Jack Ford and Ray Kest highlighted their differences on development, public safety, budget management, and leadership style during a sometimes thoughtful, sometimes contentious debate last night that began the final phase in the race for mayor of Toledo.
But the flash point in the debate was triggered by something that appeared on no one's political radar screen just a week ago - credit-card debt.
Ray Kest, a certified public accountant and Lucas County treasurer since 1985 who has long touted his financial prowess on the campaign trail, started and finished the event defending management of his personal finances and credit-card debt that had climbed to more than $80,000.
He used his opening statement to explain that he used plastic to finance his children's education and to help them get off to a good start. He was still fielding questions about it in a news conference after the debate.
“Seven or eight years ago my wife and I virtually had no credit debt. But as our kids came into being teenagers, and now in their early 20s, we have incurred a lot of debt, not only for school, automobiles, insurance, and many different items, but also to get them started in life,” Mr. Kest said.
“But I have been a progressive and innovative treasurer and have handled your tax dollars to the best of my abilities,” he told an audience of several hundred gathered at the Valentine Theatre downtown and television viewers watching live on Channel 13.
The credit-card issue was a show-stopper.
Raucous Kest supporters delayed the debate at one point, erupting in protest when panelist Marilou Johanek, a Blade commentary writer, tried to asked Mr. Kest about his credit-card debt.
Their shouts and catcalls prompted moderator Diane Larson, Channel 13 news anchor, to chastise them so the debate could continue.
The mayoral debate was sponsored by The Blade, WTVG-TV Channel 13, and the Valentine.
Mr. Ford used his opening statement to urge Toledoans to look not at the candidates, but at the city's future.
“Sept. 11 changed our world in a thousand different ways. But we have seen honor, and the American resiliency come to the fore. We have seen countless heroes march against great odds,” he said. “Toledo has a task to serve democracy. They have to turn out to vote on the sixth of November.”
“Toledo has a great future. I see a vibrant city in the future. I see a return to basics, curbs, streets, and trees trimmed and alleys cleaned. I see a continued embracement of diversity. It's needed more now than ever.”
The candidates jousted over economic development. Mr. Kest said he would work to develop northwest Ohio into a single economic region where political jurisdictions share tax revenue.
“The areas around the country [that are successful] are the ones that have tax-sharing agreements. Either we are going to stay in a no-growth mode or else we are going to sell our entire area to the country,” he said. “We have been competing against ourselves for too long.”
Mr. Kest said he would press the Regional Growth Partnership, a local economic development agency, to promote “brownfield” industrial sites in Toledo to businesses considering a move to the region.
“We have to make sure they are marketed along with other sites in northwest Ohio,” he said, adding that he would not approve of any water line extensions beyond the city's limits unless that political jurisdiction agreed to share tax revenue with Toledo.
Mr. Kest said he favors the construction of the proposed Fallen Timbers shopping mall in Maumee because Toledo would reap 40 percent of the income taxes generated at the mall. He said he favors the new center, even though it might mean the demise of the Southwyck Shopping Center off Reynolds Road in South Toledo.
Mr. Ford said he opposes the Maumee mall because it threatens Southwyck, and would give priority to projects within the city's limits.
“I am running for mayor of Toledo. I have said repeatedly, let's choose Toledo,” he said. “You all have a chance to ask, which mayor is going to stop the decline, stop the population drain. As I have said before, sprawl saps the life out of a city. We are not going to grow, we are not going to become elegant, we're not going to be the kind of Toledo we want unless we begin to focus on our neighborhoods and keep business in Toledo.”
Later in the debate, he said that “We've talked a little bit about sprawl tonight. I believe it is the defining issue in this race.”
In the midst of what has become the most expensive political race in the history of Toledo, Mr. Kest, who has held a substantial fund-raising lead since the beginning of the race, said “I am not beholden to anybody. I can't be bought and I can't be paid for.”
Mr. Kest and Mr. Ford may spend a collective total of $1 million by the time polls open on Nov. 6, nearly double what the race cost just four years ago.
“On my contributor list, there is nobody that has contributed more than maybe 11/2 to 2 percent of my total budget,” Mr. Kest said. “I have a broad base of union support, business support, all throughout the area.”
Mr. Ford, a state representative who has used contacts in Columbus to raise thousands of dollars, said there is no shame in raising money for politics.
“I've always felt that money is an indication of support, and that someone who is able to raise a lot of money, that's not a bad thing. It indicates that they know who the movers and shakers are.”
But, he said, his campaign also has concentrated on small donations: “We have had a lot of people give 10 dollars, and that has been very, very helpful.”
It was another issue - police staffing -that caused the biggest battle of the night.
Calling public safety the city's number one concern in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Mr. Kest reiterated his plan to take $5 million out of the city's “rainy day” fund to pay for 40 new police officers and additional fire fighting equipment.
“Our police force is way down in personnel,” Mr. Kest said. “Police response is slow, and certain requirements are being asked by the police and fire departments since Sept. 11 that have never been asked of them before.”
Mr. Ford disagreed, saying the Kest police plan was imprudent.
“I would point out that we have 27 additional officers coming on board. The five million that Ray is talking about taking out of the stabilization fund, I think, would turn into a $10 million hole [during the four years of the next mayor's term]. We can't afford that. I would not touch the rainy day fund at this point,” he said.
Both candidates said they favorbuilding a police substation in East Toledo as an enhancement for public safety and to promote economic development.
Mr. Ford and Mr. Kest said they would favor amending or eliminating the requirement in the city charter that city employees live in the city.
“I no longer support holding the residency requirements,” Mr. Ford said. “Thirty or 40 years ago I think it was necessary. I don't think it is now” in part because communications have improved dramatically. He said he believes such rules restrict the personal freedom of city workers.
Mr. Kest said he is in favor of lifting the residency requirement, but only after the first 10 years of employment. He said he hopes that, “If I am doing my job as mayor in redeveloping Toledo, re-establishing neighborhoods, bringing in more high-income housing, that they will want to stay in the city of Toledo.”
Mr. Ford said he would hire a good staff and rule city hall with a style less confrontational than that of outgoing two-term Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. Mr. Kest said he has begun to think of top staff members, but said he would be an active manager of city business.
Asked about a comment made weeks ago in which Mr. Kest characterized eight of the 12 city council members as “stooges” because they support his opponent, Mr. Kest said he has a record of working well with the people around him.
Mr. Kest apologized soon after making the remark.
Mr. Ford promised to “cooperate with city council. They are going to be a partner, not an adversary,” he said.
Asked if Toledo was ready for a black mayor, Mr. Ford, an African-American, said he is betting it is.
“I would not have won the primary unless I had a majority of votes in the primary,” he said, adding that “I think that question is still being answered.”
“I don't think the race or color or whatever matters. I think they are looking for a person who has the ability to lead our city,” Mr. Kest said. “Race or color doesn't matter.”
Both candidates are longtime local officeholders. Mr. Kest began his career in public life in 1975, winning election to Toledo city council. He was elected a county commission seat in 1978. He won the race for county treasurer in 1984, and has been re-elected to that seat four times.
Mr. Ford began his public career in 1987, when he won a seat on city council. One year after voters approved a change in the city charter to the strong mayor form of government in 1992, he won the city's second-highest post - president of council. He moved from city to state politics in 1994, winning a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives. Four years later, he won the post of House minority leader - the top Democratic Party position in the House. He resigned from that job last month to concentrate on the mayoral race, but remains a state representative.
The election is Nov. 6.