Challenger Mike Collins had a slogan in his campaign for mayor: “Collins cares.”
Mayor Mike Bell never really had a slogan.
And his implicit one for most of the campaign was a shrug: Whatever.
Later, it became: I care too.
But by then, it was too late.
Whatever didn’t cut it with the voters.
The histories of campaigns are usually written either as how a candidate won or how the other candidate lost. But, really, you have to tell both stories to understand what went on.
Mike Collins won because the voters wanted more attention paid to the management of city government — streets, parks, lights, youth programs.
He won because, as Peter Ujvagi, longtime East Toledo political eminence, told me, Mike Collins struck a nerve: Our neighborhoods have been ignored for four years. Indeed, they felt disrespected.
He won, because, said Jack Ford, “Collins and Spang are new and too many people were mad at Mike [Bell].” (Sandy Spang was the big city council story. A newcomer, she placed third after Rob Ludeman and Mr. Ford.)
Mr. Collins won because unions felt disrespected. Dan Wagner of the police officers’ union and Ray Wood of the UAW also said they felt this race was a continuation of the Senate Bill 5 battle and a warm-up for the 2014 battle for the governor’s office.
Finally, Mr. Collins won because of Mr. Bell’s arrogance. Perhaps this was the biggest factor of all.
Mr. Bell didn’t feel he needed to give the voters a reason to vote for him. He had no platform. He had no plan for the second term. It was just about him.
Mr. Bell is an independent spirit as well as an independent politician. That’s an admirable thing, generally. But everything, in life and politics, is ultimately about balance. Total independence can easily turn to narcissism and a deaf ear.
You have to be able to work with people to succeed in politics. You have to be willing to forgive and forget. You have to be able to change your mind.
Mr. Bell did not think he should answer to neighborhood activists, the press, or either political party. Who did that leave? Only himself.
Mr. Collins cast himself as a servant of forces larger than himself. Someone who needed the help of the young students and grad students, the union activists, and the neighborhood groups who backed him. He championed the neighborhoods. He championed homeless shelters. He ran an ad featuring the endorsement of his grandchildren, who, very effectively, reminded the voters that their granddad was an ex-Marine and city cop.
Effective. A humble public servant.
Mr. Collins kept putting issues and ideas on the table to counter the mayor’s blankness.
He said he had a road map for the next four years.
Maybe it wasn’t quite that.
And maybe it will be hard to do all he wants to do.
But by putting so much on the table, Mr. Collins not only emphasized that he cared about the city and its less fortunate, but that he really wanted to be mayor.
Mayor Bell gave the impression that he could take or leave the job. Indeed, he often said as much.
Mr. Collins gave the impression that there was nothing he wanted so badly in his public life, and nothing else he would ever want.
Mr. Collins’ explicit message was: It would be an honor to be your mayor and I will work hard at it. Mr. Bell’s implicit message was that the privilege would be ours. He would be doing Toledo a favor. And if he were to lose: No big deal. He could get a better job.
This cost him.
And labor, and the state Democrats, and a good many social conservatives in the neighborhoods were united: Beat Bell. And, hey, Mr. Collins turns out to be OK.
And Mr. Collins was lucky. In the primary, two Democratic candidates split the vote. A united local Democratic party in the primary would have likely pushed Mr. Collins down to third place.
Mr. Collins also had an issue that cut across demographic lines and dovetailed nicely with his neighborhoods theme: Crime.
The mayor told the public the city is safer and that our gang problem is really not much of a problem. The voters didn’t buy it. They don’t feel very safe.
The amazing thing is: Mr. Bell was, by the reckoning of most people, a very respectable mayor. Certainly no one said he was a terrible mayor.
And almost everyone likes him.
Amazing that a guy like that could lose in a blow-out.
Amazing that the modest Mr. Collins could pull this off.
But his modesty helped him and his neighborhood theme did touch a nerve.
And now Mr. Collins must govern. And he has promised a fresh team. Those two goals, are, in no small measure, conflicting.
For now, he has pulled off one of the most stunning political upsets in the history of Toledo politics or urban politics in America. The smart money said he would never get past the primary and, after he did, never beat a charismatic, well-financed incumbent with a good record. But he did. And he did it with a very small band of volunteers, little fund-raising prowess, and little professional help. He did it with a door-to-door, person-to-person campaign, and a promise to revive our neighborhoods and city services — to care about Toledo.
Mr. Ford said Tuesday: “I think Collins is poised to do great things.” The Collins campaign will make a heck of a senior honors or master’s thesis one day. It may also be, if Mr. Collins continues to be lucky and to be underestimated, a prelude to four years of renewal.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.