Collins, Bell must step it up

Who is being misread in our mayor’s race?

Keith C. Burris
Keith C. Burris

Gone but not forgotten President George W. Bush once said he was “mis-underestimated.” Who is being misread in our mayor’s race? Who is being underestimated?

Mayor Mike Bell has to do two things between now and November 5. One is that the mayor has to fully engage. He’s done that. Gone is the taciturn and slightly bored Mike Bell of a few weeks ago. Gone is the Mike Bell who said: I don’t need this. There is now no doubt he likes being mayor and wants to be re-elected. He is in fight mode. At a debate at the Toledo Club, he actually said he was having “a lot of fun.” He was too. He pummeled his opponent, Councilman Mike Collins, that night.

The other thing Mr. Bell has to do is to make peace with black voters in the community, many of whom are disappointed in him. He’s now doing that by reaching out to neighborhoods. Indeed, this week he launched a “neighborhood improvements” tour. The mayor has told me that he feels his single biggest liability in this election is the perception that he doesn’t care enough about people of color and people in want. Whether launching a house-painting campaign in October will do that convincingly, I cannot say. But Mayor Carty Finkbeiner was out in the neighborhoods, with staff, every week. You could argue about how effective this tactic was, but not how deeply committed the former mayor was.

Mayor Bell is showing that he is listening. But he is also a day late and a dollar short.

What Mr. Collins has to do is step up his game: Tighten, edit, and punch up – lose the extra verbiage. He needs to think Harry Truman, and not Ross Perot, or Prof. Irwin Corey. He must wipe out the perception that he is vague and professorial and hammer away, with great clarity and precision, at his platform — tax cuts, tidy towns, lean and attentive government, the list of people he would fire, and the policies he’d change. Mr. Collins has proven he is the “Little Engine That Could,” now he must prove that he is not just a good ward politician, the apex of whose career was getting into the final round. One former colleague of Mr. Collins says that he was a good “district mayor,” but seldom worried about the city as a whole. I am sure Mr. Collins would dispute this with fervor. He needs fervor right now.

Finally, if he hopes to have a chance at raising big bucks and winning, Mr. Collins will have to contrast himself sharply with Mayor Bell. If Mr. Collins is seen as basically a Republican, as many people now see the mayor, but one who happens to believe in collective bargaining, he will lose.

Mr. Collins is now courting labor. He’s a former union president, but Samuel Gompers or Walter Reuther he is not. To elicit fervor, Mr. Collins needs to be the anti-Bell: The guy who is not Mr. Corporate, who will attack right-to-work as the destruction of Toledo, who will oppose fracking and defend the little guy — promising to go door to door as mayor rather than traveling the globe with the powerful. Maybe Mr. Collins is not an attack dog by nature. Maybe he is just a ward politician. But if he does step up his game, Mr. Collins may be mis-underestimated yet again.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

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