Toledo can brag of one living national figure.
He is not an industrialist or a scientist at UT.
His name is Baldemar Velasquez.
We have one prophetic figure — a person who calls all people to higher ground.
He is not a bishop or even a pastor.
His name is Baldemar Velasquez.
He’s a labor organizer. He’s the head of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a national organization that he has always run out of this city.
Mr. Velasquez has been organizing migrant workers since he was a boy in the fields. He started FLOC as a college kid, almost 40 years ago.
These days, in addition to lobbying for decent immigration legislation in Washington and documenting abuse of workers in Mexico and here in the United States, he is trying to organize the tobacco workers in North Carolina. The issues there, he told me last Friday, are not to do with luxury, “but with life: human trafficking, people living in squalor; freedom of association.”
Mr. Velasquez is retirement age, or near it. But he has no thoughts of quitting. On the contrary. He is beginning a new campaign. Human trafficking, the new slavery, makes his work more important than ever.
And maybe harder than ever. Mr. Velasquez has refused a pension, because no one in his union has one. When he began to organize the tobacco workers, he went to North Carolina and worked alongside them. He experienced the nicotine permeating his clothing and skin, as they do.
The other day, ex-Mayor Jack Ford told me about a conversation he had with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at an official function some years ago. She told Mr. Ford the most impressive person she ever met was Thurgood Marshall. I asked Mr. Ford who was the most impressive person he ever met. (We are talking about public people, not parents or family.) He surprised me, saying it was Woody Hayes, for whom he played “mostly on the bench.” They didn't get along. But Woody was the man.
“Did he ever hit you?”
“Oh yeah, but I probably deserved it.”
As for me, most of the famous and powerful people I have met did not impress me much, though George Herbert Walker Bush and John Glenn were exceptions who proved the rule. Those are big men.
I would like to have met Dorothy Day. She was a lioness for justice.
I think the most impressive public person I have ever met is Baldemar Velasquez.
Last Friday he called people to his headquarters at FLOC to say he is endorsing Mike Collins for mayor.
Oh well, said some skeptics, he’s a labor guy and Mr. Collins is the labor candidate.
Could it be that simple? Or cynical?
I went to the FLOC offices on Broadway, full of amazing historic pictures on the wall about FLOC’s history, to see for myself. When this man speaks, I want to hear his reasoning.
What could this great civil rights leader have in common with a seemingly conservative, Irish, ex-cop, turned ward politician?
Mr. Velasquez had obviously written his statement himself. And he obviously put his heart into it.
He told a surprising story. He said he called Mr. Collins after Mr. Collins voted against a city council resolution on immigration, a resolution that was poorly written and failed. They talked through their differences and ideas in common and together drafted a new, stronger resolution, which passed. Mr. Velasquez said he is not looking for a perfect mayor. But one who will look at evidence, listen to all points of view, and be guided by evidence and fairness.
Mr. Collins, after the news conference, spoke to me of the endorsement, not politically, but with great emotion. “This means a great deal to me,” he said. The two of us were standing alone in a sliver of the room. He nodded toward Mr. Velasquez and said: “He is one of the finest men I have ever met. He has not got one self-serving bone in his body. He is a totally honorable human being.”
Mr. Collins did not say anything that eloquent in the news conference. He is Irish, so his public face is formal and restrained while his stories told in private — about the old country, and his father, and the horses they bred — teem with life and humor. There is an odd poetry in his uprightness.
But Mr. Collins did say that he wants a city of inclusion and pluralism. And that this endorsement would challenge him to embrace and lead such a city.
And I think this is one way to look at Toledo’s choice tomorrow: A vision of the city as a potential economic powerhouse versus a vision of the city as a collection of different ethnicities, traditions, voices, and neighborhoods. Many of them not so powerful.
Mind you, Mike Bell’s vision is compelling. By rights, we should be a little Chicago. We have the resources, the talent, and the location.
And maybe we still can be.
Let me sell Toledo to the world, Mr. Bell says: We get one or two big, new corporate players to locate here and life can be different for us all.
It’s not that Mr. Bell doesn’t care about poor people or working families. But he believes their best hope is a big economic engine.
And Mike Collins isn’t against big business or economic development.
But his emphasis is on the many small human bonds that make a city.
If you drive the neighborhoods along the water in the South End, behind FLOC’s headquarters, you see formerly middle class neighborhoods beaten down — into neglect, almost into poverty and despair.
What will lift them back up?
Neighborhood organization and good public policy? Or economic development?
Both, of course.
But which to emphasize at this point in our history? That’s the choice.
Two men; two visions.
I can tell you this about the two men: Mike Bell and Mike Collins are both good people. Honorable men. Complicated men. Public servants.
Mr. Bell is charming, charismatic, and great fun. I saw him in action last weekend too. He’s a force of nature.
Mr. Collins is a man of great honor and uprightness.
If elected, Mr. Bell will have to deliver on that big out-of-town investment and bring something dramatic to the waterfront downtown.
If elected, Mr. Collins must make city government work for the neighborhoods again and bring us together while celebrating our multiplicity.
I don’t envy either man.
I tip my hat to both men.
And now Toledo must choose.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade. Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6266.
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