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Progressive 'Yes We Can' Coalition Is Disbanding

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Yes We Can
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Yes We Can members and their supporters campaign ahead of the 2017 election. All of their candidates lost in 2017 and 2019.

After four years and nine lost campaigns, the local progressive coalition Yes We Can is saying We Should Focus Elsewhere.

In an email to supporters this week, the group that put slates of candidates on the Columbus ballot in 2017 and 2019 said it’s dissolving at the end of the year because it’s “no longer the right vehicle for making change in Columbus.”

The group launched in 2015 as an alternative to establishment Democrats who have long run Columbus City Hall. They ran on issues including adding more affordable housing, reigning in tax breaks for developers, limiting campaign contributions and reforming police-community relations.

In 2017 the group helped Jasmine Ayers and Will Petrik qualify for city council races, along with Erin Upchurch, Abby Vaile and Amy Harkins running against party-endorsed Democrats for the Columbus Board of Education. In 2019 Yes We Can candidates Joe Motil, Tifany White, Lilliana Rivera Baiman ran for council and Kimberly Mason ran for school board.

In every instance, the Yes We Can candidates just could not win.

“The city power structure is one that really tries to keep new voices out, so we were outspent ten to one in our races, and unfortunately sometimes money talks in politics,” Harkins said in an interview with WOSU this week.

While establishment Democrats keep winning, Harkins doesn’t take that as a sign that people are largely happy with the status quo, which this week’s letter to supporters likened to a “Russian-style managed democracy” that benefits developers.

“I think it’s a sign that people aren’t engaged in the political process in this city,” Harkins said. “One thing I’m really proud of through our campaigns with Yes We Can is engaging new voters and educating folks on what’s really happening in this city. I think there weren’t discussions around tax abatements or campaign contributions from developers or being the largest city in the U.S. without a campaign contribution.”

Neither Mayor Andrew Ginther’s office nor a spokesperson for Columbus City Council responded to requests for comment.

Tax abatements for developers played a central role in Yes We Can’s 2019 campaign. Yes We Can candidates maintained the tax breaks given in exchange for job creation don’t always pan out, and that the agreements need more oversight.

At a 2019 forum, Council member Elizabeth Brown defended them as a way to attract employers.

"I am not satisfied to say 'Let's just sit back and it will happen anyway.' I think that is a recipe for disaster going forward," Brown said.

Former Yes We Can candidate Amy Harkins, who has also served on the group’s Steering Committee, doesn’t take the losses and the dissolving of her group as a sign that their messages failed to resonate enough with voters. She said they helped shift the conversation to topics previously not on the radar of council members.

As for what’s next, Harkins said the progressive activism will continue for her and others.

“There’s a ton of groups doing amazing work in this city, and I’m happy to see that work continue,” said Harkins.

Steve Brown grew up in nearby Richwood, Ohio and now lives there with his wife and sons. He started his journalism career as a weekend board operator at WOSU while majoring in journalism at Ohio State, where he also wrote for the student newspaper The Lantern and co-founded the organization Students for Public Broadcasting.