The classic TV comedy Seinfeld was famously a show about nothing. For too long, it appeared that this year, Toledoans would have to endure a mayoral campaign about nothing.
That’s starting to change, slowly. But just six weeks before the Sept. 10 city primary, and barely a week before early voting starts, the campaign still needs to acquire more substance if voters are to make informed choices about the candidates for mayor and City Council.
Toledo political history, going back almost a century, strongly suggests that city voters will renominate Mayor Mike Bell in September, advancing him to the general election in November. That’s not a sure thing, of course. But it now appears that the most important question the nonpartisan mayoral primary will resolve is which of the mayor’s six challengers — seven if you count a write-in candidate — will oppose the incumbent this fall.
The Blade plans to make primary endorsements in the coming weeks for mayor and Toledo City Council. We’re departing from past practice in doing so; we previously tended to reserve our recommendations for the general election.
But primary elections at all levels of government have become so important — often more decisive than general elections — that they should no longer be considered the sole property of political parties or free-spending interest groups.
As part of our screening process, The Blade’s editorial board is meeting with every mayoral and council candidate who will talk to us about his or her campaign. These conversations are proving far more informative than the slogans, sound bites, and scripted messages the candidates offer on the stump.
Last week, we hosted — separately — City Councilmen D. Michael Collins and Joe McNamara, who are running for mayor. It was gratifying to hear each candidate speak knowledgeably, bordering on wonkishly, about his positions on what should be the key issues of this campaign: job creation, crime control, infrastructure maintenance, city taxes and spending priorities, neighborhood renewal, the quality of municipal services.
More broadly, each challenger explained credibly why he wants the office he seeks (seemingly a softball question, but you’d be amazed how many candidates can’t answer it) and why he deserves to hold it, based on his professional and personal experience. Each differentiated himself meaningfully from Mayor Bell and the rest of the field, to show that voters have a real choice.
Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez, who is scheduled to visit with us this week, also has released proposals recently on economic development and police staffing. Ms. Lopez promises to fill in the blanks on details of these plans before the primary.
The other challengers on the mayoral primary ballot — Opal Covey, Alan Cox, and Michael Konwinski — also merit your attention. The quality of a candidate’s ideas is not inevitably related to the size of his or her campaign treasury.
One other issue needs to be at the forefront of this year’s primary and general election campaigns: how open — or secretive — an administration the next mayor is likely to run.
Mayor Bell is challenging a state appeals court ruling that the city must release to The Blade the Police Department’s map of gang territories in Toledo; he continues to insist the map is not a public document. Despite his reluctance to comply with the court order, the dispute has forced the mayor to defend his administration’s approach to public information on a range of issues in addition to law enforcement.
It also has encouraged his challengers to explain what they will do differently and, presumably, better about communicating with citizens. Whether or not you agree with the court ruling, the way city government lets you know how it conducts its business and spends your tax dollars is of obvious concern to all Toledoans.
This year, the challengers won’t merely be able to talk the talk about running an open and accountable administration, as candidate Bell did four years ago. They’ll have to persuade voters that they will walk the walk on transparency, from the day they take office.
In the remaining weeks before the primary, other events may shape the campaign in ways we can’t anticipate now. But more important matters, such as each candidate’s qualifications and commitment to public service, have been forged over years.
During our conversation last week, Mr. McNamara talked about Toledo’s potential to become a “phenomenal” city with strong leadership. He spoke of a family legacy, declaring that “public service is in my blood.”
“Toledoans are more down on Toledo than people who move into this community,” he said. “The mayor has to be an advocate for Toledo — open, honest, fighting for the people who live here.”
Mr. Collins said he is running for mayor this year, as he did unsuccessfully four years ago, to say “thank you to the citizens.”
“I believe in Toledo,” he said, “I’m in this to win it, and I am going to change this city. My campaign staffers are enthusiastic young people — I tell them, I can write the first chapter for a new Toledo, but you’ll write the conclusion.”
If all of the mayoral contestants, incumbent and challengers alike, express similar passion to serve — and back it up with sound and practical policy proposals — this just might be a campaign about something after all.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.