Tuesday’s primary elections in Columbus provided one piece of the puzzle.
Will city government remain largely status quo? Or will the June 8 general elections introduce sweeping changes and a course correction for the city?
With only two incumbents — Ward 2 councilman Joseph Mickens and Ward 5 councilman Stephen Jones — unopposed and assured of their seats, three other council positions, along with the mayor’s race, will not be determined until June.
In the meantime, the one council seat that did change hands Tuesday will likely be scrutinized like tea leaves in a fortune teller’s cup.
Tuesday, political newcomer Jacqueline DiCicco defeated three-term councilman and two-term vice mayor Bill Gavin by an almost 3-to-1 margin. It was a margin that few, if any, would have predicted.
DiCicco’s overwhelming win presents an interesting question: Was it simply a one-off victory between two candidates? Or is the outcome an expression of voter dissatisfaction with the current leadership of which Gavin was a key player?
If it is the latter, it calls into question how much of the current leadership will survive when the ballots are counted in June.
With Mayor Robert Smith incapacitated by an undisclosed illness — he hasn’t been in his office since Feb. 18 and hasn’t issued a public statement about his health since March 10 — and as many as three new council seats going to challengers, a tide of voter unrest could dramatically change the leadership of the city.
DiCicco’s victory was built around the issue of city finances, highlighted by the embezzlement conviction of the city’s chief financial officer Milton Rawle, who was found to have taken almost $300,000 of the city’s money at a time when the city faced a $800,000 deficit. Rawle may have been guilty of a crime, but many residents viewed the city council’s lack of oversight of finances a key contributing factor. Debt, too, has been on the minds of many – $40 million in bond debt, most of it to pay for street paving projects that somehow still don’t seem to have solved the city’s street conditions.
If Tuesday’s election was a referendum on the city’s handling of finances, Gavin was, in some respects, the least culpable. Gavin was one of the councilmen most likely to push back on spending proposals. His three terms were also marked for his willingness to listen to citizens and represent their concerns. He served the city well, if not flawlessly.
Even so, he was decisively rejected at the polls, which raises the issue of how safe the three other incumbents will be come June.
Wednesday morning, each of the four races appears to be in play.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.