Topics Discussed Included:
- How Council President Hardin got his start in politics
- His working relationship with former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman
- How the Columbus business community impacts his role as Council President
- The strengths, assets and weaknesses of the City of Columbus
All right. So let's welcome Council President Shannon Hardin into another Calfee Now Podcast Series. We've been interviewing elected officials, civic folks, all over the state. Council President, how are you, sir?
I'm good, my friend. How are you, sir?
Hey, very good to see you. So let's get right into it Council President. So what made you get into politics? As I always say, you got to be a certain type of animal and beast to want to be an elected official. Kind of walk me through how you got ingrained in politics and then obviously how you got to where you are today.
Certainly. So I always tell folks I really was never attracted to, or even currently, love politics, but what got me into this business was local government. Starting in ninth grade in Columbus, we have internship requirements. My internship was at this place called the Mayor's Action Center, which is the precursor to what many cities have now or 3-1-1 call centers where constituents will call in with issue or concern. And we would then route them to the department that could help solve their issue. I started there when I was in high school. And it would usually be people calling in like a little old lady where the trash truck skipped her house. And what I always thought was interesting was that folks called in not so much expecting the city, the government, this bureaucratic institution to do anything, but more so to levy their anger and their frustration with "Once again, you guys left me out" and what I've always felt was the essential part of government and public service is constituent services.
So being able to click over the line, call the refuse department, say, "Can you go out to this house today and then click back over and tell this lady that, if you're home in the next four hours, we have a truck that will come and pick up your trash?" That, to me, became intoxicating, to be the person in the room to help make someone's day just a little bit better and in turn, restore their belief and their expectations in a government that works for them. And so, that really was how I got started. I always say that I love local government because of the proximity to people. As politicians, we spend a lot of money on polls, but I tell my folks, I don't need to spend that much money on polls because I know when I'm doing well, and I know when I'm not.
And I know because of the Kroger Caucus. When I go to Kroger's down the street from my house folks aren't shy about telling me what I did right and what I did wrong. And I appreciate that. And I think that proximity to voters is what really keeps me in it. I think politics is part of the game and how you get to that portion where you can actually serve. And I had a saying that, I forget where I kind of heard it first, but I don't serve to win elections. I win elections so that I can serve.
And so that's how I got in politics. From the Mayor's Action Center, I then worked in the Public Utilities Department for the city. The year leading up to my graduation from Morehouse College, I was the Director of Outreach for a really tough issues campaign that we ran here in Columbus that, during the great recession of 2008, raised our income tax by 0.5%, which really set Columbus apart from other cities during the recession. It allowed us to not only keep our police and fire, to not only keep our refuse going when we were really seeing huge declines in income taxes because of how many people are unemployed.
But we were able to add and build. We were able to pass that issue. And then the former mayor, Mayor Coleman, told me that after I came out of college, that he'd have a job for me. And so when I came out in 2009, I started in January 2010, working for former Mayor Coleman. I did that for about six years or five years until, as he came up on Columbus City Council, I applied really with the urging of Coleman, and I can tell you more about that story later. But they tell you to apply not to get the seat, but just to let folks know that you're interested in going for it. And I accidentally got it the first time and I've been on Council since then. In 2018, I was elected Council President, the youngest council president in our city's history. And it's been an honor to serve.
Well, it took me one question to go off that. I'm going to go off-script already. So talk to me about working with Mayor Coleman and the relationship and how he kind of cultivated you. I mean, I know we're friends and we've talked about this, how he kind of cultivated you into the kind of leader you are today and what would that relationship mean? Because, as a Clevelander coming to Columbus, that's the first thing I heard was Mayor Coleman is the man, he's the icon. So, talk a little bit about that relationship and how that cultivated you.
Yeah. I mean, the story of mentorship is not any different between Coleman and myself and anyone else who has someone who is in a position where they're able to help people and that you want to emulate that. And this is why I'm such a big supporter in encouraging folks to have a mentor and for mentors to seek out mentees because you can't be what you don't see. And having that internship, and my mom worked in City Hall as a front desk assistant all throughout my life. Having that proximity to people helped me see that these people aren't necessarily that much smarter than you or I. I came from the South Side of Columbus, a neighborhood that was disconnected from a lot of the success of the rest of the city.
And I just think about how many other young people that are out there in those neighborhoods who think, oh, because they see me or any of us downtown, or see us on TV, or see me sitting in the Council President's seat that I'm somehow different or more qualified to sit in these seats than anyone else. And the truth is I'm not. And for me, the blessing was that I had proximity, so I was able to learn that lesson pretty early on that regardless of my station in life that I can do this thing, too. And so, Coleman brought me in, and when I was working for him, a couple of things. One, the greatest thing that he did, and I think the greatest thing that mentors do are, they allow you to mess up on their dime. Coleman was in a position, by the time that I started working for him, where he was the most powerful elected official in Franklin County by a lot by far.
And so he had room to mentor and mentor in the way where he threw me into the deep end of the pool with me representing him and allowed me to use those early years as just learning. And I messed up a lot and he truthfully was harder on me than he was on a lot of people. And because he had great expectations for me and wanting to make sure that I could stand the heat. So he let me mess up on his dime, and I think that that's a lesson for a lot of mentors. And I do that with my team, for young staffers that I really believe in that have that drive. Give them the space. Give them the space to go out there and develop themselves. Put them in situations that may be right outside of their comfort zone to see if they can stretch and make it. Coleman did that over and over again for me, and I served as his liaison to the US Conference of Mayors, which meant that we traveled around the country a lot together.
One flight home, Coleman, this was in 2014. Coleman started telling me that it was time for me to step up my public service, that he thought that I had probably hit my glass ceiling in his office. I came in as a child. It really isn't, I was 21 when I started working in his office. And he was saying, I think that you hit your ceiling in this office. So it's time for you to step up and probably run for office.
And I'm like, "Mayor, I'm too young for it. I can't run. I'm too liberal. I'm too young." He's like, "I know you're young." I was 26. And he was like, "But what are you talking about, 'you're too liberal'?". I'm like, "Well, mayor, I'm young and I'm Black. I'm just too progressive for this city." And he's like, "Shannon, I know you're black, dude. What are you talking about?"
I'm like, "Well, mayor, I'm young, I'm Black, and I'm gay." And he paused. And I remember this, I think when we were coming back from Tampa and he was like, "You know what, Shannon? That's only a problem if it's a problem for you. Matter of fact, that is why you must do it. And you must do it now because our city is growing and it's becoming more progressive and more young, and people need to see themselves represented in their elected officials. And that's why it's your time."
And that's the second point around strong mentorships and Coleman. Mentors usually see in you something that you may not yet see in yourself, and they give you that push to go for it. And it was with that, that I put my name in for the next council seat and it started me on my way.
That's great. Personally, I wanted to hear that story. So you have elevated as you even pointed out, Council President, very quickly. And now you're at probably the top of the food chain when it comes to the legislative side of things. And one thing we know that both you've done well and also, Mayor Coleman done well was worked with the business community. Tell me a little bit about what role (the business community) plays in your daily activities and looking at Columbus, where does the business community fit into all of that?
Well, one of the things that I'm very proud of is that I'm a progressive. I am a liberal. I believe in an economic philosophy that supports working people and make sure that folks have what they need, their basic needs and that there's a dignity in the work that they do and the value that folks put on their work. I'm also the pragmatic progressive, where I know that for things to work, for us to solve the bigger issues in our community. And I think this goes for city, state and federal government as well, the government alone can't solve all the issues. So you have to have strong partnerships if you really want to get big things done. There are things that the private sector can do alone. There are things that the government can do alone. There are things of the nonprofit sector can do alone. But if you really want to step out, and if you really want to solve some of the most pressing issues facing communities around the country, then you're going to have to have those strong partnerships.
And in Columbus, we have really built that into our DNA where me, as a progressive Democrat, can work with, strategize, put together big public-facing initiatives that serve a public good with private sector leaders. And we do that time and time again. We redeveloped our riverfront, but mostly led by our private investment public partner with it. We saw a side of town, the South side near where I grew up, that had been historically left behind. We were able to find a couple of corporate leaders who came from that neighborhood get tens of millions of dollars in investment able to redevelop, put affordable housing, put social service agencies, partnering with the school district and take an old school and make it a hub of social service and nonprofit support to a neighborhood. We were able to identify one of our biggest issues in Columbus, which was infant mortality.
And the rate that it was a high rate of infant mortality that was happening in historically African-American communities, especially Linden, in partner with the public and private sector and nonprofit sector to raise tens of millions of dollars to address that. And now Columbus is leading the way in reducing infant mortality, especially among those groups. Time and time again, we've been able to stack hands. That doesn't mean that we agree. Usually we don't agree, but what we do is we agreed that we will put our egos behind us, that we will put the good of the city in front of us, and that we will always meet around a table. And with that philosophy, I think that we've been able to accomplish a lot in Columbus. And I really am, and I think that most of my colleagues and a lot of leaders in the city understand the value of public/private partnerships.
Fantastic. Great. So, let's talk a little bit about the city of Columbus. It is, from when I was a kid, many, many years ago. Well, not that long ago, to where it is now, it's light years. It's different. So let's talk about some of the strengths and some of the assets that you're working with now, and frankly, some room for improvement and some of the weaknesses that the city of Columbus has moving forward.
Certainly. So I will start with our weakness. A third of our population is not participating in the success of the rest of Columbus. Two thirds, especially prior to the pandemic, were doing extremely well. Job growth, economic attainment, it was and is happening, but still, a third of our population was left out. We're one of the most segregated cities in the country. And we all know when you have segregation, you have some doing well and some not that that creates real and sometimes long-lasting strife between communities. What Columbus has going for us is that we are the fastest-growing city in the Midwest. It is projected that Columbus will grow by anywhere from 500,000 to a million people over the next 20 to 25 years. And that's extraordinary growth, and that's a huge opportunity for Columbus in terms of jobs in housing and development in transit.
And, it's actually in the sweet spot of growth. It's enough growth to kind of be like, "Wow, that's big and we can plan for that." But it's not as fast as some of the growth that we've seen in some of our peer cities like Austin or Nashville. And why that's important is because Austin and Nashville, the growth happened so quickly that they weren't able to do some of the foundational work that you need to do for a growing city to make sure that you have a transit system that serves enough people, to make sure that you have enough housing. The housing stock itself is there so that when more people come in, it doesn't drive up costs and create affordable housing prices. We're starting to see the head winds of that happening in Columbus, where we have an affordable housing issue.
It's not a crisis yet. Well, actually I take that back. The pandemic has made it a crisis. I think what the pandemic has done has sped up or heightened or brought to the forefront a lot of the issues that were already underlying in Columbus. And so affordable housing is one of those issues that we're going to have to wrap our heads around and really focus on as we continue to grow and affordable housing doesn't mean just building more affordable or low-income housing. It means building a plethora of housing. Columbus's issue is that we are underdeveloped where we don't have enough housing across the spectrum from high-end to low-end. And when you don't have enough product, then it drives up costs and actually drives people down into lower-income housing, thus pushing the lower folks out where they are just priced out altogether.
And so we had the support of a housing issue and it's an issue that, because of the growth, will not be one that will have a silver bullet. You will not be able to tax and make our way out of this in terms of building. We will not be able to just build enough new housing. We will not be able to do one thing or the other. We're going to have to have a stacked approach to how we address our affordable housing issues. Connected to that is transit. Columbus is the largest city in the country without an advanced transit system. And what do I mean by that? We have a good bus system. Just two years ago, we went through a robbery redesign that made our bus system more efficient. But adding 800,000 or adding 500,000 to a million people and adding 500-600,000 more cars to the road will not work.
And we don't have the resources to invest in doing just highway and street infrastructure improvements to absorb that type of growth. And so we're going to have to transition a larger portion of our community to high-capacity transit. And the only way that we can do that is by really focusing on that development now. So what we have done is focused on high-growth corridors. So there are several corridors in Columbus where we know where the jobs are. We know where the housing is. There is still the current right-of-way where we can take enough for the transit system, but also for us to purchase either as a city or through a development agency, or even private sector partnerships, the land along those corridors ahead of time, so that we can then do affordable housing projects and keep the housing affordable along those corridors.
And a lot of folks, when they hear me talk about advanced transit and transit lines jump right to light railing. And I actually, unfortunately, I think that probably doesn't make sense anymore for cities to put those large investments in fixed rail infrastructure. With the changing nature of technology. I think that we have to be a little bit more nimble about what we build and how we build that infrastructure. And so really what we are doing is kind of looking at cities like Cleveland and Indianapolis, who have less rapid transit that puts a bus or in the future, probably some form of autonomous vehicle that carries a lot of people, puts it in its own right-of-way. So it's only that vehicle moving a lot of people in a constant and unobstructed by regular traffic pattern's way, to get that reliability, to make it more expeditious, to get from where you're going so that we can get more people on to public transit. That connects to the other issues around affordable housing.
The best way to put more money into a person's pocket is to take away their necessity for having a car in Columbus. That's around $8,500 a year, the cost to have a car. And so if we can take that need away from our residents, it directly puts money back in their pockets and allows them to prosper more. But also it helps to solve some of our equity issues as well, making sure that folks regardless of the color of their skin or neighborhood are able to connect to healthy food, to their schools, to their jobs, and to healthcare. So our greatest strength though, which is growth, will become a challenge as well. I have a friend who is a CEO who has business here in Columbus, but has offices around the country. And he said, "You know what? Shannon, growth in Columbus right now is cute."
To your point, I think, Mike, we have grown so much. We've always been a little guy in the state of Ohio. We're like the humble middle ground between Cleveland, Cincinnati. We're just here. We have the Buckeyes, but that's our only calling card. And so Columbus now has this vibe about itself, that we're starting to understand that we have what it takes to be a modern metropolitan city that can compete with any big city around the country. And so right now growth is cute in Columbus, because we're finally feeling, "Oh, we're getting our dues. People are starting to respect us." But his point was that there will come a time if you don't do the right investments now, that the growth of folks coming into Columbus will become a zero-sum game.
So, because all these new people are coming in, it's raising my rent. It's making housing more unaffordable. Because these people are coming in Columbus, now it takes me 15 minutes to get from one side of the city to the other. It will take 45 minutes. So he's like, "Be very careful about that and how we talk about it and make sure we're making those investments, because if not, the growth will start to erode the quality of life of your residents, and they will resent the leaders who supported that growth."
No, that was fantastic. That was comprehensive. And frankly, you pretty much answered/led into my final kind of question for you, Council President. Two things, I guess. In general, what does the future hold for Columbus? It seems like you're very optimistic. You're very excited. There's a lot to be excited about. And is there anything you want to say kind of to our listeners here, which include our clients, prospective clients and just folks who run across this podcast?
Certainly. Well, I am very optimistic about the production of Columbus and it's me taking several steps back to really look at the underlying economics of our city. Again, the growth patterns that we're seeing for the next 20 years. And I believe, and I say this often, that the city that I am leading now is really not due to the things that I've done in my six years in public office. The city that we lead right now is because people 20-25 years ago, leaders put the infrastructure in for a city to grow like it has. And for us to prosper the way that we are, which means that for me, it makes my job that much more important. That means that I am building the city now for that city, when we have 1 million more people. And we should all be thinking and leaders should all be thinking about their jobs in that way, how do we prepare.
Now, I do believe that we're going to go through some tough times economically because of the pandemic. And we don't know really where that will go. We hope for a Nike swoosh return to the economy. It seems like we're seeing more of a K-shaped return where the people who are doing okay or have the right type of jobs are coming back and their stock portfolios are doing well. But the folks that have certain types of jobs that were always underperforming and not paying enough, for the folks that we've promised to undergird in our community, they are either losing their jobs and they're not coming back, or they're not coming back at the same rates and it's certain the pay is not there. And so as a community, we're going to have to really focus on how do we undergird our city and carry us through maybe through a couple of years of economic downturn.
And I think we should all be eyes wide open to that. We should, I believe, lean into more social programs during that period. We're going to have to do more rent assistance than ever before. We're going to have to talk about the public good. How do we keep and train and re-skill our workers so that when they do come out of this, they will be in a more desirable position to take the jobs that we know will come eventually? And so, as we go through this, what I believe will be a downturn for a year or two, I don't think that we should slow down in terms of those supports. I think we need to actually lean into those things, but to hold the community through, so that we're in the best position.
Just like we had a hard conversation in 2008 with our residents to say, "You know what? I know that folks are losing jobs, but for the ones that keep it, let's put a little bit more in for the good of the larger city." And when Columbus voters passed that, I'm always so grateful. And I think that is the mantle of this city. We will dig deep for the greater good.
They were able to float the city, get us in a good place. We came back stronger than a lot of our peer cities. If we didn't have the layoffs in police and fire, I believe that we're going to have to do those types of things. I'm not saying raising taxes necessarily, but I am saying making big investments. I believe that workforce development is the new economic development. Companies don't move to cities now based off of infrastructure. The reason why Columbus was in the top 10 cities considered by Amazon. What really pumped us out was that, did we have that large trained workforce in the pipeline? Cities are going to have to invest in training their workforce and re-skilling them, if we really want to be competitive in attracting businesses and jobs in inner cities,
Well, Columbus City Council President, Shannon Hardin, you gave us a lot to [inaudible 00:25:58] on there. I really appreciate your time. And, I know Calfee, our clients, our prospective clients all enjoy hearing from you, and we'll talk soon and keep fighting the good fight for us.
Thank you, Mike. We appreciate all the work that you do and the partnerships as well that you bring to the table.
Thank you so much. Have a good one.
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