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(Credit: Chris Casella)

Dan Williamson

Communications Coordinator, Mayor’s Office

By Steve Croyle

Published January 1, 2013

The world of politics is full of ambitious people with thin skin and big egos. Everybody has an agenda; everything done according to plan. So, when we reached out to Dan Williamson to schedule an interview, he had to clear it with his Chief of Staff and the Mayor.

Of course, because everything is done according to plan. After a couple of days Dan finally got the green light, and sent me this email.

Hi Steve.

I spoke to the mayor this morning, and while he seemed somewhat amused by the notion of myself as a compelling and notable person, he has no problem with me doing the interview.

So let me know what your timeline is on scheduling it.

Thanks.

The term “nice guy” has been tossed around to the point where it really has no meaning, and as a writer I should be able to conjure up a dozen words that haven’t been obliterated by society’s lazy vocabulary, but nothing else quite fits. It’s especially disconcerting because before Dan was crafting narratives for our city’s Chief Executive, he was a journalist for Suburban News Publications and The Other Paper. He should be cynical and suspicious.

He’s not.

He’s nice. DAMMIT.

He’s nice and everybody who knows him thinks it’s hilarious that (614) believes he’s interesting enough to interview. His boss, his boss’ boss, his wife, Jennifer – they all enjoyed a chuckle, and I start to feel a little sorry for him. Or maybe I feel sorry for those of us at (614) who thought we were on to something when his name surfaced as a possible subject for our Interview Issue.

Then he shows up to the interview wearing a Yankees cap, and even though it makes him look just a bit like Ron Howard … I hate the Yankees. Oh, it’s on.

What’s up with that hat anyway, Dan?

I was born in upstate New York – Poughkeepsie – up the Hudson River from New York City. I pretty much grew up a Yankees fan.

So how did you end up in Columbus?

My family moved to Granville when I was 11. It’s a little town east of here. I graduated from Granville High School. After that I went to this tiny little college in Greensboro, North Carolina you’ve probably never heard of: Guilford College. When I graduated, I had some friends who were living in Columbus, so I came here.

What was your major?

English, but I started taking an interest in Political Science over the last two years. It wasn’t really a minor. I took a few classes that made a strong impression.

Your reputation, at least at (614), comes from your work at The Other Paper. How did you get started there?

Well, my first ‘real’ job out of college was with Suburban News Publications back in 1992. I started out as a stringer. I don’t know if you know what that is, but I would travel out to the surrounding communities and cover things like school board meetings. Basically it was all of the local political stuff. It wasn’t really exciting but I met some interesting people. Back then, SNP was owned by a CM Media, which also owned The Other Paper. So in 1995 I started writing for The Other Paper as well.

I think that The Other Paper, at least in its heyday, had an impact on a lot of the staff at (614) because it had this irreverent, and occasionally snarky tone.

Irreverent. Yeah, that’s what we were trying to achieve. I can’t really take credit for that. The person responsible for our tone was our editor, Danny Russell. He was something. And it’s funny because if you were to ever meet him you’d see it’s so far from who he is, but he wanted The Other Paper to be different. He wanted to establish a point of view that wasn’t his own. He’s the one you should be talking to if you wanted to interview somebody compelling.

There was really nothing else like it. The weeklies that were in other cities were narrowly biased. I guess we might have been at times but we tried to be objective.

We shared the belief that politics was fun. It still had to be news, but we wanted to tell the story behind it, particularly with politics. You have these great characters, and we put these characters into our stories. We wanted to be irreverent, and not snarky, but we might have come across that way sometimes. The other thing that set us apart was the fact that we covered the local media. Nobody else was doing that.

That had to be awkward.

The local media? Oh, they loved it. You have to understand, they’re reporting the news. We reported on them. Everybody loves to see their name in the paper. Well, not always – but you know what I mean.

At times it was a bit like The Daily Show.

That’s actually a good comparison. We tried to have a sense of humor with the media.

So what’s it like being on the other side, now that you’re working for the Mayor?

Some journalists might say it was inappropriate, and maybe it was, but I got to know the politicians I covered. I’d go out for drinks with them and find out what was going on behind the scenes. I just got to know them. Even when I had to attack somebody, I’d call and talk to them personally. Most of the time it softened my perspective. I got an idea of how it all worked so there really haven’t been any surprises. I know some journalists who see politicians as adversaries, but I didn’t. They’re people. They might have different views, but they have very personal reasons for that. A lot of people forget that.

Do you find yourself internally critiquing reporters?

Usually, people have questions I wouldn’t have thought to ask.

How did you land this job in Mayor Coleman’s office?

You could say that I’m not qualified for this job. Of course, you could say I wasn’t really qualified for my last job. CM Media was a family owned company, but in 2007, they were purchased by American Community Newspapers and the culture changed. Danny left. I had a lot of respect for him. I always told him, ‘When you go, I go.’ So in 2008, I decided to leave.

Not the best time for a journalist to be looking for work.

I know, but I had something lined up. It was a public relations job I wasn’t really excited about. Then the phone rang and I was asked to interview for this job.

Out of the blue? No connections?

I was very fortunate.

Well, that’s an impressive step up the ladder.

I guess you could say that, but I don’t have some kind of agenda. I really enjoy my job, and I haven’t really thought about what’s next. I’ve never really been one to do that. I was fortunate to get this job. I was fortunate to get my last job. I didn’t have the qualifications, but you really didn’t need qualifications for what I was doing back then.

Not the most high-paying job.

No, but I was single and I always had a roommate, so I didn’t need that much. As long as I had money for rent and beer, I was fine.

No plans to foray into the political arena yourself?

No. Absolutely not. I’ve got no interest in that. I enjoy politics from the outside, but no, I can tell you I don’t have any plans.

How about your boss? Will you be following him if he moves over to the statehouse?

I think he’s satisfied with being the Mayor. He explored the governorship in 2005, for the 2006 election, and didn’t feel it was for him. As mayor, he can go out and see what he’s accomplished. He can identify problems, and then work to solves them. You can’t do that as governor.

Politics. But how about the politics behind the scenes, is it nasty?

No, not at all. Even when he was on the city council, Mayor Coleman was brilliant at forming coalitions. Back in the ’90s the Democratic party was a mess – they just weren’t communicating. Mayor Coleman brought them together. The Republicans held the Mayor’s office for almost 30 years. Now the Democrats have control of the city. Mayor Coleman is a Democrat and supports the party straight down the ticket, but he works with Republicans and that’s why he’s been successful.

So, let’s change gears and get some information from Columbus’ ultimate insider: What local bands do you like?

Oh, I don’t know if I was ever ‘cool,’ but I really don’t get out that much anymore. I’ve got two kids. I had to shave off my beard a couple of weeks ago so I could be Darth Maul for Halloween. You can’t put the makeup on over a beard.

So what have you been listening to lately?

I’ve got a Jay-Z CD in the car. I can’t remember which one. It’s gold. Kanye’s on it. Great stuff.

Really?

I like hip-hop.

OK, tough question: What do you think Columbus needs to work on?

Wow. I don’t want to be political, but Mayor Coleman has said, and he’s right, that great cities have rail. We had a proposal and, you probably remember, it didn’t get a lot of support, but it’s something we need to develop. It’s a challenge because the city was designed around the car, but that’s why we’ve been working so hard to bring people downtown and encourage density.

What makes Columbus so cool?

I think it’s the fact that there’s really something for everybody. We don’t have mountains, or beaches. We don’t have a great view, but it’s a great place to live. I don’t know how long you’ve lived here, but when I first came here it was a fine city. It was fine. Now it’s a great city, and what makes it great is that we don’t have this forced identity.

My brother, who happens to be gay, came to visit from San Francisco a few years ago and we went to one of the gay bars downtown. I think he was impressed because the crowd was so diverse. It wasn’t really a ‘gay’ bar. It was just, I guess you’d say, inclusive. And that’s what I think makes Columbus unique.

And where does Dan Williamson take somebody to get a real taste of Columbus?

Milestone 229, at Bicentennial Park down on the river. Have you been there? You have the fountains, and the lights, and there’s a great view of the city.

And it’s one of Mayor Coleman’s crowning achievements.

Yeah, but when you ask me where I’d take somebody, I’d have to ask you who it is because there’s so much, and that goes back to what makes Columbus a great city: there isn’t any one thing that defines it.


And that was that. Nice guys might not finish first, but Dan Williamson is proof that they don’t always finish last. He’s a typical GenXer who is 43 years old with a wife and two kids, but he’s still not sure what he wants to be when he grows up. I went in to the interview hoping to peel away the rough exterior of a seasoned journalist who sold his soul to the political machine but ended up talking with a poli-sci geek for three hours. As we went our respective ways, I had to ask, peer to peer, how badly did I screw up our interview?

“What do you mean?” he said. “I was just glad you were my age. I was afraid I’d be interviewed by some kid who didn’t get any of my references.”

Comments

Luke @ 01/10/2013 11:47 am

Eds: You've got a few font errors here. Toward the end, some of the questions aren't bolded. Gets a bit confusing. Just fyi.

jason sidwell @ 04/15/2013 11:13 pm

dan williamson is a genius, and more compelling, and WAY more cool than he lets on. don't let the ron howard act fool you; he's not nice, he is kind and generous and painfully insightful. the world could do with some ambition from the only dan williamson in it.