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Published: Monday, 4/24/2006

Lucas Co. voters rank jobs first, poll says

BY JOSHUA BOAK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo residents and suburbanites, union members and nonunion workers, and even men and women all agree: Job creation is the dominant issue in the Lucas County commissioners race, according to a Blade-Zogby International poll of likely voters in the May 2 primary election.

About half of the Republicans and Democrats surveyed ranked the local economy as their leading concern, trailed distantly by education, which 12.5 percent of likely voters pegged as the most important issue.

And when it comes to jobs, Democrats Phil Copeland, Ben Konop, and Tim Wagener and Republicans Pam Haynam and George Sarantou say they are for them. They will flesh out the specifics later.

But going into the Democratic debates tonight and Republican debates tomorrow night sponsored by The Blade and Channel 13-ABC, the candidates have tried to stand out by attacking each other instead of giving a prescription to restore health to a sick economy.

Ms. Haynam, a Sylvania school board member, has blasted Mr. Sarantou, a Toledo city councilman, for not being a "real Republican" because he approved an increase in special assessment fees, which pay for snow and leaf removal, tree trimming, and other services.

Mr. Sarantou responded by accusing Ms. Haynam of wasting taxpayer dollars by filing a "frivolous" lawsuit in 2002 that cost the Sylvania School District more than $23,000.

The GOP front-runner according to the Blade-Zogby International poll, Mr. Sarantou said his work to keep the GM Powertrain transmission factory in Toledo is evidence of his economic development skills.

"Government, business, and labor came together for that project," said Mr. Sarantou, a financial planner. "My opponent has developed zero jobs in Lucas County."

Mr. Sarantou conceded that the struggling American automobile industry might not be a reservoir of jobs much longer. Taking his cue from a Regional Growth Partnership study and the 1967 film The Graduate, he suggested the Toledo-area might have a future in "plastics."

Ms. Haynam has stuck to a low taxes and limited government spending message throughout the campaign.

She has not specified which taxes or programs she would cut, but has argued that the tandem will nurture business growth. Ms. Haynam also would go on a public relations blitz.

"You would promote this area to Ohio, America, and the rest of the world," said Ms. Haynam, a consultant. "We need to quit limiting ourselves to the manufacturing mindset."

The poll showed that 36 percent of likely Republican primary voters intend to vote for Mr. Sarantou, with 16 percent saying they favor Ms. Haynam. The rest were undecided.

Among the Republican voters surveyed by Zogby, 49.8 percent said that Lucas County is headed in the wrong direction, while 35 percent said the current trajectory is right.

Democratic voters are almost the polar opposite, with 45.5 percent saying that the county is on the correct track, and 37.7 percent saying the county is on the wrong track.

Tensions have increased recently among the Democratic candidates. Mr. Wagener claimed Mr. Konop was involved in a non-Blade telephone poll meant to attack him.

A pollster allegedly asked voters their opinions about pornography available at Total Video, a store once owned by Mr. Wagener.

"This is a lie and an unprovoked attack from a campaign that's floundering," said Mr. Konop, a visiting University of Toledo law professor who claims to be the campaign's lone source of ideas.

Mr. Konop has announced plans nearly weekly to establish a "cool county" that would attract hip urban professionals, move the UT law school downtown, and have a regional tax to finance a culture and recreation district.

"Everything I proposed is definitely within the realm of possibility," he said.

Mr. Konop has often made his announcements in a data vacuum, stating that he would initiate an economic feasibility study of the programs if elected.

"Much of what he proposes is impossible and not state law," said Mr. Wagener, Maumee's mayor and a financial adviser for an insurance firm.

Mr. Wagener acknowledges that jobs are the election's pre-eminent issue, but he recently said that no commissioner-led program would resolve unemployment.

"You're going to work like a dog to leave the place in better shape than when you arrived," Mr. Wagener said. "That's all you can do."

Toledo City Councilman Phil Copeland, secretary-treasuer of Laborers Local 500, has yet to offer any concrete policies for economic growth beyond stating that businesses and government need to work together. When pushed for specifics, he has often referred to his own rise from the inner-city projects to union leadership.

"Where else but in America can someone get an opportunity like this?" he has said.

In the Blade-Zogby poll, 25 percent of likely Democratic primary voters said they intended to vote for Mr. Copeland, giving him a five percentage point lead over Mr. Konop. Mr. Wagener received 12.5 percent.

The poll surveyed 402 likely Democratic voters and 402 likely Republican voters. Results were weighted to reflect county demographics. Each set of results has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

More than 40 percent of both Republican and Democratic respondents were undecided, meaning that the primaries could still go either way.

Despite the voters' indecision, the stakes are increasingly high. During the past several decades, Lucas County has become less educated, less diverse, and less wealthy than the majority of America, according to U.S. Census projections.

Only 21.6 percent of residents hold a college degree, compared to a 27 percent average nationwide. That gap has more than doubled since 2000.

An average Lucas County household makes $40,003 annually, about $4,680 less than the national average. The county unemployment rate - below 4 percent as recently as 2000 - is currently 7.1 percent, about two percentage points higher than the state and national rates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Responsible for a $138 million annual budget, the three commissioners that administer the county must help manage a bureaucracy that includes the sheriff, engineer, auditor, prosecutor, and treasurer's offices.

By statute, the commissioners primarily handle the distribution of funds for social services.

But spurring job growth has become a hallmark of the current group of commissioners, said Pete Gerken, a Democrat and one of two commissioners who will serve with the winner of the November General Election.

"We absolutely have moved the concept of regional economic development to a point it's never been," Mr. Gerken said.

Blade politics writer Jim Tankersley contributed to this report.

Contact Joshua Boak at: jboak@theblade.com or 419-724-6728.



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