I miss the politics of Bob Stewart and Ab Schumaker.
I’ve especially missed it during the past year — or whenever the current presidential campaign began.
Actually, I can trace my feeling of loss for the two Columbus men to something like five years, beginning about the time local politics became mired in ugly name calling which sometimes bordered on class warfare.
The big difference in the politics of Stewart and Schumaker compared with the presidential candidates of 2016 and local leaders of the past five years is that Stewart and Schumaker were able to work together.
Oh, yeah … they also liked each other.
For those who are following their first presidential campaign or were witness to the blood bath that was taking place in Columbus politics during the last electoral struggle, the amiable relationship between leaders of two political parties might seem foreign. The sad thing is that young people especially might thinks politics has always been this way.
As proof, consider that Ab Schumaker was a Democrat, Bob Stewart a Republican.
They were raised that way. Ab grew up in a family which fostered political relationships with such well-known Democratic leaders as Jim Farley, who was chairman of the national Democratic Party during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Stewart had the same kind of upbringing, only in a Republican family. He did pretty well, becoming chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. His timing wasn’t the best, however. His term was shortened by the landslide loss of Barry Goldwater to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
While both local men were active in politics most of their lives, their principal avocations were in the business world. They were capitalists in the true sense of the word, but they also believed in the responsibility of committed individuals to get involved in the workings of government for the good of those they served.
They came together in 1984 when Bob Stewart began his first term as mayor. Ab was a seasoned city official at the time, having been a member of the City Council for 20 years.
What came to be their partnership could have easily evolved into a cat fight had they been wedded to strict party discipline. Stewart was mayor, but he faced a council dominated by Democrats. In fact, the first few years of his three terms in office were noted for the fact that there were more Democrats on the council than Republicans.
At the start of the Stewart administration, Columbus was on the brink of either disaster or the dawn of a promising era in municipal development.
Change was descending on the city, not so much because of political actions but more because of a changing business climate that could have turned Columbus into a ghost town. Major companies such as the then-named Cummins Engine Co. told city leaders that the days of an automatic job in its factories for local residents would no longer be a rite of passage.
That dire warning had an effect. The community immediately marshaled a number of forces to develop a game plan for not only averting the economic disaster but to diversify the area economy and plant the seeds for social as well as economic growth.
Had the political leaders maintained ideological party lines, it is unlikely much could have been done. However, led by Stewart and Schumaker, any differences were set aside in an effort to come up with collaborative solutions. The result was a highly successful partnership of the public and private sectors which eventually created thousands of new jobs in a variety of industries and addressed such deep-rooted problems as decaying downtown neighborhoods, substance abuse and inadequately prepared workers.
Throughout this process Ab and Bob not only worked together but deepened their friendship. Sometimes they seemed to complete each other’s sentences. It was often done with a sense of humor. I still remember that incident in 1984 when Councilman Jim Wininger, who had been licensed to carry a weapon, came to the council meeting with a pistol in an ankle holster. Sometime during the meeting the weapon fell unnoticed to the floor. It was discovered after the meeting and occasioned newspaper stories about the pistol-packing councilman.
In response, Ab joked that he would have to consider wearing “flak jackets” to future meetings. Sure enough, Bob Stewart showed up at the next Council meeting with two bulletproof vests borrowed from the police department. He and his friend donned the vests and posed with a good-natured Wininger.
Bob and Ab closed out their political careers about the same time. By the time Bob’s third term ended in 1995, Ab had been on the City Council for 32 years.
The era of cooperation did not end with their departures from office. It continued through much of Fred Armstrong’s four terms in office. However, signs of change and dissatisfaction appeared in his last year, a groundswell of resentment that resulted in newcomer Kristen Brown’s election. That was followed by a four-year period of acrimony which resulted in her failed re-election bid last year. Despite the change in administration, recriminations continue to echo throughout the city.
Mind you, this wasn’t a Democrat-versus-Republican fight. The feuding parties all belonged to the Republican Party.
As is the case in this year’s presidential shamefest, many are laying the blame on the political leaders.
While there’s something to be said for that conclusion, I fear that the problem is deeply rooted in the community itself.
For quite a while, a sizable segment of this community has felt left out of the decision-making process. The term “Good Old Boy network” came to be a household phrase. In some ways there is justification for those attitudes — specifically a sense among those who felt they were outsiders that community leaders believed they alone knew what was best for the community.
Unfortunately the reaction devolved into a melange of angry rhetoric from both sides, based not so much on reason but on the need to vent.
In the words of the comic strip character Pogo from many years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
I think Pogo would have liked Bob Stewart and Ab Schumaker.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at [email protected].