From famous comedian to small-town politician, Drew Hastings has generated a sordid and racy reputation.
On November 8, 2016, millions of Americans across the country piled into community centers, elementary schools, and public libraries. They cast their ballots on outdated electronic consoles, jabbing frustrated fingers against barely functioning touch screens. They voted for school levies and representatives and, yes, even the President of the United States. Everyone hoped they were making a difference, proudly displaying their stickers where others could see them, smiling grandly at neighbors and strangers who did the same. That Tuesday the world was bright and everyone got along and everything still had a gross halcyon gloss to it. By the next morning, pandemonium had hit the fan. The world quickly became a dystopian Mad Max future with roving bands of internet trolls and marauding news personas terrorizing the barren information wasteland. No one could agree on anything and nothing made sense. President-elect Donald J. Trump looked upon his burning kingdom, lips pursed, face smug, and nodded once to himself as if to say ‘and thus it shall be.’
But something else happened the day after national elections. Something smaller and much less known. On that day, amid the political apocalypse happening on the national news, a 6-foot 6-inch tall Ohio man had narrowly escaped four felony convictions, including one for election fraud. That man was former comedian and Hillsboro, Ohio mayor, Drew Hastings.
A towering cynical man with a wild gray mop of hair, purposely styled to project a candid and rebellious nature, Hastings is the embodied image of the political outsider he claims to be. There’s an obvious sort of pride he takes in his straight shooting, often times crude behavior. And it works for him, his rogue smugness comes off as charisma to rural blue collar voters who have grown tired of the political correctness they feel forced onto their ideals. That same charisma spoke to the people of Hillsboro, Ohio.
His large stature and larger personality resonated with them, the Hollywood glint of his eyes enthralling them.
Hillsboro is like a lot of other American towns. It doesn’t have a lot of steady jobs to offer its residents, which force most folks to find work outside the city or deal bitterly with the hardship. It’s small, rural, and lies in southern Ohio, equal distance from both Dayton and Cincinnati. It’s home to two newspapers, one community college, and two different radio stations; one country, the other- catholic programming. According to a 2015 study, 36 percent of its mostly white population live below the poverty line. That’s compared to the 19 percent state average. On top of that, Highland, the city’s county, battles an ever increasing opioid epidemic alongside most of rural Ohio. The unfortunate truth is that Ohio leads the country in opioid overdose deaths, more so than any other state. One out of every 9 heroin overdoses happening at any given time in the U.S. occurs in Ohio and, in 2014, the state’s heroin deaths reached a staggering 1,208.
It was amid that despair that Drew Hastings found them. Fresh from the television spotlight and still riding the buzz from his old Hollywood life, he must’ve seemed like a refreshing distraction. For a few moments, they could forget about the mounting pile of bills or the frustration of not being able to find a steady gig. Big time funny man Drew Hastings just bought a farm up the way and that ought to mean something to somebody, shouldn’t it? It certainly meant something to Drew.
The road from a comic who had once performed in front of David Letterman, to an Ohio farm-owning politician was a long and bizarre one. Much of it sounds like a work of Dickensian fiction, the rest, a Lifetime movie made for television. According to Wikipedia, Hastings was born in Casablanca to an English mother and an American father before they eventually moved to the mid-west. From the 1970s to the 1990s he spent most of his time divided between New York, Ohio, and L.A., concentrating largely on acting and comedy. He was more famously known for a series of one-man plays and a Comedy Central stand-up special entitled “Irked and Miffed”, which seems to have all the charm of a sexist/racist tirade from a drunk uncle at a very uncomfortable family dinner.
>It wasn’t until 2011, after he had reached the height of his comedy career, that he decided to dip his toes into the arena of local politics. He had already spent a great deal of time buying up various properties throughout the small town, including the historical Bell’s Opera House in uptown Hillsboro, the next logical step was, of course, submitting his bid for mayor.
“He was going to help get jobs and make the community better,” said local resident Daryl Ahrmann. He remembers the campaign promises Hastings made, “but the heroin addiction and the drug problem has done nothing but skyrocket. There are no jobs. I live in Hillsboro. I drive an hour and ten minutes to work every day.”
The promise of returning jobs and old glory should be a familiar one to all of us. It was the same rhetoric that catapulted Trump into favor during the primaries. The very same empty speech that won him the hearts of swing states like Ohio, who’s rural residents were parched for jobs and for hope. But the similarities between the joker and the real estate mogul, unfortunately, don’t stop there.
Much like president-elect Donald Trump, Hastings seems incapable of censoring himself or maintaining any sense of professionalism on social media. In a comment on the mayor’s Facebook wall in late January, he posted, “As the Mayor of Hillsboro Ohio – a town that has a long history. Our city was home to Mother Thompson, who marched in the streets here with about 50 women demanding temperance – and they were able to get Prohibition in place. Today’s Women’s March seems more like mass bitching to me.” This was in response to the mass Women’s Marches happening worldwide that same day. It followed another controversial online statement he made in 2015:
“We are in a revolution in this country. Blacks have all but formally declared war on whites.”
He quickly made a half-hearted attempt to back peddle that statement; “I have a good relationship in this city with our black community, and I regret them feeling included in some broad, over-the-top statement I made”. This, of course, doesn’t detract from the fact that he was all but hinting at a race war.
— Drew Hastings (@drewhastings) August 18, 2014
Despite the horrific nature of these statements, Hastings doesn’t seem to be at a loss for people to make excuses for him or to defend the veracity of his words. He doesn’t need a Sean Spicer, he has most of the town under the thrall of his unscrupulous charm. That, however, does not include Daryl Ahrmann. “The comparisons between the two are insane. As soon as Trump started running and going through the debates, it was eerie how similar it was.” He recalls that when Hastings made those racial statements online that it had received mostly positive comments and that it had accumulated more than 300 likes before the mayor took the post down himself. Ahrmann has been paying close attention to both local and national politics and the similarities seem obvious to him. “Hillsboro, much like the country, has gotten infatuated with a D-list celebrity. They’re both charismatic guys that know how to talk, with big personalities.”
Both of these wild-haired men, with their foul mouths and loose cannon media posts, strike a chord to the very heart of working class American, and mostly white, males. They speak to their inadequacies and insecurities and it reassures them. They help to direct all that angry, frustrated energy at anything that stands out enough to be an easy target. The truth is too inconvenient, too nuanced, and these men know that. If you build the people an enemy then they will surrender control. For a long time that worked for mayor Hastings, and he enjoyed all the pleasures of both his properties and his office. But eventually his luck would turn against him, and the mettle of his charm would be tested before a jury of his peers.
It wasn’t until he won his second term as mayor that his legal troubles began. Hastings was having lunch at a Bob Evans when a sheriff’s deputy politely asked him to step outside where he then served him papers, indicting him on 4 different felony charges. The charges included; election falsification, theft, theft in office, and tampering with records. For months, the Hillsboro police had been staking out his home residence, trying to determine whether or not he really lived within the limits of the city. If he didn’t, and instead stayed mostly on his farm on the outskirts of town, it would mean that he couldn’t legally have run for mayor in the first place. The police even went so far as to show up at his residence in the middle of the night, searching it for signs of occupancy. The other charges consisted mainly of the illegal use of city property and forging the signature of a public employee in order to receive a $500 city refund.
Drew Hastings denied all allegations, stating that his only true crime was going against “an established political structure.” Again, Hastings leaned heavily against his tried and tested charm as a political outsider against the evils of career politicians, a card trick that only seems to be gaining momentum in government circles. Just weeks ago, Congressman Jim Renacci, while revving the engine of his oversized Harley to further highlight his ‘rebel political outsiderness’, formally announced his intention to run for Ohio governor, claiming he’d take on career politicians and dismantle the ‘pay to play’ system. It should be noted, however, that Renacci was included in a 2011 list of the ten richest members of congress and that one of his campaign contributors underwent federal investigation for violating campaign finance law. The persona of the rebel outsider, set to clean up the political landscape and take no prisoners, is one that seems near bulletproof, no matter how duplicitous and insincere.
As the Hastings trial moved forward, Ohio Auditor David Yost himself personally weighed in on the allegations. “That investigation is now complete, and the evidence will be made public appropriately, in a court of law. I am confident the jury of his peers will find that evidence amounts to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” These are words made in no uncertain terms from a man with a commendable record and a reputation for thorough and tenacious investigative work.
In 2014, as a part of an investigation into attendance record manipulation in Ohio schools, Dave Yost uncovered an entire ring of grade changing and employee intimidation, leading to criminal charges. He’s also identified $17 million dollars in stolen public money, directly contributed to the convictions of 80 corrupt officials, and prosecuted the largest drug ring to have ever existed in Delaware County. So it’s curious, that after reviewing the evidence and making such a definitive claim, that Ohio Auditor Dave Yost be proven wrong and Drew Hastings escape all four of the felony charges leveled against him.
Two of the charges were outright dropped by Judge Cosgrove, after taking over the case when the initially appointed judge, Rocky Coss, recused himself. Of the remaining two charges, the jury found him to be not guilty. After the verdict, the prosecuting and defending attorneys seemed to enjoy cool, almost amicable acknowledgment of the other, with the defense going so far as to say that the prosecution “did a fine job presenting the evidence,” and that he was “easy to work with”. It seemed everyone had something nice to say about the proceedings, much shaking of the hands and many slapping of backs. It was a wonder there had even been a trial at all.
If Hastings had never been known to show humility before he certainly didn’t feel the need to display it after the trial. In an interview he joked, “I’m still serious about opening an uptown coffee house called ‘Insufficient Grounds’.” He might actually be as serious as he claims. Even as mayor, Hastings continued grabbing up local property, eventually buying the city’s former safety building (a building appraised at $110,000) for two-thirds its appraised value.
There’s been a political shuffle following the chaos of the trial. In a December email of resignation, Hillsboro Police Chief, Todd Whited had this to say about his job and former employer; “This email will serve as my official resignation from the position of Chief of Police for the City of Hillsboro. The effective date will be December 9, 2016. It is obvious that Mayor Hastings does not like me nor the police department. I can no longer in good conscience work with the mayor. It is truly sad that he does not have the integrity to understand that what he did was wrong.” Todd Wilkin, the town’s Service and Safety director was fired by Hastings himself after Wilkin testified against his boss during the felony trial.
Ahrmann followed the court proceedings but says that he was always more interested in the state of his hometown. Where Mayor Hastings concentrates on buying uptown real estate and beautifying the area, he sees a drug-ravaged community in need of real jobs and opioid recovery.
“Heroin has been really on the rise. When I was a kid, that was something you only saw in the movies. Now it’s an everyday thing.”
“Everyone in Hillsboro knows someone that’s been arrested or been to jail or who has died of an overdose. I’ve had people in my own family affected by [it],” Daryl Ahrmann went on to say.
Frustrated, he admits his dislike for both Hastings and Trump and, to him, it comes down to very simple reasoning, “It’s that whole ‘I’m not [a] politically correct guy’. But in my mind, people who say that, it’s just a new form of ‘I’m racist but you can’t call me racist’. You get in trouble for calling a racist a racist. It makes you the bad guy.” Not only does he find the mayor’s words and actions offensive, he sees him as actively mocking the town in which Ahrmann grew up, the town that he’s called home his entire life. “One of the biggest things, when he was running for mayor, was that he was pushing reality shows to television networks. He was going to try and make a reality show out of him being mayor of Hillsboro. I think a lot of people bought into that, thinking it was going to be a thing. I thought it would be awful. He seemed like he was trying to make a Honey Boo Boo kind of reality show to make fun of my town. I didn’t really care for that.”
The idea of politics has always been seen as a game of deception, benefitting anyone willing to play the ‘long-con’, but it seems grimmer now, more ruthless, and increasingly more obvious. Certain politicians have been able to use this as an advantage while simultaneously playing an even dirtier hand of cards. They have a keen understanding of the voter’s true dilemma; that we’re starved for any real options, that every other political stage actor is just more of the same, and that we’re ravenous for authenticity. Trump knows this, Hasting knows this. All it takes is one small morsel of truth, one crumb of sincerity, no matter how awful, and we’ll devour it whole, despite the hook and lure at the end of the line.
We might never know the motivation that drove a once semi-famous comedian from the comforts of movie and television cameos to becoming land baron and mayor of a small maudlin, Ohio town. Maybe being the spectacle in the town square of the rural midwest suits him. Maybe he finds comfort in its slow pace and country living. Truthfully, neither answer seems like enough. These are people that could very much benefit from the insight and leadership of someone who genuinely wants to change their lives. They deserve more than the empty promises of reality star presidents or the shallow vanity of crass comedians. Their family members are dying with needles still in their arm, poverty cripples their jobless community, but the joker in the back barks out a dry laugh and offers nothing but to assure them that the show must go on.
Perhaps the only real truth to take away is this: some kids will always want to rule a smaller sandbox.
Drew Hastings was phoned several times, but did not respond to requests for interview.
Associated Press, 2016, November 9 http://www.wcpo.com/news/local-news/highland-county/judge-dismisses-2-of-4-counts-against-hillsboro-comedian-mayor
Associated Press, 2016, April 2: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/5f259fb549ea4c768dd274f1811b4070/more-investigations-jokes-city-led-comedian-mayor
Abernathy, Gary, 2016 November 9 http://timesgazette.com/news/11351/2-counts-dismissed-hastings-case-goes-to-jury
Abernathy, Gary, 2016 July 12 http://timesgazette.com/news/8890/hastings-indicted-on-four-felonies
Columbus Dispatch, 2016, November 29 http://www.dispatch.com/news/20161129/ohio-leads-nation-in-overdose-deaths/1
Bartunek, Carrie 2011, June, 6 https://ohioauditor.gov/news/pressreleases/details/1000
Columbus Dispatch 2014, July, 31: http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2014/07/31/Tankovich_pleads_in_data_scandal.html
Gettys, Travis 2015, December, 3 http://timesgazette.com/news/4268/hastings-says-he-regrets-fb-post