Flipping the script: Dems take control of city council

Four years ago, local Democrats made a statement by winning two Columbus City Council seats. Tuesday, they reshaped the council in a way it hasn’t been in more than 30 years.

Four Democrats won seven of the city council seats up for grabs in the municipal election — the most the party has held at one time since 1983.

Jerone Wood (District 1) and Grace Kestler (at-large) unseated Republican incumbents. Elaine Wagner (District 2) and Tom Dell (at-large) were re-elected to second terms.

“I think it’s the voter’s will that these people got elected, and a fair amount of hard work,” Bartholomew County Democratic Party chairman Bob Hyatt said.

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Democratic candidates talked to a lot of potential voters, he noted.

“They got a lot of Democratic votes, but also a lot of Republican votes,” Hyatt said.

Hyatt said that even late in the day, Democrats were calling voters they knew who had not voted and urging them to vote, because they said the elections would be close.

A good recruiting process of candidates helped, too, he said.

“We … had young Democrats step up and say they wanted to make a difference, and we got them to run for office,” Hyatt said.

It wasn’t until the results from Donner Center were reported — the last of eight voting centers tallied — that Democrats clinched a council majority.

Wood defeated two-term Republican incumbent Dascal Bunch by one vote, 260-259. They were tied at 198 with Donner Center votes remaining.

Bunch, who sought a third consecutive term, has indicated he will seek a recount.

Hyatt said seeking a recount in this situation is to be expected, but he thinks with the attention on county clerks to ensure accurate results that the District 1 outcome isn’t likely to change.

The Donner Center votes also gave Dell the push he needed to regain a lead over Republican Josh Burnett that he’d held most of the night, but had lost after seven of eight voting centers had been tallied. Burnett led Dell 2,963-2,944 with just Donner Center remaining.

Republican incumbent Laurie Booher lost her at-large seat.

“Josh Burnett was probably the biggest heartbreaker of the evening,” Bartholomew County Republican Party chairwoman Barb Hackman said. “I don’t know anybody that campaigned as hard and did everything right. For him to lose that was a heartbreaker.”

However, Hackman noted that Kestler campaigned really hard and that Dell is so well liked and known that Burnett faced stiff competition in the at-large race.

Hackman said the hard work of the Democratic candidates made a difference.

“They got out and really, I think, campaigned hard and they worked to get the early votes and they worked hard to get the word out,” Hackman said. “It was really a wakeup call for us Republicans that we can’t be complacent. We’ve ruled for 30 years, but now we’ve got to work harder.”

David Bush (District 3), Frank Miller (District 4) and Tim Shuffett (District 5) were the only Republicans to win, all maintaining the seats they held. Miller and Shuffett won third consecutive terms. Miller trailed most of the night before the final three vote centers reported pushed him over the top.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop and clerk-treasurer Luann Welmer, both Republicans, also won re-election. Both were unopposed.

Of the 29,633 registered voters for the municipal election, 7,306 (24.65%) cast votes.

The election of Wagner and Dell to the city council in 2015 marked the best showing for Democrats in municipal elections since 2007, when Fred Armstrong won his fourth consecutive term for mayor, Brenda Sullivan won the clerk-treasurer race and Priscilla Scalf was elected to represent District 1 on city council.

The last time two or more Democrats held seats on city council was 1991: August Tindell, District 1; Albert Schumaker, District 2; and Fred Armstrong, District 3, Bartholomew County Clerk Jay Phelps said.

Democrats held three seats on city council in 1987, and in 1983 they held five seats, Phelps added.

Lienhoop said he’s confident that Republicans can work with a council that’s mostly Democrats.

“It’s all about trying to do what’s right for the city, and there’s not a lot of party divide over that. Keep in mind that, based on the results we have now, there are five incumbents who were re-elected. These are five people we have worked with before, and I really believe that at the local level, it’s more about the city and less about the party,” Lienhoop said.

“Former Mayor Bob Stewart (a Republican) had a Democrat majority council for a number of years, but it worked out just fine. We have felt for a long time that we can work across party lines in Columbus. That won’t change. The two Democrats we’ve had for the past four years (Dell and Wagner) have been very integral parts in everything we’ve done, and that will continue,” said Leinhoop, who had just won his second term as mayor.

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More coverage of the municipal election is on Pages 3 and 4.

To see additional photos, go to therepublic.com.