It seemed like the best place to meet Mayor Mike Bell for a talk was not Government Center, but some place a little more real. So we met at his favorite watering hole El Camino, on biker night — Wednesday night.
PHOTO GALLERY: Mayor Mike Bell at biker night
He arrived at the West Toledo bar in chaps, vest, and Western hat. But it took a while for him to work his way to our table. He's been coming to this place and places like it for 30 years. These folk, he says, are his poll.
I wanted to see his bike. And it's a thing of beauty — a Harley hand painted by a local artist, one mural at a time. He said he talks to the painter about his vision and she works up some sketches before they proceed. The images are Native American. How did he get into that? “I just felt it,” he says. He says he met a cousin a few years back at a family reunion. Had never met him before. Hasn't seen him since. He was dressed identically — black motorcycle western.
I'd heard the mayor rides without a helmet. He does. Unless he's riding in a state that requires a helmet and it's raining there.
Though the bike is showpiece, it's not for show. “I ride,” he says. He's ridden, alone, to California and Key West.
I also wondered about a statement he's made several times through the years, with slight variations — that when you have been a firefighter you don't sweat the small stuff; you have seen how fragile life can be; you are a free man.
It's odd to find a politician who says that he doesn't really care what people think. And it's not entirely true. It bothers him that some people think he has forgotten where he came from. The racism he felt coming up still stings. He says he had to always be better than his detractors, and than his own temper, because as the first black fire chief in Ohio he was always being watched.
It bothers him that people don't understand that economic development takes time, especially when dealing with the Chinese. He's become deeply interested in Chinese culture and is moved by the premium his Chinese friends place on service and honor.
Xenophobia bothers him. He can't believe one of his opponents not only wants to go back to the days before regionalism and global economic outreach, but feels comfortable making an anti-foreigner pitch.
It bothers him that people don't fully appreciate how Toledo could have been Detroit — and that it is stabilized and moving ahead now.
But what people think of him personally, he truly does not care about. He lives inside his own head, and his own code. He's an inner directed man and a warrior.
Running into burning buildings and trying to save lives has to attract a certain kind of man, and then, perhaps, mold him in his own image. Mr. Bell doesn't suffer fools. And maybe he has gotten to like business people a little too well because they actually accomplish things. Eventually.
He tells me being mayor is an easier job than being fire chief. Why? As chief, most decisions had immediate impact; many had to do with life and death. He says he slept with his phone for 17 years. He was always on call; 100 percent responsible. He felt he had to be. And in that time, he never lost a man. He's proud of that.
There are two other interesting aspects to this self-contained, fatalistic gentleman. He likes, he says, to enjoy life. For as life is fragile, it is also short. He likes his bike, the open road, and an open bar. If that offends some, whatever.
He can also cut to the chase. Some weeks ago, I was working on a piece on Nelson Mandela. I called a bunch of people looking for comment. Some were eloquent; some were gaseous. Mayor Bell's comment, via a spokesperson, was the shortest. And at first I wondered if he was just punching my ticket. But later I realized that it was vintage Mike Bell: Make the point and leave it alone. He said Nelson Mandela's life shows the power of love.
Not what I expected from Mike Bell.
His answers and his gaze are always direct. His curtness is either not enough for you or it's the truth and a slam dunk.
Mike Bell is a riddle inside an enigma — a lifelong civil servant who does not like politics; a politician who likes being mayor but would also be OK with losing the job; a man whose political enemies like and admire him. He's a natural leader and at the same time a solitary figure; a big, physically impressive guy who can back slap with the best of them and also a strikingly quiet guy.
Living in your head, you can miss some stuff. The voters of Toledo will decide if Mike Bell's independence is what they want and need for another four years. But I have no doubt that he does 90 percent of what he does out of a sense of duty and love for this city. He sees himself as a command officer. And he knows a whole lot more real people — who work paycheck to paycheck and maybe drink a little too much beer — than most politicians ever will. It's impossible not to like the guy.
Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.