Six phone bank operators are in Toledo City Council President Michael Ashford's campaign headquarters, a tin-ceilinged affair where pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Muhammad Ali provide inspiration.
Their goal is a 3,000-voter turnout for the Sept. 11 primary, enough total ballots for Mr. Ashford to overwhelm his three challengers in District 4. Only the top two finishers will compete in the Nov. 6 general election.
"The primary is the race," said Mr. Ashford, a 51-year-old Democrat. "It sets the tone for the rest of the election. It tells you what to do."
Mr. Ashford captured the council presidency last week, prematurely ending the tenure of term-limited Republican Rob Ludeman. But a different kind of coup is being separately plotted by Ronnell Traynum, Terry Shankland, and Thomas Meinecke, all Democrats laboring to win Mr. Ashford's District 4 seat.
District 4 contains the extremes of Toledo. Neo-Nazis tried to parade in North Toledo two summers ago, provoking a riot. Suburbanites voyage downtown for baseball at Fifth Third Field, causing an otherwise quiet area to burst into cheering and noise.
Yuppies live in loft apartments downtown or Old West End Victorian manors, but many residents depend on unsteady paychecks to rent slipshod dwellings. Embedded within the district are the marks of Toledo's demise and the possibilities of its rebirth.
During the past year, Mr. Ashford said he helped improve conditions with two pieces of legislation: Up to $2,000 in remediation for homeowners with flooded basements and a requirement that Toledo residents compose at least 50 percent of the work force for companies with city tax abatements.
Mr. Ashford, a councilman since 2002 who is also vice president of urban services for the YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo, said that being a councilman extends beyond drafting ordinances. "Your responsibility is to not only be a public servant, but a role model for your constituents," he said.
His opponents all claim that Mr. Ashford is an absentee role-model, a charge that Mr. Ashford fervently denies. Despite Mr. Ashford having slightly more than $30,000 on hand to finance a substantial campaign structure, each of them has hopes of victory.
There are 32,545 registered voters in District 4. Ronnell Traynum, 37, said she embodies the majority of them, which is why she challenged Mr. Ashford.
Ms. Traynum is a nurse and widow with three teenagers, an African-American mother forced by circumstance to be the head of her household. This, she said, is also the case for the majority of her neighbors.
What District 4 should get, Ms. Traynum said, is a good scrubbing, an overdue cleanup by a city government preoccupied by council politicking. "District 4 needs a broom. It needs to be swept. It's dirty."
Dirty serves as a metaphor, she explained. It applies to troubled schools, untrimmed trees, and cracked curbsides.
Ms. Traynum founded Girls Sense: Young Girls on the Move, a nonprofit mentoring program in which teenagers participate in group discussions and attend day trips to places such as the Toledo Museum of Art. And as a "karaoke, ballroom dancing, poetry-type-of-person," Ms. Traynum wishes there were a better nightlife scene for black professionals.
She admits that unseating Mr. Ashford is an uphill struggle. "I'm a rookie," Ms. Traynum said. "It's my passion that's driving me."
By contrast, Terry Shankland, 51, is a veteran candidate. The caterer has a garage filled with old vehicles, such as a 1963 AMC Rambler he claims to have bought 43 years ago. With devoted maintenance, he keeps the car running, a principle, he said, that should apply to the city as well.
"I believe everything should be used twice, including police cars," said Mr. Shankland, while outlining the price of a rebuilt engine. "We could get a lot more miles out of the equipment we've got."
Crime worries Mr. Shankland, who said that every other morning outside his Islington Road home he finds plastic baggies used for storing crack cocaine. He supports Mayor Carty Finkbeiner but cautioned that the mayor "spends money like a drunken sailor."
Mr. Shankland favors downsizing government, saying, "We've got to work smarter, not harder."
Thomas Meinecke, 54, ran for an at-large council seat two years ago. As a retired Army major, retired pastor, and retired Jeep employee, he pledges to apply his experience to being a full-time District 4 councilman.
Mr. Meinecke said a councilman must actively listen and respond to the needs of people, rather than discussing perceived interests. He said all the candidates should host a town-hall meeting to learn more about the community's sentiment and articulate real solutions.
"I've been around the block about five more times than any other candidate," Mr. Meinecke said. "This campaign is not about color, not about race. It's about representation."
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