Athens, Ohio: Where have all the leftist candidates gone?

By Damon Krane 
The New Political(Athens, Ohio)
Friday, April 9, 2021 
Athens News (Athens, Ohio)
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
In 2019, I was one of 4 new progressive and leftist candidates for local office in Southeast Ohio — all of us working class renters, including Chris Monday and Ellie Hamrick, who ran for Athens City Council, and McCray Powell, who ran for Nelsonville City Council.

A January 25 Athens News headline declared, “Athens could have its most competitive election season in years, and it would be thanks to Damon Krane.” 

Damon Krane? That’s me — a social justice organizer and independent journalist here in Athens since 1999. In 2019 I ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Athens as a democratic socialist with a detailed plan to crack down on predatory landlords and improve rental housing conditions. Last year I co-founded United Athens County Tenants and Athens County Copwatch, organizations that have stayed busy fighting to improve tenants’ lives and combat racist policing, making plenty of headlines along the way. 

This year I decided to run for Athens City Council to continue advancing a housing, racial and economic justice agenda. But my main priority has been finding other like-minded people to run — hence the January 25 headline.

Unfortunately, though, it looks like that headline won’t come to pass. So an explanation is in order, as well as a final appeal to anyone who wants to see a better, more equitable Athens.

With all eight seats on Athens City Council up for grabs this year, I spent the past three months encouraging nearly 100 people to run. Seven people expressed serious to moderate interest, and we spent hours talking about logistics. 

I was proud of the prospective candidates I identified. While our current City Council is comprised entirely of affluent, white homeowners — all apparently cisgender and heterosexual with an average age of 55 — the prospective candidates I identified are all working-class renters and mostly people of color, including three students, two transgender people and a military veteran. At an average age of 28, they’ve all grown up in today’s world. Their intersectional, progressive, working-class politics are informed by lived experiences shared by the majority of Athenians, but not by any current Council member. 

Eventually, though, all but one of these prospective candidates decided not to run. 

If I group them with the several dozen more folks who immediately declined, the barrier to running most commonly cited was economic insecurity. Many potential candidates had to search for a job or housing outside Athens, couldn’t find the time to run between multiple jobs, were stretched too thin to handle the stress, or worried that opposing the city establishment would get them fired and blacklisted. Sometimes economic insecurity was compounded by additional factors making people feel vulnerable, such as having done sex work to pay the bills, having battled addiction or previously run afoul of the law, and/or having to endure the daily strains of being a member of an historically oppressed group. 

Back in 2019, a member of the Athens County Democratic Party Central Committee — also a landlord, business owner and officeholder — assured me that Athens rarely has competitive elections where voters get to pick who governs them because most residents are so happy with the status quo they can’t be bothered to run for office. He also said the mayor’s $90,000 salary would be “a pay cut for anyone qualified to hold the position.”

That’s an interesting take, considering we live in a city with a poverty rate three to five times the national rate, a median household income half the national level, and a rate of homeownership half the national rate, while located in a county with the absolute highest income inequality and worst housing problems in Ohio where nearly 40% of residents are paying more for housing than they can reasonably afford.

Outside the party leader’s fantasy world, the truth is that most of us aren’t in love with the status quo. We’re the ones suffering. That gives us the knowledge and will to solve our community’s problems, but also meager resources with which to do it. So, at the end of the day, we typically don’t run for office or even vote in city elections.

By abstaining from city politics, we withhold consent from politicians so blinded by their own privilege that they call the public subsidization of our most affluent residents’ luxury home-buying an “affordable housing initiative,” and they unanimously pass a sweeping racial justice resolution they never intended to implement. 

But unfortunately, these politicians don’t need our consent, and the wealthiest members of our community — typically about 10% of eligible city voters — continue to elect a local government of, by and for themselves. That’s why, if you’re an Ohio U student or a local service worker, you most likely live in over-priced, dangerously run-down rental housing.

Another shot from the 2019 campaign trail, this one taken shortly after I cast my vote on Election Day.

When I worked to register voters in 2019, most people looked at me like I had the plague or had just insulted their mother. I sympathize with those feelings of disgust toward electoral politics, but I’m also serious enough about revolution to realize that none is on the horizon. History isn’t coming to save us. So, while we build toward the more radical change we need, we must also make the most of every current opportunity, including local elections. 

Do you want to create an Athens that actually fights for housing, racial and economic justice? I do. But no one can do it alone.

After spending so much time encouraging others to run, I’m now down to the wire and need help gathering about 100 signatures by May 3 to get on the ballot. Will you sign my petition, help me collect signatures, or consider running yourself with my support? If so, email damon DOT krane AT gmail DOT com.

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