Wednesday, Oct 18, 2017
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Keith Burris

COMMENTARY

A lesson in Toledo democracy

At a time when the city needed statecraft, it got burlesque

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Toledo City Council met Tuesday to make the two most significant decisions it has had to make since the death of Mayor Mike Collins: whom to appoint as president of city council, since Paula Hicks-Hudson has now ascended to the mayor’s office. And whom to appoint as a temporary member of council to fill the vacancy created by Ms. Hicks-Hudson’s departure.

I learned an important lesson about Toledo politics. The paramount value, and goal, is not that Democrats, Republicans, and independents compete. It is that everyone who belongs to the club gets a cookie at the end of the tree-house meeting.

It's not about party or program. It’s about insiders and outsiders.

That rule, and the obsession with the election that will occur in nine months, followed by another election two years after that, caused the council members to tie themselves in knots. Then they had to get out of their own gags and ropes and emerge with a skip, a handshake, and a smile.

Not pretty.

Most of these people are good people, but the movie title for this farce would be Get Low, if that title weren’t already taken.

At a time when the city needed statecraft, it got burlesque. Here is how the knot-tying began:

The empty council seat was supposed to be filled by Yvonne Harper, a Democratic party functionary, and not only a reliable vote, but someone who would vacate the seat for Paula Hicks-Hudson if she wants to come back to being a member of council.

Why would she do that? Well, there are two schools of thought there, neither magnanimous. 1) She won’t be able to handle the mayor’s job. 2) She will be gently pushed aside for one of the club. Someone who has been groomed and can be counted on.

So, to begin, filling the council seat was not about getting the best person to fill it but “taking care of the Paula problem.”

But Ms. Harper was revealed in a Blade story to be a difficult character and a rather inappropriate choice. So she was dispatched and replaced by the Republicans’ choice for the seat: Scott Ramsey. (Ironically, he seems pretty good and probably thinks he was picked because he is, poor guy.) This, in return for Republican support for the Dem choice for council president, who just happens to be the Democratic Party chairman, and Ms. Harper’s putative boss — Steven Steel. His support was eroding because it seemed wrong to many people for the head of the Democratic Party and the council to be the same guy. So, Mr. Steel’s election was assured by nominal representatives of the other party.

But members of the club.

Of course Mr. Steel’s boss, as everyone knows, is a man named Shaun Enright, head of the Northwestern Ohio Building & Construction Trade Council, who often acts openly as a whip on the council chambers floor — sending hand signals to council members and the new president. I’ve never seen such an open and shameless domination of a political body by a special interest.

Mr. Enright is a decent enough guy and he represents people entitled to representation. I can’t blame him for grabbing all the power he can. That’s his right as well as his nature. But what are we to make of a council — even the Republicans and so-called independents — that hands all the power to one union and one tiny sliver of a financially, morally, and intellectually bankrupt political party?

An old hand said to me last night: “Realize, these folks aren’t rocket scientists.”

But they all seem smart enough. What they lack is guts and conviction. How? How in the world does Sandy Spang, the voice of change in Toledo just a year ago, hand her vote to Steven Steel and her power to Shaun Enright?

Man, I miss Mike Collins. He could mangle the language and be pedantic as hell. But he was honorable and had guts.

No surprise he was always an outsider.

The icing on the cake Tuesday was Ms. Harper dramatically withdrawing her name. (Larry Sykes tried to re-enter it.) And Mr. Steel announcing he will take a leave as party chairman — after he was elected council president, of course.

It felt like pre-scripted playacting and it was. I didn’t know whether to throw up or go home and take a shower.

Remember Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver? He was the kid who was always cooking up some low-life scheme, full of conniving and malice. And then Mr. or Mrs. Cleaver would come into the room and the kid would turn on a dime. Suddenly he oozed politeness and respect. Of course he also oozed insincerity. Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver saw through him.

I felt in that chamber Tuesday like Eddie Haskell had cloned himself and gone into politics. (Of course he would, wouldn't he?) The insincerity oozed through the hall. You could cut it with a knife. Cynicism and self-service ruled the day. And the comedy of everyone getting as low as they could: Mr. Sykes pandering to Ms. Harper and Mr. Steel. The council member who changed her mind about her vote three times the night before. She was surpassed only by the one who changed his vote on the final ballot, so he could be with the winner.

All these people started in politics wanting to do stuff. Good stuff. The problem is that this soon got eclipsed by wanting something for themselves — to run for mayor, mostly; or maybe the legislature one day; or maybe just to have an ace committee chairmanship; or, worst of all — just to bask in the good graces of the club.

All in the game, as they say. All in the game. It is a game. And the game only get’s higher, nobler, when it is competitive and ideas are a part of the mix. If politics does not serve the common good at all, that only leaves self-interest and self-aggrandizement. If it is not competitive it will inevitably become corrupt.

Service and competition were buried under the ooze at City Council Tuesday.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.

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