Restoring & Expanding Democracy
I. THE ROOT OF OUR PROBLEMS
Elections only matter if voters have multiple candidates to choose from. Yet...
More than two thirds of the time voters had no choice but to elect the current members of Athens City Council, because each councilmember ran unopposed.
With 11 Athens city offices up for election this year, there was only 1 competitive primary race -- and it only happened after a longtime incumbent announced he would not seek re-election.
No one ran against Mayor Patterson in the 2015 primary, the 2015 general, or the 2019 primary. If I wasn’t running against him in this November's general election, he’d be mayor of our city for at least 8 years without ever having won a single competitive election for that office.
And even when voters do have a choice between multiple candidates, that doesn't matter if the election happens when most voters aren't around to vote. Yet...
The few competitive elections our city does have are usually decided in the Democratic Primary, which happens in May, right after most OU students leave town for the summer. So in the city races that have mattered most, our most populous voting precincts have had our lowest voter turnout – often literally zero turnout.
The ugly truth of Athens city government is simple: Most of the time, voters play no role whatsoever in determining who governs Athens. And practically all of the time, a majority of eligible voters has no say.
And it’s because our city government is so undemocratic that it’s also so unrepresentative.
In a city where 75 - 80% of residents live in rental housing, 100% of city officeholders are homeowners, and several are also landlords.
In a city where 80% of residents are under the age of 45, 90 - 100% of current city officeholders are over the age of 45.
And in a city whose working class majority faces some of the worst poverty, food insecurity, and income inequality in the state of Ohio, 100% of officeholders are current or retired white collar professionals, landlords, and/or successful business owners, many of whom enjoy 6-figure annual household incomes.
In these ways, the people who govern Athens could not be any less representative of the people city officials are supposed to represent.
And when our government isn't BY or OF the people, we shouldn’t be surprised when it isn't FOR the people, either.
II. THE MESS WE'RE IN NOW -- DANGEROUS SLUMS, CORRUPTION, POLITICAL REPRESSION, POVERTY & CLIMATE CHANGE
The vast majority of Athenians are renters. Yet Athens is an absolute paradise for predatory slumlords. That's because our city government...
won’t give the Code Enforcement office the resources it needs to do its job;
won't ensure safe living conditions for the 75 - 80% of city residents who live in rental housing;
won't strengthen the housing code to prevent landlords from stealing security deposits and violating tenant privacy;
won't force landlords to adequately insulate their properties in order to reduce tenant utility bills and the city’s carbon footprint;
and won't even allow tenants to easily access information about landlords! Instead, the Code Enforcement office keeps most of its inspection and violation records on paper like its 1975, so there’s no way for tenants to determine which landlords are the worst.
According to Code Enforcement's own 2017 and 2018 annual reports, "limited staffing results in the Office of Code Enforcement operations being complaint driven." That means in order for the understaffed Code Enforcement office to be able to respond to tenant complaints, regularly scheduled annual rental housing inspections are kept as brief and superficial as possible. Typically, inspectors only spend a couple minutes pressing test buttons on smoke detectors (without even bothering to check the detectors’ expiration dates) before moving on to the next house or apartment. Thus by being "complaint driven," our city government is effectively passing the burden of enforcing the city housing code onto tenants themselves, most of whom are first or second-time renters in their early twenties, often facing off against wealthy and well-practiced slumlords.
And when Code Enforcement does identify violations, no fines are issued. Instead, the city typically gives landlords a month to correct violations before landlords risk facing any fines at all. And even then, the fines are meager. City code allows for landlords to be fined $100 per violation, per day. But after I got the city to press charges against and criminally convict one of my past landlords for allowing nearly 2 dozen violations to persist for 4 months of my 12-month lease, the city prosecutor (now Law Director, Lisa Eliason) recommended that the landlord only be fined a total of $150, which the judge then reduced to $75. It would be like if city authorities found you parked at an expired meter and gave you an entire month to come up with a quarter! And we all know that if we left a car parked at an expired meter for 4 months, we'd be facing much more than a $75 fine. But Athens city officials are much more lenient with their slumlord pals than they are with the rest of us.
And while an expired parking meter doesn't put anyone's life at risk, the city's failure to adequately enforce the housing code does. Just look at the Carriage Hill (now Campus Heights) Apartments Fire of 2017. On January 30, 2017 code inspectors notified the Carriage Hill /Campus Heights landlord of multiple faulty smoke detectors and at least one expired fire extinguisher. But the city didn’t schedule a follow-up inspection to check whether these violation had been corrected until February 27. And the day before that follow-up inspection was to occur, Building 12 of Carriage Hill / Campus Heights burned down, costing 41 tenants their homes and belongings, and jeopardizing all of their lives.
The Carriage Hill / Campus Heights Apartments Fire happened on Mayor Patterson’s watch, a little more than one year after he took office. Yet in the two and a half years since, neither Mayor Patterson or the current members of Athens City Council have done anything to improve housing safety for 75 - 80% of city residents.
Instead, when I started talking to the local media about how severely under-staffed and over-burdened the Code Enforcement office is, Mayor Patterson began giving the public false figures for the number of both rental housing inspectors and inspections. He told the Athens News there are 6 rental housing inspectors (then later told the paper there are 7) performing about 5,625 inspections per year, when all available documentation – from the Athens City website, to the Code Enforcement Office’s annual reports, to the rental housing inspection schedule – states that there are only 4 rental housing inspectors, just 3 of whom are performing inspections at any given time, and that these 3-4 inspectors performed 10,000 inspections in 2017 and over 8,200 inspections in 2018. Thus claiming double the actual workforce only has to carry out half its actual workload, Patterson painted a radically false picture, in which his city administration is perfectly capable of ensuring tenant safety, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Unfortunately, the Athens News gave Patterson a free pass on these false claims in three separate articles. The paper even allowed Patterson to twice claim that Code Enforcement’s 2018 annual report states there are 6 or 7 code inspectors, when, in reality, the 2018 report (and the 2017 report before it) states the following: “Three of the four Code Officers do rental inspections 3 of the 4 weeks a month, the other Code Officer assists with permits in the office and patrols the city for issues such as trash, signs, etc. The fourth week of the month the officers will do re-inspections from the previous month. Every Friday, each officer patrols his particular zone, looking for any of the above mentioned items. So to summarize, in a 20 day work month with 4 officers, a total of 80 man work days, the Code Officers doing inspections 48 of those days and 32 days are spent doing their other job obligations.”
Similarly, the Code Enforcement section of the City of Athens website publishes the schedule of rental housing inspections, which lists each unit, the date of its inspection, and the inspector responsible for conducting each inspection. The currently published schedule spans from January through September 2019, and it only includes the names of 4 inspectors – not any 6 or 7 people Patterson has claimed are conducting rental housing inspections. (And since former Code Director Rick Sirois’s retirement in late March, 1 of those 4 rental housing inspectors has been serving as interim Code Director, meaning that for several months the city has been even less capable than usual of ensuring safe rental housing conditions.)
But Mayor Patterson has a history of making stuff up to make himself look better -- and a history of getting away with it. When he applied for tenure in his previous career as a psychology professor at Ohio University in 2001, he credited himself for writing two publications that didn’t actually exist. But it wasn't until a full decade later, in 2011, that the bogus publication credits were discovered. So the professional ethics committee investigating Patterson concluded that he probably forged his resume, but it was too late to prove it. Specifically, committee members wrote they “were ultimately skeptical… that, at such a critical moment in his professional life, with tenure on the line, Dr. Patterson had such a tenuous grasp of his own publication record.” But “the trail of evidence at this late date precludes any definitive judgment about Dr. Patterson's intent to deliberately falsify his record.” So while Patterson was censured, he kept his tenure.
And while a city government led by Mayor Patterson has joined with slumlords to prevent students, workers, and struggling young families from being safe in their homes, Patterson and his colleagues have joined with OU administrators to violate the majority of Athens residents’ most basic constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly on OU's campus
On February 1, 2017, OU carried out its largest mass arrest of students since the Vietnam War era (the second largest mass arrest in OU's 215-year history), then sought to have dozens of students convicted of false criminal charges. This was in response to hundreds of OU students legally gathering in Baker Center to protest the Trump administration’s first racist travel ban. The 70 people wrongfully arrested for doing so – almost all of them OU students – were dubbed the Baker 70.
The Athens Police Department joined OUPD in carrying out these wrongful arrests. Then the Athens City Law Office, led by County Democratic Party stalwart Lisa Eliason, made the decision to prosecute the Baker 70 on false charges. After OU and the City lost one of the criminal cases, the charges were dropped. But that was not until after the City Law office had intimidated 15 members of the Baker 70 into accepting plea bargains, whereby students were automatically convicted of lesser (but equally false) charges – and those convictions still stand.
OU then followed its illegal arrests of the Baker 70 with an equally illegal ban on indoor campus protests, immediately denounced as unconstitutional by the Ohio ACLU. But our city government has given every indication it will support OU in enforcing this unconstitutional policy, just as it supported OU in wrongfully arresting and prosecuting the Baker 70.
OU's illegal suppression of student activism has coincided with Republican-controlled state legislatures in 18 states attempting to pass new laws restricting the public's right to protest. So it's not surprising that the OU Board of Trustees, serving at the pleasure of Republican Ohio Governor Mike Dewine, recently awarded OU's Nellis a $75,000 bonus for all his hard work to suppress student activism.
Our city government is made up almost entirely of Democrats. Yet these Democrats are helping a Republican-controlled university administration suppress campus opposition to the racist policies of the Trump administration! So much for the heroic "Resistance” of our local Democratic Party establishment.
And what about the economic well-being of most Athenians?
We all know that unionized workers generally succeed in winning better pay, benefits, and working conditions -- thereby reducing poverty and economic inequality. But the administration of my opponent Steve Patterson recently chose to ignore the city's Responsible Contractor Bidding Criteria in order to try to eliminate nearly 40 good-paying, local union jobs with benefits (and to derail successful recycling and composting projects) by attempting to take the city refuse and recycling contract away from Athens Hocking Recycling Center.
After an AHRC employee leaked news of the administration's decision, Patterson's administration faced a solid week of massive public outrage that culminated in a 4-hour-long council meeting, for which a crowd three times larger than council chambers could accommodate turned out, and where 60 local residents spoke in favor of AHRC keeping the contract. In a pathetic attempt to save face, Patterson's administration then announced it had found technical reasons that required the rejection of all contract bids, and that this -- rather than getting their butts handed to them by an outraged public -- had caused Patterson and company to reverse their earlier decision and recommend the extension of AHRC's contract.
But the union-busting efforts of Patterson's right hand man, City Service-Safety Director Andy Stone, haven't been limited to his work in Athens city government. Stone also chairs the Hocking College Board of Trustees that recently awarded college President Betty Young a lavish bonus after she succeeded in reducing unionized Hocking College staff to just 1/3 its level when she was hired.
And at the same time, Patterson and Stone have opposed several simple, common sense initiatives to support our local independent food and beverage scene, which in turn not only provides crucial support to our arts & music scene and our progressive local political culture, but which also has the potential to bring more tourism dollars into our community.
Meanwhile, the Athens City government helps increase local income inequality by providing top department managers with generous compensation packages similar to what their counterparts receive in much larger, more prosperous Ohio cities, while the Athens city government compensates lower level city workers according to the much lower standards of the local labor market. And on top of that, the City of Athens provides no paid maternal (or parental) leave to its employees.
And as one last illustration of our city government's backwards priorities, it's worth noting that while city officials won’t enforce the housing code in order to ensure safe housing for 75 - 80% of city residents, city officials have no problem enforcing and strengthening parking regulations that disproportionately impact lower income residents. The city won’t ensue you have a safe place to live, but get to the meter 5 minutes late and the city will happily take an hour’s worth of your hard earned wages. In addition, the city’s 24 hour parking rule has always been selectively enforced to target low income residents for tickets and towing. In renter neighborhoods the rule is vigilantly enforced, but the only time its ever enforced in more affluent homeowner neighborhoods is when homeowners themselves request it be enforced, like on Morris Street during OU move-in weekend. But aside from that, affluent homeowners can park in the same spot on the street for months at a time without ever worrying about a ticket.
Given all of this and more, it's clear that the undemocratic, unrepresentative city government led by Mayor Patterson is not of, by, or for the people -- it is of, by, and for the most affluent 10 - 25% of our city: the very landlords, major business owners, white collar managers, and OU administrators who are always busy enriching themselves at everyone else’s expense. City government is just one more weapon for them to wield against the rest of us.
III. HOW WE GOT IN THIS MESS -- AND WHY I'M NOT RUNNING AS A DEMOCRAT
Long ago Athens voters took the Republican Party out of the equation. Registered Republican voters in Athens are now outnumbered by Democrats more than 4:1 and by Democrats and independents together more than 18:1. That's why no Republican has won an election for any Athens city office since 2001. It's why only a handful of Republicans have run since then. And it's why no Republican is running for any Athens city office this year. Republicans know they can't win in Athens.
And don't get me wrong -- that's great!! Considering, of course, that the GOP is led by a mentally-deranged, white nationalist, concentration camp-building, climate science-denying, war-mongering, probable rapist, parasitic billionaire, narcissistic, pathologically-lying con man.
But what's not so great is that once we took the Republican Party out of the equation, we didn't replace it with anything. And that gave the Democratic Party the opportunity to take voters out of the equation!
With no serious opposition,the leadership of the Democratic Party has been free to decide elections all by itself -- in the vast majority of cases giving voters no choice but to elect the single Democrat the party runs for each office. Indeed, Democratic Party officials rarely even give a minority of eligible city voters a choice in the Democratic Primary! With 11 Athens city offices up for election this year, there was only 1 competitive Democratic Primary race, and it only happened because an incumbent Democrat Kent Butler decided to retire from City Council.
So the only way to change this situation is for left-wing candidates who represent the interests of the renters, students, and workers who make up the vast majority of Athenians to start running as independents against Democrats in city elections. That's the only way we'll have competitive city elections in November, when all eligible voters are actually here to decide the outcome.
Indeed, there is just no way to restore democracy here in Athens by running as a Democrat. Just look at what happened with Democrat Sam Miller's failed city council campaign.
In her campaign for the First Ward council seat, the 23-year-old recent OU graduate and former College Democrats president, Miller, did a great job of highlighting the unrepresentative nature of our city government as she made the focus of her campaign the complete absence of students, young people, and renters from City Council. But by running as a Democrat against another Democrat for a seat only being sought by Democrats, Miller ensured that her race would be decided in May (rather than in November), when the very people Miller said she wanted to represent wouldn't be around to vote for her. So even if she had been elected, Miller wouldn't have been accountable to students, young people, and renters, because they wouldn't have been the people who elected her. But of course the landlords, business owners, affluent white collar professionals, and older Athenians who control the local Democratic Party weren't very receptive to Miller's message, so they backed her opponent, and Miller lost.
Now, I understand how bad the Republican Party is. That's why when it comes to elections, I prioritize defeating Republicans. So if I was running most places in the US, I'd be running as a Democrat. And I think my fellow democratic socialists Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib all made the right choice to run as Democrats.
But here in Athens, we've already defeated Republicans. Not just in one election or even one entire election cycle -- but in ALL election cycles for the foreseeable future! And not having to worry about Republicans means not having to settle for Democrats.
Now that our city has made the choice between Republicans and Democrats, we're free to make the choice between Democrats and further left candidates, including democratic socialists like me. Rather than just voting for the lesser evil, we have the opportunity to vote for a greater good.
IV. THE SOLUTION -- DEMOCRACY, REPRESENTATION & ACCOUNTABILITY
Unlike my opponent Steve Patterson, I’m of the people. I’m under the age of 45. I'm an Athens renter, and I have been for 13 years. I'm a member of the local working class. I own and operate Hot Potato food truck, but it's not profitable (partly because of city regulations that helping to corporatize our local food economy), so I still pay my bills by working for someone else. And I'm a socialist, too -- much like the majority of the generation to which OU students belong, and much like Bernie Sanders, who a 63.4% majority of Athens presidential primary voters backed in 2016.
And unlike Patterson, I’m by the people. I’m running as an independent so that the mayoral race will be decided in November when everyone is here to vote. So if I’m elected mayor, it won’t be because people had no choice -- it will be because voters chose me.
And unlike Patterson, I’m for the people. I’ve spent 23 years of my life working as a grassroots organizer, bringing together exploited and oppressed people and their allies to fight for (and often win) a more just and democratic world. That is what motivates not only my decision to run for mayor as an independent, but also the platform on which I’m running.
And part of my platform involves recognizing that democracy isn't just about elections. First, we need to restore representative democracy in Athens by having competitive elections. But from there we can create participatory democracy by transforming neighborhood associations into neighborhood assemblies that give all residents greater power to determine who's on city council and greater power to set the city's agenda.
So I hope you'll take a closer look at my whole platform by clicking on the links above and below. And I hope you'll join the fight to win the Athens we deserve by volunteering, donating, and voting for me this Tuesday, November 5!
This past February and March, Damon Krane (second row, second from left) participated in the successful campaign to prevent the Athens County Board of Elections from reducing the number of polling stations and moving some to less accessible locations. However, in the City of Athens, a much more severe form of voter suppression has existed for years, in which noncompetitive elections make voting pointless and voters powerless.
Photo by Athens Messenger's Heather Willard. June 20 Athens County Independent Candidates Forum. From left: Nelsonville City Council candidate McCray Powell, Athens City Council candidate Chris Monday, Athens City Council candidate Ellie Hamrick, Athens Mayor candidate Damon Krane.