In 2018, Shannon Hardin made Columbus history when he was elected City Council President, becoming both the youngest and the first out LGBTQ person to serve in that role.
Now up for reelection, he hopes to use his next term to keep fighting for affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and expanded mass transit to prepare the city for the rapid development expected to take place there in the coming decades.
“Columbus is a city that is going to add 500,000 to a million people over the next twenty years. Everything we do today is about making sure that we prepare our community for that level of growth.”
The Buckeye Flame spoke with the incumbent about his rapid rise in local politics and how his perspective as a gay, Black man shapes his approach to policy.
When did you first realize you wanted to get involved in local politics?
After college, I started working for [former mayor]Mike Komen here in Columbus. As the liaison of the religious, African American, and LGBTQ+ communities, I traveled a lot with the Mayor. On a flight back to Columbus one day, he told me, ‘I think it’s time for you to run for office.’ I’m said, ‘Mayor, I’m too young to run’ – I was twenty-six at the time – and he said, ‘I don’t think that’s a problem.’ I said, “But Mayor, I’m young, Black, and gay,” and he stopped me and said that’s the exact reason you should run.
People need to see themselves represented in office, and that’s who our city is becoming – a younger, more diverse and progressive community – and they must see themselves reflected in public office. I was already hooked on local government because of the constituent services – making connections for people to make their lives a little better – but that conversation lit the spark for me to get even more involved.
It was also the first time I thought about all of my intersections, not as something that needed to be explained, but something that needed to be celebrated.
What is the proudest accomplishment of your time in office so far, and what has been the biggest challenge?
Some of the most important work I’ve done has been around My Brother’s Keeper and making sure we are creating space for young boys of color. I’ve also been able to use my position as council president to advance and lead the charge in banning conversion therapy in our city.
The most challenging thing was, well, all of last year – last year sucked. As a leader, who had ever heard of COVID? I’m in charge of the fourteenth largest city in the country, and we had to deal with a deadly virus that we had no idea about, and we basically had to change the way we did everything, right away. On top of that, we had the racial conversations that we had to go through, which lasted for months. It was very tough, but I think it’s made everybody better. We’ve had important conversations that have made us better leaders, but it was terrible.
Can you talk a bit about where the city is now, going into this election, and where you hope to take it in your next term?
We have been working diligently to focus on a growth strategy. Columbus is a city that is going to add 500,000 to a million people over the next twenty years. Everything we do today is about making sure that we prepare our community for that level of growth. We’re starting to feel the effects of that growth now with rising housing costs creating affordable housing issues and certainly issues with transit and being able to move around the city quickly and efficiently.
We’ve been very focused on this growth strategy for the past year or so, and if I am reelected I will be focusing on how to build a transit system that serves our entire community. We’re the largest city in the country that doesn’t have an advanced transit system. And we have to, if we are going to grow and be equitable in our growth,
I think we have to focus on an affordable housing strategy that puts more homes into the pipeline. Right now, Columbus creates 15,000 jobs a year, but we only build 5,000 new units – which means we are just doubling down on our affordable housing crisis, because there is more demand and less supply. We have to find ways to break that pattern. Then we have some opportunities around focusing on people, development, and credentials – and making sure people have the credentials they need to get the jobs that we have in our community. I’ll be rolling out a big initiative in November that is focused on job – workforce development and job creation for young people here in Columbus. It’ll be huge. I’m really excited about it.
Why is it important for people to vote in their local elections?
These are the elections that matter the most: the school boards, the judges, the city councils are the ones with the most direct political impact on your life. They are the ones who run your community. It’s so important we don’t allow other folks to speak for us. We know these municipal local elections are low turnout elections, which means they skew older and more conservative. You get who you vote for. If we allow these older, more conservative folks to be the only ones turning out to vote, then we’re going to get older and more conservative candidates. We really have to treat these elections as, really, the most important elections; their proximity to you is real.
As the first out gay man to serve as City Council President in Columbus, you have a special place in state LGBTQ+ history. What did it mean to you to break this barrier when first elected to this role, and what has the experience been like throughout your time in office?
I say the title and history marker doesn’t mean much if you don’t do anything with. For me, it’s about how do I make sure me being here in this time is really making a mark on our community, for all of our community, but especially for folks like me; people of color, folks who are LGBTQ+. How do I use this time and visual of this openly gay council president with a husband and a son to inspire the next generation of LGBTQ+ and especially Black queer youth that they can do it too?
That’s always my hope with being open with my sexuality. It’s only a slice of who I am, but it’s an important slice, and I show it. I lead with different intersections when I think it can be helpful. You vote for people because they have different lived experiences. And I bring a different lived experience than my straight and cisgender colleagues, and so I’m always thinking through that lens as an openly gay person. And also trying to bring in and make sure there are more voices at the table. I’m a cisgender gay man, so how do we bring the voices of trans folks to the table, and really make sure every voice is being heard? 🔥