When Ethel Stewart moved back home to Columbus, a little more than a year ago, she could not have imagined what transpired Tuesday evening.
The 70-year-old retired nurse had figured to live a quiet life, surrounded by a small circle of family and friends.
But on Tuesday, Stewart became the Ward 1 councilwoman for the city of Columbus, defeating Liz Terry in the special election runoff, 363 votes to 234.
Stewart got 107 absentee votes; Terry got 69. There were seven affidavit ballots still to be processed today, as of Tuesday night.
When the final results were announced at the municipal complex courtroom at 8:15 p.m., Stewart and a small group of supporters leaped from their seats and threw their hands up in celebration.
“My first thought was hard work and honesty pays off,” said Stewart. “Getting to know the people in my community and respecting the people in my community, that meant a lot to me. It showed in the numbers tonight.”
Terry said even in defeat she felt her campaign had been successful.
“Congratulations to Mrs. Stewart,” Terry said in an email to The Dispatch. “This was a hard fought race and I learned so much about the interworking of politics. I am hopeful that the needs and concerns recognized and expressed by the citizens of Ward 1 and the City of Columbus will not be taken lightly. I want to thank the citizens of Ward 1 who trusted me with their votes, those who supported me by canvassing the ward, and those who supported me both financially and spiritually.
“I hope that we can all come together and work for the betterment of our ward and the City of Columbus,” she added.
With the victory, Stewart becomes the first woman on the six-member city council since 2008, which she said meant a lot to her.
But there was something that meant even more, she said.
Stewart is the sister of Gene Taylor, whose unexpected death on Aug. 5 created the opening. Taylor was in his fourth term on the council at the time of his death.
Stewart was one of nine candidates to qualify for the special election to fill Taylor’s unexpired term, which ends in 2021.
“I was thinking of my brother when I decided to run,” Stewart said. “People usually didn’t run run against him. When I found out there were nine of us, my thought was, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten into? I have a real battle on my hands.'”
She began knocking on doors, meeting residents throughout the ward.
“My message to them is I am here to serve the citizens of Ward 1,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of things I can promise you, but what I can promise is that I will listen to your needs and I will take care of the issues and concerns that we’re able to take care of.”
Stewart emerged from the Sept. 24 election as the front-runner, with 64 more votes than Taylor, sending the two candidates to Tuesday’s runoff.
“In the runoff, I felt I had built a relationship in the community with people,” she said. “I visited the same people before. I worked even harder with the runoff because the time frame was so short. I came out ahead in the first election, but I knew I had to to stay ahead, so I worked harder and piggy-backed on what I did in the first election.”
Among those who gathered at the municipal complex to support Stewart was Terry Taylor, Gene Taylor’s widow. She said she encouraged her sister-in-law to run, but did not give any specific advice.
“She came to me and said, “You know, I want to keep (Gene’s) legacy alive. I’m going to run.'” Taylor said. “I just said, ‘To God be the glory. I support you 150 percent.'”
Taylor said she felt Tuesday’s outcome was personal.
“I feel like a winner, all the way,” she said.
Stewart said the low turnout — only 597 of roughly 2,700 registered voters in Ward 1 went to the polls — is more of an opportunity than a disappointment.
“Usually when a person who doesn’t vote or complains a lot, that’s a cry for help,” she said. “My position now is to work with the community and find out what they need and why they didn’t vote and go from there.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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