With all eight City Council seats up for grabs, two without incumbents, this year could bring Athens one of the most competitive election seasons in recent memory. And much of it could end up attributed to the behind-the-scenes organizing of Damon Krane, a longtime area activist and self-proclaimed democratic socialist.
In the aftermath of a tense and confrontational election season in 2019 Krane — an Independent who ran an unabashedly pro-tenant, anti-establishment campaign, lost by a wide margin to Democratic Mayor Steve Patterson, followed by failed attempts to reform city policing procedures — recoiled behind the curtains to draw up new ways to implement his policy priorities in Athens.
Long before becoming a candidate for public office, Krane spent years as an organizer working to advance leftist policies. In his mind, policy is king and he yearns to rid Athens’ political culture of voting for candidates based on personality. He’s convinced that attitude is weaponized against brash contenders such as himself and only serves to bolster people pleasers who won’t shake up the status quo.
In the mayoral race Krane often aggressively condemned Patterson — a popular incumbent — and his policies in public forums, creating easy lines of attack from his opponent and the Democratic establishment to say he was mean spirited. Krane felt his demeanor incentivized Democrats to unfairly attack his personality, distracting from his pro-tenant policies.
“When folks tell me ‘it’s a small town, you gotta be nicer,’ I just don’t see nice getting us that far,” he said in an interview last week.
While Krane is steadfast in that approach, he’s also pragmatic and wants to see others whose policy priorities align more closely with his than the city establishment step up with their own campaign style. The idea was to take the focus off himself and his character, and amplify the voices of others who might be more appealing to voters.
In recent weeks Krane spent much of his time on the phone reaching out to upward of 75 people, urging them all to consider pursuing campaigns for City Council.
Of that crowd, he said, there are at least three potential candidates who are seriously considering launching bids for local office and whom he’s had extensive conversations with to provide information and advice.
“My goal in all this has just been to have more competitive elections in both the primary and the general because that’s how ordinary voters have more power over local government,” Krane said.
He wouldn’t name any of the potential candidates to allow them to unveil their campaigns independently and The Athens NEWS wasn’t able to make contact with those whom he may have had conversations with.
He said none would be running in the May Democratic primary, but rather all as Independents in the November general election to allow more time for preparation since most are new to politics and because few Ohio University students — Athens’ liberal base — vote in the primary when school is out. The potential candidates represent a range of ideologies along the left-wing spectrum, Krane said.
And he’s still publicly calling on other Athenians who might be disgruntled with the current state of affairs to initiate their own campaigns for office.
“It’s one of those things where if you don’t step up to do it, it doesn’t mean somebody else is going to. So if people want to see these changes I really encourage them to step up and make it happen,” he said.
Besides the potential candidates courted by Krane, at least three others have publicly declared their intent to run for office, though only one has filed petitions with The Board of Elections to get on the ballot with the deadline just days away.
Solveig Spjeldnes, a former social work professor at Ohio University who accepted an early retirement deal last year, is running for Arian Smedley’s first ward seat as a Democrat.
Ben Ziff, a Donkey Coffee manager is planning to run as a Democrat for Peter Kotses’ at-large seat. And Noah Trembly, an Independent who unsuccessfully sought an at-large seat in 2017, said in a Facebook message that he plans to run at-large again in the general election (the filing deadline to run as an Independent isn’t until May).
Krane, who’s been very critical of Spjeldnes for not committing to any policy positions, is also very strongly considering launching a bid of his own, but he isn’t sure whether he would run with a party affiliation or which seat he would ultimately seek.
Both of those decisions depend on how the field of candidates develops, he said. But it’s growing increasingly unlikely that he’ll run as a Democrat since the filing deadline is looming and he’s yet to secure any signatures.
“At the end of the day, I’m happy to run in whatever way ends up providing most support to that larger effort. I care much more about that larger effort than I care about my own place in it,” Krane said recently in a Facebook comment.