Power Shift: Columbus power players // Mike Coleman: Don’t look for Coleman’s swagger to disappear
The following article excerpt was published in Columbus Monthly's January 2016 issue. Read the full article here
Mike Coleman: Don’t look for Coleman’s swagger to disappear
Mike Coleman wants to break the mold again. When he returns to private legal practice this month after 16 years as Columbus mayor, the most powerful local politician of his generation aims to remain a major force in the city. If he pulls off the feat, it will mark another impressive milestone in a remarkable career.
The longest-serving mayor in Columbus history, Coleman, 61, established himself as a unique political figure. He was a new kind of Columbus leader—brash, bold and with plenty of “swagger” (his favorite word). He championed private-public partnerships, earned the respect of a wide range of constituencies (unions, businesses, young people, minorities) and built a powerful political machine that he used to help elect allies such as U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty and his mayoral successor, Andy Ginther. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Coleman putting together the broad coalition that rammed through a city income-tax increase in the middle of a recession, as Coleman did in 2009.
In 2010, Columbus Monthly ranked Coleman as the fourth most powerful person in the city—the highest ranking for any politician since the magazine began surveying Central Ohio power four decades ago. (Business leaders have long dominated the Power list.) If anything, Coleman’s influence grew more significant in recent years as Downtown continued to blossom, one of his greatest achievements. And Coleman is convinced he can still play a major role even after leaving City Hall. “I’ve always used my role as mayor to persuade, to influence, to guide, to facilitate,” he said in November after announcing his post-mayoral plans to work for the Columbus office of the Ice Miller law firm, where he will serve as the director of business and government strategies. “And that style of leadership is not likely to change just because I’m no longer in the mayor’s office.”
Other powerful Columbus politicians have faded away after leaving office. The two most recent Columbus mayors, Buck Rinehart and Greg Lashutka, were never major forces again. Coleman also has an additional cloud over him as a result of an FBI investigation into the 2010 sale of his Berwick home to a Chinese national. (Coleman has denied any wrongdoing.)
But no other Columbus ex-politician has the standing of Coleman. Political insiders say his favorability ratings are in the mid to high 70s, extraordinary for someone who held elected office as long as he did. The city also seems to lack a Vernon Jordan-style über-lawyer, a dealmaker and consigliore who floats between the political and business worlds and everyone in town turns to for advice. There are influential lawyers in Columbus—Larry James and Alex Shumate are two—but none with Coleman’s credentials. “It might be even more important that he stay involved because of this power vacuum that exists,” says a political insider who’s close to Coleman.
That involvement, however, raises a question: How can a four-term former mayor remain a major civic player without upstaging or interfering with the leadership of Ginther? Coleman says that won’t be a problem. “I will support my successor in every way possible,” Coleman says. “I have no intention of being on the front pages anymore, but I do have every intention of having an influence on the direction of the community in the civic, governmental and business sectors.”
So does that mean he’ll be a quiet leader? Maybe not. “I don’t intend to stand in a corner with earmuffs, blinders and tape over my mouth,” Coleman says.