The Columbus Partnership has embraced these principles for society and so has Columbus U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley.
For the fourth consecutive year, Columbus CEO is dedicating a major feature in our June issue to the Columbus Partnership. This project has become a somewhat accidental annual tradition. The first feature was a one-off opportunity to introduce our readers to the inner workings and priorities of the Partnership, the civic alliance of the city's top business leaders. But we've ended up returning to the topic every June since then, realizing that shining a light on one of the city's most important institutions is a valuable public service.
To their credit, Partnership leaders also seem to recognize the importance of this mission. They want to explain the who, what, where, when, why and how of their programs and initiatives, talking to us about the Columbus Education Commission in 2015, leadership lessons in 2016, Smart Columbus in 2017 and the audacious idea of a 100-year plan in this month's issue (“Preparing for the Next Century,”- P. 64), among other things.
As I was reporting this year's feature in the spring, a contingent of Partnership members made a trip to Washington, D.C. Their goal was to talk about and encourage civility in public life—a concept that has thrived in Columbus but is something of a foreign language in our nation's capital, as we all know. The field trip—the Columbus Way on the Potomac—made for some interesting contrasts. Not only did it make me think about the differences in civic decorum between Columbus and Washington but also the importance of transparency and openness, virtues that the Partnership has embraced with its willingness to open up to us for our June issue for the past four years.
And Partnership co-founder Les Wexner isn't the only central Ohioan delivering this message to the pols, pundits and partisans inside the Beltway. In February 2017, a few days after President Trump declared the media “enemies of the people,” The Washington Post debuted a new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which appears on the top of its website and print edition. The Post wasn't the first to use the phrase (or at least something very similar). It was also said by Columbus U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley, who attracted national attention when he declared “democracy dies in the dark” during a 2013 hearing over voting rights. Some media reports credited Marbley with inspiring The Post's slogan, though it actually might have been another judge, Damon Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, who also used the phrase in a court proceeding.
Regardless, Marbley was thrust into this high-stakes debate about free speech and democratic values, and in early May, I asked him about the experience following a talk he gave at Ohio State University. He says his sons and his law clerks have enjoyed his side career as a newspaper sloganeer, but he hasn't paid much attention to the reaction the phrase has generated. The Post slogan has been celebrated, criticized, even hilariously misquoted—“democracy dies in dankness,” as Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted, accidentally coming up with the next James Franco/Seth Rogen buddy movie concept.
“I wasn't speaking as a political scientist or a political philosopher, but it is true,” Marbley says of the slogan. “So it's appropriate for this time, and it's appropriate for any time. Any time you have a democracy, there must be transparency.”
The Columbus Partnership's recent field trip suggests the organization thinks Washington needs to reassess how it goes about its business. What does Marbley think about the state of affairs in the country's capital, where legal institutions and the rule of law have increasingly come under attack as the Trump scandals have snowballed? Does he think darkness is threatening democracy?
Marbley mulls the question for several seconds before responding. “The only thing I can say is that I've never been prouder to be part of the judiciary.”