Lazarus: The resurrection

The Other Paper – November 22, 2007

Cindy Lazarus loved Columbus City Council. In the early 1990s, she was council’s president and the city’s brightest Democratic light. But after losing the council presidency in an intra-party power struggle, she departed for the Franklin County Court of Appeals.

She liked the court well enough, but she felt detached from her community and missed the rough and tumble of city politics.

“It was kind of like going from rugby to chess,” she said this week.

Now, she’s going back to rugby.

John O’Grady is not a small man, but he’s caught up in something bigger than he is.

O’Grady, the Franklin County clerk of courts, was not around City Hall 15 years ago, when Jerry Hammond felt slighted by Lazarus, the woman to whom Hammond had bequeathed the council presidency. But the factions that were created back then have now inserted themselves into O’Grady’s life.

O’Grady plans to formally announce this week his candidacy for a seat on the Franklin County Board of Commissioners. He has support from almost every elected Democrat in the county, not to mention the state and local party chairmen.

And yet, he’ll enter the party primary as an underdog.

By no fault of his own, O’Grady’s ambition to be a county commissioner has coincided with the return of Lazarus, who has a powerful name in Columbus, thanks to her own career as well as the familiarity of the department store created by her father-in-law, the late Charles Lazarus.

O’Grady wouldn’t have to worry about Lazarus if she’d been able to re-enter politics where she wanted: back on City Council.

That was her first choice, but despite three vacancies that opened up last winter, President Mike Mentel—who had just rid himself and his colleagues of Lazarus’s old friend, Matt Habash—nixed the idea.

“I kind of had some discreet overtures made,” said Lazarus, “and the message that I received was that I probably was not who they were looking for.”

So instead, she’ll try to win an office the old-fashioned way: by running for one.

Her decision has angered the large network of Democrats supporting O’Grady, who has been planning to run for county commissioner ever since incumbent Mary Jo Kilroy announced she would give up her seat for another shot at Congress early this year.

Lazarus and O’Grady have known each other for a long time, dating back to when his dad was her campaign finance chairman and allowed Lazarus to use the back of his office.

But her fondness for O’Grady hasn’t dampened her determination to win the job that he wants. In August, Lazarus told O’Grady he’d have competition.

“She came to my office and asked me to not run for commissioner,” O’Grady said. “I told her I couldn’t do that. I already had way too many commitments from folks in the party who are asking me to do this.”

Former Ohio Democratic Party boss David Leland, a longtime Lazarus supporter, said O’Grady is making a mistake.

“I think she’s just an overwhelming favorite,” he said. “I think the best thing to happen would be for her to be a candidate for county commissioner and for John O’Grady to stand for re-election to clerk of courts.”

Lazarus hired Saperstein Associates in early September to conduct a poll of 300 likely Democratic primary voters—a poll that gave Lazarus a 44-to-24-point lead over O’Grady.

“I have no idea what the numbers are,” O’Grady said. “I start out with the support of just about every Democratic elected official in Central Ohio. I start out with the support of the central committee. I start out with the support of the state and local party chairmen. I think that’s pretty important.”

Lazarus conceded O’Grady has more endorsements.

“I think it’s a great compliment to John that he has all the people who have agreed to support him,” she said. But she didn’t sound very worried about it.

Hammond actually supported Lazarus’s ascension to the council presidency 17 years ago but, for reasons that are unclear, quickly felt unappreciated by her in his post-council career. Hammond refused to comment about Lazarus this week.

Whatever the cause of his displeasure, it created a political problem for Lazarus. Though Hammond himself was gone, three of his allies were still on the seven-member council. John Kennedy, Les Wright and Mike Coleman—whom Lazarus appointed in 1992—were dubbed Jerry’s Kids.

Jerry’s Kids eventually deposed Lazarus. But she’d formed her own informal but well-defined bloc of the party that came to be known as the Cindycrats.

In a county with Republicans in decline, it’s this split that often defines local politics.

Though Lazarus’s cabal is smaller than the group supporting O’Grady, it’s more tightly knit and perhaps more focused.

Attorney Larry James, a longtime close friend of Hammond, said the division is more about social cliques than ideology.

“It’s about who do you trust and who are you more comfortable with,” James said. He added, “The origination was the split between Jerry and Cindy.”

As president, Lazarus ended up forming a closer relationship with the new Republican mayor, Greg Lashutka, than with her fellow council Democrats, a situation that increased their suspicion of her.

When the next council vacancy opened in ’93, the Kennedy-led group wanted to appoint Lisa Griffin, a well-known former council aide, but Lazarus wanted her friend Gail Gregory, who was director the Community Shelter Board. A Lazarus-appointed screening committee shocked City Hall regulars by leaving Griffin’s name off the list of five finalists. Kennedy, in turn, blocked Gregory, and the Democrats settled on Matt Habash as a compromise.

The incident infuriated Kennedy, who, over the next year, assembled a majority to make himself the next president; only Habash supported Lazarus. On the night of her re-election to council in November of 1993, Lazarus announced she would step down from the presidency. A year later she was elected to the appeals court.

But that wasn’t the end of the Cindycrats.

In 1997, council appointed Lazarus ally Janet Jackson to be Columbus city attorney. Jackson was widely viewed as Coleman’s top intraparty rival until she left office in 2003 to lead the United Way of Central Ohio.

And when Coleman became mayor in 2000, Habash succeeded him as council president. Habash immediately created a new chief-of-staff position and appointed Melinda Swan, who saw to it that council’s power remained concentrated in Habash’s office.

Habash’s fellow Democrats forced him to oust Swan in 2006, and Habash himself left council at the end of the year.

Lazarus, meanwhile, is CEO of YWCA, where she runs a staff of familiar faces. Swan is her chief operating officer and Gregory—now Gail Gregory Thomas—is her special assistant. Lazarus’s new director of facility operations is Justin Habash, Matt’s son.

Lazarus said the divide between hers and Hammond’s factions is largely media-generated “mythology.”

“Larry James has been an adviser of mine for as long as I’ve been in public office,” she said. “John Kennedy and I worked together on the court of appeals. Jerry Hammond is the person who got me onto City Council.”

She added, “Jerry is kind of a strong, passionate person. And did we agree on everything while he was on council or after he left council? No, of course not. But I have always respected Jerry.”

Lazarus also dismissed the notion that Habash’s council presidency was in any way a continuation of her own.

“That’s Matt,” she said. “I’m not Matt.”

As for O’Grady, he’s left to hope his friends in high places can help him rescue his campaign. As Coleman, Mentel and other Democratic leaders try to figure out how to erase Lazarus’s 20-point lead, they’ll probably be visited by a nagging thought:

It would have been a lot easier just to let her back on City Council.