COLUMBUS — After former Democratic President Barack Obama made a quiet stop in Columbus Thursday night, the wealthiest Republican supporter in the state told an audience at Miranova’s Ivory Room in Downtown Columbus that he is fed up and has quit the Republican Party.
"I just decided I’m no longer a Republican," said L Brands CEO Les Wexner, speaking on a panel discussion about civility during an event billed as a "Columbus Partnership and YPO Leadership Summit."
"I’m an independent," he said. "I won’t support this nonsense in the Republican Party. I’ve been a Republican since college, joined the Young Republican Club at Ohio State.
"I haven’t run an ad in the newspaper that said, ‘I quit,’" he told the gathering. Instead, he’s been writing notes to his friends in elective office who are Republicans, telling them, "‘I want you to know that now I’m an Independent.’ "
The event was jointly sponsored by the Columbus Partnership, a group of central Ohio's most influential business leaders that Wexner chairs, and YPO (formerly Young Presidents’ Organization), a group of under-45 business leaders.
Obama stopped in Columbus before a rally in Cleveland Thurday night to support Democrat Richard Cordray's run for governor.
Obama spoke on stage in Columbus with Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, during a portion of the event that was closed to reporters.
The panel on which Wexner later spoke was moderated by political commentator David Gergen, a former advisor to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. Panelists also included Mayor Andrew Ginther and Nancy Kramer, chief evangelist at IBM iX. It was attended by approximately 140 people.
When asked for her reaction to Wexner’s statement after the event, Kramer, a member of the Partnership, referred back to Obama’s comments. The former president urged listeners, she said, to focus on what they will do rather than who they are. Wexner, she said, was "making a statement about his belief systems."
"He’s a man who’s focused on what he wants to do rather than what he wants to be," she said. "We are so fortunate to have someone like Les care that deeply and lead with such conviction and generosity."
"I admire him for making that statement," said developer Brett Kaufman, a Partnership member, in an interview. "It’s not something he had to say, but he said it because he thought it mattered and that it would be important for other people to hear him say it publicly. I would imagine it was hard for him, being a member of the Republican Party for a long time, so it takes courage. I think it’s reflective of the kind of leader that he’s been in our community."
Wexner spoke warmly about Obama and about the theme of bipartisan civility, something he has been promoting in recent months. "It’s a great moment for the community," he said of Obama’s rather secretive visit to Columbus prior to his Cleveland rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rich Cordray. "I know he came here because of the Partnership and the things we have done, and the knowledge that civility is a priority for our community. He wanted to touch it and feel it for himself.
"I was struck by the genuineness of the man; his candor, humility and empathy for others," Wexner said of Obama.
Those comments presented a stark contrast to Wexner’s comments about Republican President Donald Trump. A little over a year ago, the billionaire CEO said in a speech to L Brands employees that he felt "dirty" and "ashamed" following Trump’s response to violence that erupted at the Unite the Right rally that left one dead in Charlottesville in 2017.
Trump had said there were "very fine people" among the white nationalist protestors at that rally. On Thursday, Wexner returned to that event, which he said caused him to lose sleep. "I have to do something because the leader of our country is behaving poorly," Wexner recalled thinking.
During the past year, Wexner has poured money into bipartisan civility. In late 2017, Wexner made a $300,000 donation to With Honor, a PAC that supports military veterans from both parties who are running for office and who agree to a pledge not only to conduct themselves with civility but also to meet one-on-one with a member of the opposing party once a month. In February 2018, Abigail Wexner, a Democrat, followed up her husband’s gift with a $2.5 million gift to With Honor.
Wexner’s comments about his party affiliation followed a statement by former Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, a Democrat who stood up in the audience and said he was "concerned by people who talk about civility, then don’t speak up or stand up. Les Wexner spoke up, but in our political community, it’s the silence of the lambs."
Wexner agreed. "I just have to say something," he said. "If you don’t think things are right, open your mouth."