high turnout (especially among young people) decided key races for Democrats and enabled the Dems to maintain a slim Senate majority, here in the college town of Athens, Ohio, Democratic leaders oversaw an absolute nose dive in turnout that helped elect JD Vance.
Local Democratic leaders may be proud to have found a way to win local elections without voters (or with only 10% of eligible voters), but beyond Athens the Democratic Party still needs voters to defeat Republicans, and local leaders are failing to deliver those voters.
To maintain their personal stranglehold over local political power, Athens Democratic leaders have thrown their own party’s statewide and national prospects under the bus – and along with that, all the people their party claims to represent. Outside city limits –in state and national races, far and wide– it’s Republicans who reap the benefits. And contrary to the popular belief of some of our city’s most privileged residents, Athens really isn’t a bubble. State and federal legislation still affects us here. Supreme Court rulings do, too.
As for me, I’m not a Democrat but a leftist who supports reproductive rights and doesn’t want the US to fall to fascist insurrectionists. So while I oppose Democrats where Republicans are not competitive, I support Democrats where Republicans are competitive. I want Ohio to swing blue again.
Therefore, this year I’ll be doing for the Democratic Party what its local leaders have refused to do. By running against Mayor Patterson again as an independent democratic socialist with my usual social justice platform and 25 years experience as a progressive community organizer, I’ll be giving Athens Democrats a reason to keep up the habit of voting this November – even if it’s only to vote against me!
More importantly, I’ll be giving Athens Dems the chance to stop opposing student voting.
Instead of Athens Dems continuing to boycott a campus candidate forum held before the registration deadline and open to all candidates, I challenge Democratic leaders to do the single most important thing they possibly can to fight back against Republican control of Ohio and Republican power nationally. I challenge Democratic leaders to nurture the development of habitual OU student voting by campaigning for city races on campus, registering a substantial number of new student voters this year, and investing their party’s resources in the organization of a heavily-promoted, large-scale campus candidate forum for every contested general election race.
The 2024 presidential election is looming, with Trump once again the Republican frontrunner and DeSantis his reprehensible runner up. It would be outrageously negligent of Athens Democratic leaders to not use this year’s city election to start activating the overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning OU students who make up by far the largest portion of our city population.
So what do you say, Athens Dems? Are you ready to stop sabotaging your own party? If so, I’m here to help.
Damon Krane is a longtime progressive community organizer, independent journalist and founding member of United Athens County Tenants. He ran unsuccessfully for Athens Mayor in 2019 and Athens City Council in 2021 but succeeded in pushing Athens Democratic leaders to diversify the makeup of city council and helped to pass the city’s most pro-tenant legislation in decades. The Toledo Blade published a column by Krane in January criticizing Athens Democrats’ opposition to student voting.