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Published: Saturday, 8/25/2007

Here's why Toledo is behind

BY ROSE RUSSELL

IF ANYONE on the 22nd floor over at One Government Center wonders why it's so tough moving Toledo forward, just review recent City Council events.

First of all, no segment of the population clamored for a change in the Toledo City Council president. The move to unseat Republican Rob Ludeman began more than two weeks ago when Mayor Finkbeiner called for Council to tone down the political rhetoric - if you can imagine that.

At-large Democratic Councilman Frank Szollosi's response to foster Council unity was to bounce Mr. Ludeman from his perch and to have him replaced with a Democrat.

Now, fast-forward to Tuesday, when Councilman Michael Ashford was elected Council president. But between the mayor urging Council to chill and Tuesday's election, the matter of who should be president became an issue of the color of that president. All three African-Americans on Council are Democrats: Wilma Brown, Mr. Ashford, and Phil Copeland.

It's not clear why the issue became one of race. But perhaps it became central to the presidency when Democrat Joe McNamara tried to present himself as the preferred option to Mr. Ashford.

Apparently, Mr. McNamara didn't believe Mr. Ashford was, as Republican Councilman George Sarantou put it, "palatable to certain members of council so he wanted to offer himself." Although I'm not certain why Mr. McNamara found Mr. Ashford unacceptable, his remarks must be code language for "white members of council don't want a black president, Democrat or Republican."

It remains unfortunate that Lucas County Democrats are divided between the A-Team and B-Team.

The B-Teamers, who tend to be aligned with Republicans, have Mayor Finkbeiner as a leader, and include Councilman Mark Sobczak, who wouldn't yield his support of Mr. Ludeman for president.

Interestingly, Mr. Szollosi decided black Toledoans wanted a black Council president since there aren't as many black figures in visible positions as there used to be.

Did he think of that himself or did he draw that conclusion from conversations with others? He noted the departure of certain ones: former school superintendent Eugene Sanders, who heeded the intentions of then-incoming school board members who wanted him out as superintendent; former Mayor Jack Ford, who lost the 2005 mayoral election when so many black Toledoans fell for Carty's smooth talk, and former city Councilman Karyn McConnell, who got into trouble with police when she insisted on parking illegally.

Might I add former Fire Chief Mike Bell, who probably endured more outrageous taunting from his superiors than most would have.

Not to ignore the need for fairness, Mr. Szollosi neglected to acknowledge that African-Americans want the same for Toledo as anybody: a well-run city that's a safe place to live with good services. So beyond the insiders, I doubt many black Toledoans high-fived one another upon learning of Mr. Ashford's presidency.

Turning this into a big racial issue underscores why Toledo doesn't do better. Consider, for instance, that Councilman Brown was pressed about whether only a black colleague would get her vote.

Her apt response: "Why shouldn't it be an African-American?" And why shouldn't it?

When issues are exaggerated among whites, nobody asks whether a white candidate supports another on the basis of race and not experience or qualification. Ms. Brown said she believed Mr. Ashford was the most experienced. Period.

Meanwhile, it's impossible to ignore that Mayor Finkbeiner didn't respond to Mr. Ashford's calls. Was that because Mr. Ashford is an A-Teamer? Because he's black? Not acceptable?

Politicians won't always see eye-to-eye. Nobody does. So have your disagreements, Council. But try to focus more on the principle of disagreements.

Neither high-tech nor low-tech industries will want to do business here when city leaders squabble about race when it shouldn't be an issue. The rest of the world recognizes the importance and value of diversity and is doing quite well as it moves right along.

However, it must have been too hot, too cold, too rainy, or too sunny in Toledo when the other communities learned that lesson and Toledo didn't.

No wonder this town is so far behind, when black and white Toledoans continue to kick and scratch about nonsense.

Rose Russell is a Blade associate editor.

E-mail rrussell@theblade.com



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