The mayor's upcoming State of the City speech affords citizens a chance to reflect on money, power and birthday cake kickbacks.

I’m trying to have a problem with Mayor Ginther’s upcoming State of the City speech being sponsored by campaign contributors and businesses Columbus has dealings with, but I won’t lie: It’s a struggle.

A part of me doesn’t see what the big deal is. First, it’s not like it’s a new arrangement. People have just become more aware of it. Most people didn’t seem to mind when a mayor we could generally tolerate did the same thing, and this is Ginther’s primary defense when pressed about this: Coleman did it first.

Then there is the math. If I give your business a tax abatement, and you give me money to put on my birthday party, then I’ve arguably used funds that should have been taxpayer money. So, in a way, students suffering in unheated/uncooled classrooms are footing the bill for the cake. Welcome to Shell Game Civics 101.

The most potent criticism of this arrangement is that it exposes influential relationships between the city and big business; for instance, there may be companies (like Stantec) dropping money for this as a maintenance fee for keeping their relationship with the city popping. If this is news to you, I want to welcome you to the first time reading my column.

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What seems obvious to me is that if Ginther wants to have businesses — companies his administration has cut deals with, given tax abatements to and otherwise given free rein to develop as they see fit — pay money to hear him say “neighborhoods, neighborhoods, neighborhoods” for the 1,000th time, I feel like I should be somewhat thankful he’s not using my tax dollars to do so. 

The people who benefit from campaign spiels disguised as public squares should foot the bill for them. No one who has been displaced from their neighborhood (neighborhood, neighborhood) should have to pay for it. People who send their children to schools that don’t have heat in the winter shouldn’t have to pay for it. Teachers who have been lobbying against tax abatements shouldn’t have to pay for it. People who fear their civil servants shouldn’t have to pay for it. If it’s going to come down to patting people on the back for their long-term support of a myopic cultural and political agenda, fine. It’s their party. Let them buy the hats and streamers. 

The fact that Columbus may be the only city in the state that funds these speeches in this manner just means Ginther is pioneering in his willingness to engage corruption head-on. Not do away with it, of course. Negotiate with it. Work across the aisle. A nonpartisan pact of dealing. It is the kind of corruption you can pledge allegiance to.

My problem (if I have one) isn’t that I can’t see the deal, but that I can’t muster a feeling about it. Perhaps this is what disenfranchisement feels like. I experienced a similar feeling watching President Trump’s State of the Union last night. The sensation I felt was an utter helplessness at the onslaught of machinations and lies that simply did not care that I knew they existed. The exchange wasn’t about what was true or fair or right. It was about winning control of the reins, and finding ways to keep winning that control. It was about tokenism disguised as care, and doing the least while claiming the most. Give, say, a Tuskegee Airman a seat at the SOTU and you get to trumpet how you helped black people for the next year. It doesn’t matter that you can walk half a mile from where that speech is happening and find a veteran sleeping on a park bench right now. It’s not about actual change. It’s about doing what you have to do to maintain control of power.

Which is an interesting circle of political life. There is control, and then there is power. They are not interchangeable resources. Control needs power, but power is not always beholden to control. There are all kinds of ways to wield power. Control is just one method of many. Sharing is a way to use power. Agency is a way to use power. Control is just the fastest and most thorough way to get what you want out of power. 

There is a theory that all political power ultimately lies with the people, that money is only as powerful as what it can buy, and if you convince people not to take money for certain things (actions, votes, resources), then you empower people and drain power from money. When money becomes less important than what people want, then it is people who actually embody power. There are certainly enough examples in history of this happening. Since it is Black History Month, I offer the Montgomery Bus Boycott for consideration. It was a working people’s protest that lasted over a year (1955-1956). When money became less important than what the black people of Montgomery, Alabama, wanted their reality to be, they became the vessels of power. So long as the city of Montgomery held money to be more important than black people, while at the same time needing their money to function, the city’s cause was lost. Mind you, Montgomery’s racism wasn’t eradicated; it was simply defeated. And so long as your racism can’t affect my life, I don’t care what you feel about my blackness. That is people as power.

Of course, this all sounds naive proffered in a city that drags protesters out of MLK events, demolishes history at every turn in the interest of rebranding over genuine progress, and thinks the way to resolve an affordable housing crisis is to move the goalposts on what “affordable” means. And any criticism that seeks to upend such things in a city that brazenly does all of this and more probably reads as downright gullible. I get that.

Here is something else I get: You have to pick your political battles in this town. Some things we have already lost to the machine of greed and self-interest. Not temporarily; forever. So I say if the mayor wants to throw a party in which he will deliver a speech about how things are — not for everyone who lives here, but for the people he is angling to appease — then I don’t see why we should pay for that limp slap in the face. Frankly, I would be more upset if I had spent a dollar to have Mayor Ginther rattle off a list of glossed-over developments. Better to leave that experience to the people who are already paying him: the large businesses and major developers of Columbus.