What's the big idea? In the campaign for mayor of Toledo, there isn’t one.
Listen to the so-called issues that incumbent Mike Bell and his array of challengers have been batting back and forth so far: Which elected officials are getting pay raises? Which officials are handing out raises?
Which politicians are attending which campaign fund-raisers? Which mayoral hopefuls are taking contributions and campaign help from public employees? Who’s the authentic, lifelong Toledoan in the race?
Do the candidates truly believe these are the matters that most concern Toledoans? Can they really think that city voters are that dumb or that apathetic?
If the candidates want to bring substance to the campaign, here are some topics they might want to address — in detail, not empty platitudes:
Crime: A recent series in The Blade, inspired by the Bell administration’s refusal to release a Police Department map of gang territories in Toledo — clearly a public document — assessed the city’s criminal gang problem. The newspaper’s Pages of Opinion are paying particular attention to the city’s plague of domestic violence, which accounted for more murders here last year than gang activity did.
These are far bigger issues than, say, whether the Police Department reopens the Northwest District station. If the mayor’s challengers think they have better plans than the incumbent for reducing crime and enhancing public safety in Toledo, let’s hear them.
Jobs and economic development: Every candidate says he or she wants to keep jobs in Toledo, and to bring more jobs here. Who doesn’t? But wishing won’t make it so. What are the candidates’ specific programs to attract and retain business?
For example, Ohio anticipates a boom in production of oil and natural gas over the next few years because of new drilling techniques. These resources are mostly in the northeast corner of the state, but there’s no reason Toledo can’t compete for the jobs that exploration will generate in research and development and supporting industries. How do the candidates propose to capture these jobs?
Open government: During his first campaign for mayor four years ago, Mr. Bell pledged to conduct an open, accessible administration. He has not kept that promise. To the contrary, on a range of issues — from gang crime to foreign investment in the city to his own official travels — the mayor too often has seemed to preside over the most opaque government this side of the Kremlin.
The mayor’s challengers have properly criticized him for his lack of transparency. But how will they persuade voters they’ll do any better? Saying “trust me” won’t cut it. Telling voters their concrete proposals for broadening public access to public information will.
Public transportation: Mayor Bell has compiled an estimable record during his term of regionalizing some municipal services, notably trash collection and fire protection. But the city’s most important regional agency, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, has endured the secession of Perrysburg and threats from other member communities to defect as well.
Metropolitan Toledo needs regional mass transportation worthy of the name, to get workers to jobs and people without cars to doctor’s offices and grocery stores and other vital venues. What will the chief executive of the region’s largest city do to encourage more local communities to join TARTA, and to improve coordination among current members?
Image: Every Toledoan knows how this city punches well above its weight in civic amenities: a world-class art museum, a superior library system, a symphony orchestra that has played Carnegie Hall, a zoo that puts counterparts in bigger cities to shame, a terrific children’s science center, a downtown ballpark and arena that are equally marvelous. So why is Toledo still such a well-kept secret — or worse, the butt of stupid, snobbish jokes — outside this region?
The Toledo Brand Initiative is starting to dispel some of this ignorance. But what will the next mayor do to make sure that potential employers, investors, residents, and tourists know much more about Toledo’s jewels than they do now?
Race relations: Dealings among racial and ethnic groups in Toledo are not nearly as toxic as they are in other cities and metro areas, notably Detroit. But you can sense the tension that often lies beneath the surface here, and hear the divisive code words and the us-against-them slogans.
The city’s field of mayoral candidates has appealing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. This year’s campaign could provide a valuable forum for frank but civil talk about racial harmony and its absence in Toledo, if the candidates will let it.
Schools: The mayor does not run the Toledo Public Schools. But other urban mayors in Ohio, notably Frank Jackson in Cleveland and Michael Coleman in Columbus, have productively involved themselves in their cities’ school systems.
If any school district can use helpful outside intervention, it’s TPS. How would Mr. Bell and his challengers use the power and prestige of the mayor’s office to improve Toledo’s public schools?
I’m sure you have your own ideas about what you want to hear from the candidates. Tell me what they are, and I’ll circulate them.
The campaign hasn’t been utterly barren. A second-tier candidate — Alan Cox, the president of a municipal workers’ union — has an intriguing proposal: He says Toledo should scrap its strong-mayor form of government and return to its previous city manager system. That isn’t the solution to what ails the city, but it’s the sort of substantive idea all the candidates should be offering.
There’s still plenty of time to have a meaningful, exciting mayoral campaign this year. The general election is more than five months away, the primary more than three months from now. Candidates still can get into or out of the race.
But the number of candidates is less important than what they have to say. They can start by respecting Toledo voters enough to talk about things that matter.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.