Iris Virjee, an Independent running at-large for Athens City Council, is in it for the everyman.
Virjee, a bartender at the West Side’s Smiling Skull Saloon who grew up in Mount Sterling, Ohio, graduated from Ohio University with a degree in urban planning and a certificate in wealth and poverty in spring 2020, just as the pandemic hit.
Amid the nationwide volatility of a health crisis that came to define the year, and a slew of personal hurdles, Virjee opted to forgo a professional career using her degree for what she described as the relative stability of work in a small town bar, despite health orders closing bars and restaurants for a time during that period.
"(City Council) was not something I had considered before and struggled to picture myself doing — I’m just a bartender. I’m 24. I go to punk shows and have tattoos. You know, it’s not really the image that comes to mind when you think of a councilmember,” she said in an interview.
But Virjee developed the confidence in her qualifications to launch a campaign after being nudged by friends, bar patrons and acquaintances, including now-rival Independent at-large candidate Damon Krane (who maintained in a text message he has no “quid pro quo” arrangement with Virjee). She cited her education and nearly five years experience living in the city with loads of time spent developing relationships with customers at The Skull and understanding the sense of disillusionment many feel with the city’s political establishment.
She believes Athens' static, non-student and working class population have little opportunity for economic mobility and often lack the resources needed to pursue office and advocate for the needs of their families and neighbors. In turn, City Council practically became her calling.
“It’s hard enough for me with a formal education, and so I figured that if I can as just a regular person use that bit of privilege to uplift and give a voice to people like me, then it was something I needed to do,” Virjee said.
She was explicit in describing the type of voter she hopes to reach — working class, low-income residents, saying she doesn’t care about serving more privileged people, using the example of OU administrators in conversation as a voting bloc she has little interest in courting.
“They have their needs met and, historically, continue to — I think they are given an unfair amount of attention and priority in city decisions,” she said of top university employees and others similarly situated.
Virjee is of the mind that Athens is in desperate need of a representative who’s neither a working professional nor affluent, boxes that many sitting members check.
Despite the stark ethos of her messaging, Virjee declined to reveal much in the way of policy priorities, saying she wanted to invest more time into meeting with her target demographic to discuss their needs before going public with any campaign proposals. Though, she cited a general desire to create “infrastructure,” a somewhat nebulous idea that she had few concrete examples of, that’s not solely erected for the purpose of serving the student population.
Candidates in this election cycle who ran unopposed in the primary, like Democrats Ben Ziff and Solveig Spjeldnes, took a similar tact with initially providing few specific proposals and promising they would generate more after consulting voters.
The at-large race is the only contested election in the city, with Councilmember Sarah Grace — the sole elected Democrat in the contest — Krane, Virjee and likely two appointees (Ziff and whoever the Athens Democratic Central Committee chooses for the ballot in place of recently resigned Councilmember Beth Clodfelter) all vying for the three available seats.
Editor's note: A column written by Virjee announcing her candidacy can be read here. A previous version of this report incorrectly stated that Ziff is running unopposed in the general election. He only ran unopposed in the primary.