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Yes We Can Coalition Tries To Buck History In Columbus Council Elections

Joe Motil, Liliana Rivera Baiman (holding signs) with Yes We Can canvassers.
Nick Evans
Joe Motil, Liliana Rivera Baiman (holding signs) with Yes We Can canvassers..

On a drizzly Sunday afternoon, Joe Motil went knocking on doors in a neighborhood near MAPFRE Stadium.

“How you doing? I’m looking for Austin,” he told the woman who answered the door.

Turns out Austin has moved to Seattle, but Motil plowed ahead, describing his professional and volunteering experience in the community over the past 30 years.

On Tuesday, Columbus voters decide who will fill four seats on City Council. It’s a body that has become a political machine built to keep incumbents in office.

Progressive organizers from the group Yes We Can are mounting another challenge to city politics, with Motil, Tiffany White and Lilliana Rivera Baiman making up the group's slate for Council. The organization is also endorsing Kimberly Mason for school board.

Yes We Can formed four years ago and first backed candidates in the 2017 municipal elections. Every one of them lost. One of those failed candidates was Amy Harkins, and now she’s working as one of the organizers leading Yes We Can.

“In 2017 we were outspent 10-to-1, so the money is something that we’re probably never going to be able to beat,” Harkins explains. “But we have people who really believe in our message and people who are feeling the same pain that our candidates are feeling.”

The Yes We Can slate is also facing institutional hurdles in the form of council’s decades-long reliance on appointments. Harkins notes 35 of the last 39 council members were initially tapped by existing council members to fill a vacancy, rather than winning their post at the ballot box.

That remains true today. Three of the four Council incumbents running in this year’s election are facing voters for the first time.

Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

The campaign issue Yes We Can has been hammering harder than any other is property tax abatements. Council members defend the incentives as a way to create jobs, but critics argue they starve public schools of needed funding and primarily benefit businesses that don’t need it.

At a recent forum, White, who serves as a North Central Area Commissioner, voiced skepticism for the policy at a time when Columbus is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country.

“They don’t bring the jobs that they always guarantee to yield,” White said. “I guess my bigger concern is that if we’re the fastest growing city, you’re going to come here regardless. You’re going to set up shop regardless, you’re going to move here for the job opportunities.”

Abatements directly impact education funding by reducing the amount of property tax dollars available for the school district, although city leaders say the tax breaks boost tax revenue long-term.

At the same forum, council member Elizabeth Brown pushed back against the anti-abatement argument, saying Columbus needs to seek out development and not wait for it to come knocking.

"I am not satisfied to say 'Let's just sit back and it will happen anyway.' I think that is a receipe for disaster going forward," Brown said.

Motil argues the abatements are also linked to the city’s affordable housing crisis. He’s worked in commercial construction for more than 30 years. At a gathering just before going to knock on doors, Motil said those lower property taxes allow developers to raise their asking price.

“Because the buyer is not paying virtually any property taxes on it, so they can charge a higher amount,” Motil says of builders. “That higher amount of that property is going to have an impact and an increase on the other properties in that direct area, so that’s going to raise up the prices of that as well.”

Current Council members see affordable housing a major challenge, too. They’ve taken steps such as tying tax abatements to the construction of affordable units, and they’ve dedicated $50 million in bond money to the issue over five years.

When she’s out knocking on doors, Baiman says affordable housing is the biggest concern on voters’ minds.

“Especially in the neighborhoods that we’ve been talking to folks at, people think there’s either not enough affordable housing, or what is deemed affordable, is not really affordable for working families,” Baiman says.

Baiman works as union organizer, so the day-to-day work of running for office is pretty familiar for her. She says it seems like their message is resonating, and she feels optimistic about her chances.

“Being out in the neighborhood, seeing your yard signs out there by people who you didn’t give them to or know of, going to the forums and debates and people know you by name, that’s pretty much to me like we’ve hit a good place because people know who we are,” Baiman says.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, Yes We Can organizers aren’t looking at this election as a referendum on their organization. Harkins notes this is only the second election cycle in which they’ve been an active presence.

Although they emphatically want to see their candidates win, Yes We Can believes they’re already making an impact by tugging the conversation onto their turf and forcing current Columbus Council members to explain and defend their policies.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.