Mayor Steve Patterson exits the Republican luncheon

Photo by Dani Kington

Mayor Steve Patterson exiting the Oct. 12 Republican luncheon

Leaked audio from a private Republican luncheon on Tuesday reveals Athens Mayor Steve Patterson disparaging independent Athens City Council candidates — calling them “revolutionary socialists” — and failing to defend sitting council members of his own party.

He also is heard praising the work of State Rep. Jay Edwards, saying he has “great respect for everything [Edwards is] doing.”

In a private email provided to The Athens Messenger before the meeting, Athens County Republican Party Chair Pete Couladis said Patterson asked to meet with the Republicans. Couladis added his impression that Patterson “wants some help in keeping the Democratic Socialist/Communist Candidates off city council.”

Audio of the meeting, apparently recorded by a member of the Republican Party, was disseminated to various Republicans and then anonymously shared with The Athens NEWS and the Messenger.

Ohio law allows recording of conversations with only a single participant’s consent.

Patterson lets loose

At the luncheon, a Republican attendee is heard voicing concerns about the “far liberal” orientation of the Democratic Party both nationally and locally, referencing appointed Athens City Council Members (and current candidates) Ben Ziff and Micah McCarey, as well as other at-large candidates.

Patterson does not reply to the comment.

Couladis is then heard expressing concern about the “anti-business attitude” of Ohio University faculty and students as well as “those two, I call ’em Communists, ‘cause that’s what they are.

“They say ‘democratic socialists,’ but you know, if somebody said ‘democratic Nazis’ or ‘democratic fascists,’ you’d say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s silly, that doesn’t exist, you mean you’re a Nazi?’ It’s the same way with socialists.”

The remarks allude to Damon Krane and Iris Virjee, who are running as independents for at-large seats on Athens City Council. While Krane has publicly adopted the democratic socialist label, Virjee says she does not identify as a socialist.

The at-large council race is the only contested election in the City of Athens this year. Virjee and Krane are running against Democratic incumbents Ziff, McCarey and Sarah Grace. Ziff and McCarey were appointed to city council in April and May respectively.

“Could you imagine, just for a moment, the City of Athens not having a police department?” Patterson is heard responding to Couladis. “I’m glad, Pete, that you brought this up, because that was something I certainly wanted to mention — Damon Krane — and let’s call the people out as who they are. He is running for city council, as he ran against me in 2019. I think that you guys were helpful in really smacking that one down, because I won with 80% of the vote.

“I wanted to make a statement with this guy, you know?”

In his 2019 bid to become mayor, Krane received 571 votes to Patterson’s 2,075.

In the recording, Patterson is heard suggesting that Krane has offered no concrete policies in his campaign, describes him as a “clown” and says he has “an ego bigger than this room.”​​

“You know, I don’t know that he has any actual policies,” Patterson says. “I think he’s one of these clowns that, if he were to be successful, he wouldn’t know what in the world to do with himself. He’d be sitting there going: ‘oh man, I just won, now what?’ ”

Patterson does not discuss Virjee other than to describe her and Krane as “revolutionary socialist independents” and claiming not to know her name.

One of the Republicans at the meeting is heard asking, “Who else besides Damon Krane is running that is of concern?”

“I don’t know her name either, but she’s a bartender,” Patterson responds.

A Republican then identifies the candidate as Virjee. Another Republican asks if Patterson and Virjee are running or campaigning together.

Patterson is heard laughing and saying, “No,” prompting laughter from the others in the room.

Calling foul

In a Facebook response to Patterson’s comments, Krane said that the mayor deliberately misrepresented Krane’s campaign to panic Republicans. Krane pointed to his website, which contains several examples of detailed policies — including those outlining affordable housing, police reform and public health — he would seek to implement if elected.

“The mayor went in there and regurgitated baseless far-right talking points,” Krane said. “He stoked Republican paranoia. And he consistently lied about my politics, my platform and my policies. I mean, come on. Steve says I've never put forward any policy proposals? I've put forward more policy proposals than any candidate in the history of Athens politics, and I've done it at candidate forums with Steve, so the mayor knows he's lying.”

Virjee said she was surprised Patterson would describe her as a “revolutionary socialist” and that her platform was not moving the city in a positive direction (as Patterson said in an interview following the meeting).

“To be honest, I'm not sure what I may have done or said to elicit this kind of impression from Mayor Patterson,” Virjee said in a text message. “My platform has not been radical or regressive, nor has it even differed extraordinarily from that of other new candidates.”

Virjee said she has tried to focus on running a positive campaign.

“All I aim to do is keep lesser-represented citizens in mind when discussing policy, to minimize the chance of a decision indirectly worsening wealth and access disparities in our little corner of Appalachia. Is this not a positive platform?” Virjee said in a message.

In a June interview with The Post, Virjee said her campaign was focused on three main issues: parking enforcement, housing issues and policing.

When asked for a response to Patterson’s silence about the Republicans’ description of him as “far liberal,” Ziff said that he doesn’t “need anyone to stick up for him.” Ziff, who described himself as “fairly left,” added that not engaging with comments and “silly rhetoric” can be a smart strategy.

McCarey and Athens County Democratic Party Chair John Haseley could not be reached for comment.

Patterson explains himself

Asked immediately after the lunch about the meeting, Patterson disputed Couladis’s characterization of the meeting as an attempt by Patterson to seek help defeating independent candidates.

“No, it was just to educate, you know – for everyone to be clear as to who's running, and what their platforms are that they're running on,” Patterson said.

However, when asked whether he was surprised by Couladis’s characterization of the meeting, Patterson said, “No,” adding that he “had support from the Republicans” when he ran in 2019.

“You know, it was no secret that there was a yard sign in the Athens County Republican chair’s front yard,” Patterson said. “They weren't happy with what they were hearing back in 2019. And so, you know, for me, to engage with, again, the citizens of Athens – regardless of whether they're an R or a D or an I, you know – it’d be foolish as a mayor not to engage with all the citizens of Athens.”

Patterson did not provide a clear answer when asked whether he wanted Republican aid in keeping independent progressive candidates off city council.

“Reaching out to any parties when I know that there's candidates that are running on platforms that are not going to move the city forward in a positive direction, in my opinion — I think it's good for all citizens to understand and know what's going on,” Patterson said.

Patterson praises Edwards

The recording also captures discussion of Edwards, the Republican state representative from Nelsonville. One of the Republican attendees is heard asking Patterson about his relationship with the statehouse delegation.

“You know, Jay and I have a really interesting relationship if that’s what you’re getting at,” Patterson responds. “I understand that Jay is extremely busy. It would be wonderful if when I called I got an answer once in a while saying, ‘Hey Mayor, I’m really busy, I’m in committee, let me get back to you.’ We’re all busy. But I still respect everything that he’s doing.

“Hell, I was gonna run for the 15th district, because I thought that I’ve been doing a good job as mayor, and I think I would be effective at that level. But, at the end of the day, I dig what I’m doing by being the mayor, and I love having these relationships, you know.”

In a text message responding to audio of the meeting, Edwards — who was not present at the luncheon — said it “sounds like (Patterson) has some serious issues with some of the progressives in Athens.”

“​​Whether it is me, his own council members, or his political opponents, he seems to truly enjoy talking bad about people in rooms where they cannot defend themselves,” Edwards said. “At the end of the day, I can’t blame the mayor for wanting to sprinkle some conservative values on the city in an attempt to Make Athens Great Again!”

Local Republicans respond

Couladis characterized the luncheon as a nonpolitical meeting where city issues and projects were discussed. He said independent candidates came up only briefly in the nearly two-hour lunch. He confirmed, however, that his email announcing the meeting stated that Patterson wanted to discuss efforts to stop independent candidates.

He said Patterson has never previously attended a scheduled GOP lunch meeting and asked to attend. Couladis added he was not aware the meeting was recorded.

“It wasn’t a political meeting… people had a lot of questions about the sewer lines, water lines, and other kinds of things,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why it should be recorded.”

Republican Athens County Auditor Jill Thompson, who did not attend the luncheon, said the situation was strange.

“‘I've never been aware of a situation where (Patterson) would come to a Republican function,” Thompson said. “I guess that's a little intriguing to me, because I'm not sure that quite makes sense.”

Thompson also said it is “not appropriate for the Republican party to be entering into the Democratic politics of Athens County.”

Thompson said she has seen firsthand how politics can play a “dirty role,” that doesn't “often result in good government.” She added she believes government works best when there is a diverse set of stakeholders.

“There's a place for politics in a two-party system, and I'm not sure that was it,” Thompson said of the leaked recording and meeting with Patterson. “It's unfortunate that the situation occurred and it appears it went in a way it shouldn't.”

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