Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Mayor's race is not locked up, so jump in

ANY sane person might ask: With the City of Toledo's rainy-day fund gone and the economy plunging, who'd be crazy enough to run for mayor?

And only a slightly crazed, politics-bitten person could provide the real answer: Because it's there. God made some folks so optimistic, service-driven, egotistical, and power-loving (yes, you need all those characteristics, though none to excess) that they want to be mayors. Praise be to God.

The mayor's race is just starting, and here's my handicapping of the race. But first, let me disclaim: I've been helping Keith Wilkowski's mayoral efforts. I also think Michael Bell would be a good mayor. I'm chairman of the Democratic Party Central Committee, but the party won't endorse until after the Sept. 15 primary election. The party's current goal is to encourage all the best candidates to run.

Next, let me discuss the issues. The biggest is the city's payroll. If we want to have enough police officers, a responsive fire department, clean parks, recreation, smooth roads, regular garbage pick-up and recycling, and economic development, the city and its unions will need to go through the same wrenching restructuring that industry has gone through. The process will be long and bitter. And the only question will be whether it will be done cooperatively or confrontationally.

The other major issue is jobs. The next mayor will need to be fully engaged with the business community, university, neighboring communities, economic development authorities and labor unions to make this the most business-friendly city anywhere.

Each of these issues requires a mayor who's driven, smart, tough, trusted, and who won't be guided by popularity polls.

Now to handicapping the candidates. Let's start with Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. My bet is he won't run. He hasn't raised money, many of his former supporters are encouraging him to step aside, and the emptying of the city's rainy-day fund - just announced - is a huge liability added to his already weak poll numbers. If Mr. Finkbeiner does run, there's a chance he wouldn't make it through the primaries. But he's the best campaigner I know and you can never count him out.

Keith Wilkowski has started strong and I'd put him as the early leader. He's been elected a number of times, made a reasonable showing with a late start in the 2005 mayor's race, and is generally well-liked and respected. He was an early supporter of President Obama, and many Obama volunteers are helping him. He's also raised more than $100,000, which is critical because the primary likely will cost the winning two candidates more than $300,000 each.

His downsides are that he thinks and talks like a lawyer, and his opponents will try to paint him as too liberal for the city. He'll need to stop talking in long paragraphs, and he will have to meet the too-liberal charge head-on.

I expect Michael Bell will run, and he's a strong candidate. Known for doing a good job as Toledo fire chief and now as the state fire marshal, Mr. Bell is widely admired and genuinely liked. No one has volunteered for more charities and public institutions than he. He's charismatic - tall, strong, and always with a big and genuine smile. He'll likely have support from business and labor.

Mr. Bell, however, hasn't run for office or raised money before. No one knows how he'd handle himself in a long, grueling campaign, and whether he can raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed. Another issue is no one knows his views. Is he liberal, conservative, pragmatic? My guess is he'll lean conservative/pragmatic and run to the right of Mr. Wilkowski.

The Republicans have only one announced candidate, Jim Mooney, who's in the real estate business. He's raising money, studying the issues and campaign tactics, and getting out his name and his pro-business, pro-free market philosophy. He's not known in the community, however, and probably will need to spend closer to $500,000 to have a shot at placing in the top two in the nonpartisan primary. His family also lives outside Toledo, and he rents an apartment here. That's a liability that's tough to overcome.

Another Republican who's mentioned is George Sarantou. Mr. Sarantou is moderate, accomplished, and he's highly thought of and well-liked. He'd be a strong candidate, but he may be too sane to throw himself into the race. Remember, two of the personality characteristics I specified were a healthy dose of egotism and loving power.

Another name that's mentioned is Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop. Mr. Konop is young, energetic, and gets good press. He faces a number of obstacles, though. One is that, when he ran for commissioner, he took an ethics oath to serve out his term. Two is that he hasn't raised any money for the race, which he's had the opportunity to do as a commissioner. And three is that he's perceived as too egotistical (or worse) by many elected officials and business and labor leaders. Remember, that's a needed characteristic, but not in excess. He'd probably need to run as an outsider against the community's leadership, and my sense is that's not what the community is looking for now. But he'd be a strong candidate.

No one has this race locked up. There's plenty of time and opportunity. My hope is that all the best people run and that, come the primary, voters will face the struggle of deciding which among many great candidates to vote for.

Peter Silverman, a former member of Toledo City Council and the Toledo city school board, is chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Central Committee.

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