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Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 2/17/2013

Mayoral campaign needs substance, not slogans

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE COLUMNIST
Toledo City Council President Joe McNamara, left,  and Mayor Mike Bell, right,  flip a switch on holiday lights last December. The two men are running for mayor this year. Toledo City Council President Joe McNamara, left, and Mayor Mike Bell, right, flip a switch on holiday lights last December. The two men are running for mayor this year.
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It's on.

Toledo’s mayoral election is more than eight months away, but the campaign is already taking shape. There’s plenty of time for the candidates to conduct a robust, meaningful debate about the issues that will define this city for the next four years — if voters demand it.

Mayor Mike Bell, who shuns a party label and insists he is not a politician, seeks re-election. He took office at a time when the city faced its own fiscal cliff. He stared down intransigent municipal union leaders and overcame a recession-induced budget emergency without imposing a general tax increase.

The mayor has led important efforts to address regional issues, from public safety to trash collection to business attraction. He has worked to hire police officers and firefighters, fill potholes, and knock down abandoned buildings, if not enough to satisfy his loudest critics.

There are negatives in Mr. Bell’s record as well. His support for the bad state law, overturned by voters, that would have gutted the collective-bargaining rights of public employees earned him the enmity of organized labor and Democrats. They’re looking for payback.

Despite his campaign pledge of transparency, the mayor has run an excessively secretive administration. On issues ranging from his official global travels to the Police Department’s response to criminal gangs, his office has stonewalled even when that policy served Mr. Bell and the city poorly. For all of his strenuous efforts to attract Chinese investors, and to shield them from public view, the Marina District remains a vacant lot.

Mayor Bell at times has seemed disengaged from the day-to-day work of governing, yet he remains a genial, popular figure in Toledo. City voters appear likely to renominate him in the nonpartisan September primary and send him into the November general election.

The big question: Who will emerge from the primary as Mr. Bell’s opponent?

City Council President Joe McNamara, a Democrat, is the mayor’s most formidable announced challenger. Despite his relative youth (he’s 35), he has a solid record of achievement, contributing leadership and policy expertise to the council. He could appeal to independent voters who are looking for a change.

At the same time, Mr. McNamara — despite a labor-friendly record — ran afoul of union and party bosses in recent months by opposing their lackluster choice to fill a council vacancy. He failed in a 2010 campaign for the state Senate. The mayor says his challenger lacks “spinal cord.”

Kicking off his campaign last week, Mr. McNamara offered a thoughtful critique of Mr. Bell’s economic-development strategy and record on public safety. But it won’t be enough for him, or any other challenger, merely to point out what the mayor has done wrong. He also needs to declare, in detail, what he will do better.

Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez, another Democrat, is sounding like a candidate, although she still won’t declare herself one. Her gender and ethnicity would contribute welcome diversity to the mayoral campaign.

If/when Ms. Lopez runs, she will have the support of local union leaders. That will confer valuable advantages in fund-raising and campaign organization.

But it’s a double-edged sword, since she also will have to persuade city voters that as mayor, she would not merely do the bidding of organized labor. More broadly, she will have to explain how holding an obscure county row office has prepared her to run the city.

The mayoral race is attracting other candidates, some of them perennial. Mr. Bell’s predecessor, Carty Finkbeiner, hasn’t ruled out running, although he told me last week the odds are no more than “one in four or five” that he will get into the race.

Since he left office, Mr. Finkbeiner has been a one-man Greek chorus commenting on city government and politics. If he does not become a candidate, he’s clear on what he wants to hear from the mayoral field.

“I want them to address how they will improve the quality of living opportunities for Toledoans,” he says. “How are you going to make our economy more robust and diverse? And what are your plans to have a strong presence in the leadership of Toledo for the corporate, civic, academic, and labor (sectors), and for the grass roots?”

Mr. Finkbeiner shouldn’t be the only voice in the chorus. Other Toledoans will have to demand that the candidates address their priorities during the campaign as well.

It’s been entertaining to watch City Council members squirm and bluster ever since Mayor Bell pointed out how many of them are deadbeats about paying their city water bills. Those disclosures deftly shifted attention from the administration’s own mishandled public presentation of the $200 deposit/fee (take your pick) it is charging new water customers.

But this sideshow has obscured the bigger issue: The city must raise water rates soon to pay for repairs to an antiquated water and sewer system that have been deferred for years too long. What’s the best way to do that? The candidates have to talk about it.

We need similar conversations about crime and poverty, about job creation and housing, about the city’s appearance and economic development, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. The candidates must discuss how they would work to improve Toledo Public Schools, even though education is not the mayor’s direct responsibility. Voters need to hear specifics, not slogans.

The mayoral election will turn on the question: What must Toledo do to be a great city? That question demands an honest, issue-centered debate and a clean but hard-fought campaign.

The race is wide open. Toledoans have the luxury of watching the campaign unfold and defining it on their terms.

It’s important, certainly. But it also can, and should, be a lot of fun.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade. Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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