Mike Bell's first job after college: brakeman on the railroad, a job he did for about seven years before his father persuaded him to apply for a job on the Toledo Fire Department.
Had he stayed with the railroad or followed a college dream to work in a national park out west, Mike Bell might well have been one of many Toledo youths who moved out to find their destiny.
But in 1980, he applied for and was accepted to the city fire department.
And three decades later, after countless appearances on the news responding to fires and traffic accidents, few Toledoans are more recognizable than Mike Bell.
It's a popularity that has made him one of the top candidates in the six-way race for mayor.
Unlike some of his rivals, he doesn't claim to be a policy wonk.
Instead, he's selling a reputation for fairness and dedication.
"It is about building relationships, about building partnerships. It's also about building integrity and who you believe when you look into their eyes will take care of your concerns," he told the crowd at a recent candidates' debate.
"Who has a record of taking care of your concerns? Anybody can tell you anything, but when it's all said and done, you gotta believe that they believe in you," he said.
Mr. Bell, 54, is one of five leading candidates, along with independent D. Michael Collins, Democrats Ben Konop and Keith
Wilkowski, and Republican Jim Moody in the Sept. 15 primary. Also running is independent Opal Covey. The top two primary finishers will compete in the Nov. 3 general election.
A registered Democrat from an active Democratic family, Mr. Bell decided to chart his own political course and run as an independent. "I thought I'd be able to blend both sides and we could stop fighting for four years," he said.
He resigned a dream job as the state fire marshal in April, saying he felt an obligation to help rebuild the city that shaped him.
"I am like the hog at the farmer's breakfast," Mr. Bell said then. "The hog is totally committed."
A native of Louisiana, his family moved to Toledo when he was 5. Mr. Bell grew up on Stickney Avenue, the oldest of four sons, in the home his parents, Norm and Ora Bell, still occupy. He attended Spring Elementary School and graduated from Woodward High School. He attended the University of Toledo on a football scholarship.
The only African-American running for mayor, Mr. Bell said he encountered discrimination, but he always brushed it off.
"As far as black, white, Hispanic, we all got along pretty well," he said of his the North Toledo neighborhood. At times, the outside world's civil rights marches and race riots intruded, "maybe for a day or two, but it moved on."
"My parents had a very good understanding of what was going on, that there was a transition going on. We were pretty protected from those issues," Mr. Bell said.
At UT, he majored in education with a focus on business and health. His plan was to manage a country club or to work in a national park out west.
Instead, he became a "railroader," working as a freight brakeman in rail yards and on trips as far away as Bellevue, Ohio, for about seven years off and on.
He took the advice of his father and some friends and applied to what was then known as the Toledo Fire and Rescue Division.
"I had no clue other than racing to fires on a fast truck," he said.
He got hired, but then was temporarily laid off there in 1980 during a fiscal crisis similar to the one facing Toledo now.
He served as a rescue diver, recruiter, paramedic, and supervisor, and captain in the division's training bureau.
In 1990, he was appointed chief, jumping over experienced deputy chiefs, to become Ohio's first black big-city fire chief.
During his tenure, the department achieved national accreditation.
In 2001, he was appointed by Mayor Carty Finkbeiner to lead a regional homeland security effort, creating a template for the kind of regional cooperation he wants to pursue as mayor.
As chief, he said his greatest achievement was not having any firefighters die in the line of duty during his watch.
During the riot that engulfed the Lagrange area of North Toledo in 2005, Mr. Bell joined Mayor Jack Ford and the Rev. Mansour Bey in pleading with an angry crowd for calm.
Mr. Bell also gained a reputation for enjoying a good time. It was not uncommon to see his smiling face in newspaper society pictures.
In recent years he became a motorcycle buff and drives a Harley-Davidson Road King, the model used by police motorcyclists.
"You couldn't afford to get crazy because you never really know for sure if you're going to get called [out on a fire or rescue run]," he said.
He was appointed state fire marshal by Gov. Ted Strickland in 2007. Mr. Bell said he acted to resolve complaints from some of the industries that the state inspects for fire safety. He traveled widely, breaking with the tradition of previous fire marshals who stayed close to the office.
His biography cites membership on numerous organization boards, including the Boys and Girls Club, American Red Cross, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Salvation Army.
Still single, Mr. Bell said he enjoys his freedom as a bachelor. He has a longtime girlfriend, Whitmer High School teacher Karen Jarosz, but said he wanted to keep her out of the campaign.
As of June 30, Mr. Bell had raised $58,977 in the first six months of the year, behind Mr. Wilkowski, who had collected $73,065.
While Mr. Wilkowski, Mr. Moody, and Mr. Konop invested in TV advertising, Mr. Bell has kept his advertising cash in reserve, believing he didn't need to buy additional name recognition.
He's been treated as the odds-on favorite by some of his opponents.
Mr. Konop accused him of abandoning a color-coding system to identify low-volume 4-inch waterlines, contributing to the loss of a home in the historic Westmoreland neighborhood. Mr. Bell said there was no such color-coding system and said the existence of 4-inch lines was not a problem during his long tenure.
Mr. Moody accused him of undermining the interests of Toledoans by proposing a regional compact to set water rates.
Mr. Wilkowski said Mr. Bell supports an increase in the city's 2.25 percent income tax. Mr. Bell didn't rule out a possible increase, but said he'd follow the lead of citizens.
Mr. Bell has built his campaign around creating a consensus on setting priorities for city operations and facing up to the truth about whether the city can afford to fund them.
He said he would set up a task force to examine the budget and issue a public report immediately after he takes office, if elected.
"That's the hard part about when I'm out talking to people. They say, 'Well, I don't want my taxes raised.' I understand that clearly. But I don't think when they say that they understand what potentially they may not have," Mr. Bell said. "There may be services we can no longer do as a city, and we may have to find partners and different methods to do the same thing."
He announced his support for abolishing the "barriers" that discourage business development in Toledo. And he called on the mayor to fill 60 vacant positions that he said were threatening the city's infrastructure but said he had "not a clue" as to why the mayor hadn't filled the jobs.
He said he's been kicking around a new idea to boost activity in Toledo's normally quiet downtown waterfront during the summer - free use of the Promenade Park boat slips for yacht and sailing clubs and free permits to vendors to sell souvenirs and refreshments.
"If you go past there today it's a vacant area, for the most part: no boats, no action, no energy," Mr. Bell said. "What we need to do is re-create that energy. I believe I'm the person who can do that."
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