As (614) Photo Editor Chris Casella and I waited for Greg Lashutka to arrive at Stauf’s in German Village, we talked about our personal impressions of the former mayor. Chris and I share a similar political bent that tends to skew a bit left of Lashutka’s party, but we were excited to meet a man who left an indelible mark on both of us as we grew into the city we are proud to call home.
From 1992 through Mike Coleman’s coronation in 2000, Mayor Lashutka guided this city through what can only be described as its adolescence. And while we’ll surely be singing Mayor Coleman’s praises as he wraps up his remarkable tenure as our fearless leader, it would be remiss to forget that the foundation for that growth was laid by a Cleveland boy who saw something special in Columbus so long ago.
It’s hard not to like Mayor Lashutka.
The former Buckeye tight end is still an imposing figure who towers over most. He’s shaken many hands over the years with his giant mitts, but his grasp is firm, friendly, and reassuring. He exudes a kindly warmth and that’s when you feel guilty about any nasty things you might have said about the man when he was in office. He’s genuine.
Just about every politician you meet can turn on the charm when they want, but Mayor Lashutka has been easing into retirement for 15 years now. He’s scaling back his participation on numerous boards, cutting back on the hours he spends with an HR firm—he’s just a regular guy now. A regular guy who came to Columbus because he thought the city had potential, and who stays because the city continues to realize it.
One of the things people seem to notice about Columbus is that there’s a great deal of diversity, but little division. What drives that? The tolerance that comes from having debate is good. Some people make judgments that are stereotypical, but they rarely apply because no group fits 100 percent into that. Columbus is a refreshing, neat place with great people who got us here over time. I’m not exactly sure how we got here—I’ve got some ideas—but it works.
During your tenure, which spanned two terms, your administration oversaw a great deal of growth… That’s only because others did things before I did. You build on the legacies others have given you. Yeah, we left the campground a little better, but others did things to help us get there.
Being Mayor seems kind of like being a father: the city is like your child, and here this slick attorney from Toledo swooped in and ran off with her. It’s been 15 years—how has Mike Coleman done? He’s done a pretty good job. I don’t always agree with certain things, but I made a vow that if it wasn’t unethical, immoral, or so outrageous, I wouldn’t speak up. I think I’ve honored that. Mike has also grown into the position. Being a mayor is being a CEO. If you do it in a responsible way, you can leave a mark that is pretty significant. Mike, by and large, has built on that foundation of the past.
Would you say that this is a city you’re proud to live in? Clearly yes. I am still here. I live in the middle of it. My wife’s got a shop, and my grandkids are here. I’m enjoying the community that’s been so good to me, and maybe I’ve been a little good to it.
What is your legacy? I don’t think that’s a fair question to ask me. I think it’s better to ask others what it is, but we did a couple of things well. We focused on safety services. If the city isn’t safe, you will not live there, you will not work there, and you will not see it grow. We added more police and firefighters while our economy was growing as well. We rose above just Ohio State being the iconic focus. We have the Crew, which is an international game. We’ve got hockey. We’re not competing with football and basketball. It fits into a more cosmopolitan city mosaic; we were helpful in bringing them here. We also did things with the neighborhoods, and we entered the political debate with respect for the other sides in a way that wasn’t contentious, and that’s important.
City politics are surprisingly civil in Columbus. Does partisanship not play into it? I think that’s true across the country. People expect their local political leaders to work on important things and get the job done. There was a day, a long time ago, when that wasn’t the case, but when that happens nobody gets served.
The Short North was one of the things you helped bring around, cracking down on the Short North Posse, and giving the area an opportunity to grow organically. Now it’s come full circle. I like that you used that word, organic. That’s the key. Cities go up and they go down. Neighborhoods go up, or they go down. They’re always going to change.
You didn’t run in 1999, but Mayor Coleman ran against your administration and hammered you on snow removal. Did you give him a call last winter to bust his chops? (laughs) No, I smiled. You know we had two inches of ice with that storm and you can’t plow that. There’s a city ordinance that says you have to have your walks cleared by 5 p.m., and I’m encouraging everybody to do it. So, you know, I’d better do it, and I’m not going to pay somebody. So I get out there with a spud bar and cleared my walk just before the hour. I had just finished and three TV trucks pulled up. They saw the walk was cleared and they left. No story. It’s hard enough being mayor—I’m not going to call him on it. One of the only times I have called him was on 9/11 because I know how lonely that can be. I never felt the need to mention it, although he’s said publicly how much it meant to him.
What’s your advice to the next mayor? You have to walk in realizing it’s hard work. You have to have good people around you [that are] better than you are. You have to have a vision for the city. You’d better develop thick skin, because people will say things that aren’t always well-thought-out. They’ll be from the heart and some might be malicious, but most aren’t. You have a chance to make a difference, and people in this city want you to make a difference. That’s a good thing. We’re a little spoiled. I want us to be spoiled. I want us to hold our public officials to a high degree of accountability because you are a custodian of the public trust. There’s no greater honor than serving the public. Don’t just go in there wanting your ego fed. You’d better want to do something that’s selfless, and if all of that comes together, run hard.