It may be best known as the home of Cedar Point, the famous amusement park, but Sandusky, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie, has lately been getting attention for its politics.
City officials voted two weeks ago to swap the Columbus Day holiday with one on Election Day in a move that was intended to affirm the city’s values, but also inserted it into two contentious national debates.
The vote garnered little immediate attention when it was covered by the local newspaper, The Sandusky Register, but news soon spread.
“We’ve been very surprised by the national attention,” said Sandusky’s city manager, Eric Wobser, who has since been interviewed by national news organizations like NPR, CNN and The Washington Post.
“We have a huge history with the Underground Railroad and were very active in the civil rights movement, and so if we can continue to play a role in spurring some type of a national dialogue as it relates to voting rights, I think we’d be really proud of that,” he said.
Holidays reflect a nation’s values, so both Columbus Day and Election Day have been subjects of sometimes intense debate.
Columbus Day, a commemoration of the explorer Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the Americas centuries ago, has become increasingly controversial in recent decades amid growing criticism that it celebrates a man who ushered in an era of profound oppression and violence for Native Americans and enslaved Africans.
Several cities and some states have either dropped the Columbus Day holiday altogether or renamed it “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” in recognition of the communities that were devastated by American colonization.
The idea of an Election Day holiday, too, has been the subject of some debate. Most states encourage employers to let workers take time to vote on Election Day, but laws vary by state.
The idea of a federal Election Day holiday has been bandied about for years and found its way back into the national discussion this year as part of the first major piece of legislation introduced by the Democratic-controlled House. Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, then stirred controversy when he singled out the idea for criticism, describing it as a Democratic “power grab.”
But for Sandusky’s seven city commissioners, the decision to swap the holidays was far less fraught, even if it was years in the making.
In 2015, as the city began preparing to celebrate its bicentennial in 2018, officials reached out to residents to better understand how to engage with the community, according to Mr. Wobser.
“One of the things that really stood out is we needed to do a better job of really celebrating the diversity,” he said.
In response, officials took steps to work with the L.G.B.T. residents on passing an anti-discrimination policy and declared Sandusky a welcoming city for immigrants.
During contract negotiations in 2015, the city also asked the unions representing its approximately 250 police officers, firefighters and municipal employees if they would be willing to drop the Columbus Day holiday. The unions, uninterested in giving up a paid holiday, declined and city officials dropped the issue.
Last year, however, when the next round of negotiations came up, city officials broached the subject again, this time offering up the Election Day trade.
“We took it and afforded it as an opportunity to get all our employees and union members out to vote,” said Ed Dayringer, who performs construction inspections for the city and is the president of the local union chapter that represents municipal employees. “Democracy’s very important.”
On Jan. 28, the city commission voted to approve the holiday swap.
The city said on its Facebook page that it was “proud” to have provided an Election Day holiday.
“What better way to celebrate the value of our employees and citizens than by removing barriers for them to participate in the greatest of American innovations, our democracy,” it said.
Since voting for the trade two weeks ago, Sandusky officials have heard from individuals and elected officials across the country, including Mendocino County, Calif.; Stamford, Conn.; and Washington, D.C.
Sandusky, in north-central Ohio, is home to about 25,000 people. About 65 percent of the population is white, 22 percent is black, 7 percent is Hispanic and 5 percent is of mixed race.
The city has struggled with the erosion of its manufacturing base, but it has been buoyed by the amusement park, Cedar Point, and tourism to Lake Erie.
Each year, about 11 million people visit Sandusky, contributing about $2 billion to the economy, Mr. Wobser said. The city’s historic downtown area has attracted about $100 million of investment over the past five years.
“We’re sort of transitioning from what had historically been a manufacturing economy with tourism to what we call a destination economy,” he said.
While a few people have griped about the Sandusky swap, the response has been overwhelmingly supportive, Mr. Wobser said.
“The most positive response has come from, both locally and nationally, people who are from underrepresented communities who I think sense that ease of access to the ballot will benefit them, as well as ones who probably have felt more disenfranchised by the celebration of Columbus Day,” he said.
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