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Published: Sunday, 9/13/2009

Toledo mayoral rivals see city at crossroads

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

With Election Day almost upon us, Toledo voters have been treated to a mayor's race with a choice of at least five viable candidates, clearly defined political and policy choices, and numerous opportunities to see and hear the candidates broadcast live or in person, at a time that many believe is pivotal in the city's history.

In some respects that's not unlike the city's first strong-mayor election, in 1993, when five candidates mounted ambitious campaigns to mark the start of what was hoped would be a more robust form of city government.

This year independents Mike Bell and D. Michael Collins, Democrats Ben Konop and Keith Wilkowski, and Republican Jim Moody have run serious campaigns, with none of them yet counted out of the running. The two top finishers in Tuesday's primary election will advance to the Nov. 3 general election.

Candidates use terms like

"tipping point" and "crossroads" to describe the urgency of the choice the city faces in this, its fifth election for a strong mayor.

And yet that may be where the similarities end.

The 1993 campaign - the year after Toledo voters decided to ditch the city manager form of government - generated a strong primary turnout of 65,499 voters, or 38.9 percent of that year's 168,114 registered voters.

By contrast, some observers sense a lack of attention among voters so far this year.

Linda Howe, director of the Lucas County Board of Elections since July, 2008, said the turnout predictions of her staff ranged from 18 to 26 percent, and she's predicting about 20 percent.

"I thought there'd be a lot more activity than there has been," she said, noting the high number of people, 23, running for six at-large City Council seats.

"Last year, there was such enthusiasm and excitement. Poll workers were calling and volunteering to work. This year we've had to beg and plead," Ms. Howe said.

As of Friday afternoon, 554 people had voted at the county's Early Voting Center in East Toledo, and a total of 3,741 had voted either in person, at nursing homes, or by mail.

In 2005, a total of 6,854 absentee votes were cast in the primary election.

A sixth mayoral candidate, Opal Covey, has made two previous runs as an independent, gathering a combined 495 votes.

Turnout in the 2005 election, which ended with Democrats Carty Finkbeiner and Jack Ford in the runoff, was 22.2 percent, or 41,998 voters.

Jim Ruvolo, a former state and Lucas County Democratic Party chairman now running a private consulting business, said, "There's a sense of passivism in the community that will probably hold turnout down."

He saw stagnation in the city's economic development efforts of the last four years.

"Virtually nothing is getting done that's positive. Now there's a real sense of disappointment in the system," Mr. Ruvolo said.

For some of the candidates, the lack of apparent excitement among voters is disturbing.

Mr. Collins said a low turnout in a municipal election would not be unique to Toledo. He noted that only 17 percent of the Columbus electorate turned out Aug. 4 to vote on whether to raise the city's income tax from 2 percent to 2.5 percent. The higher tax was approved.

"I've looked at the absentees and the early voting numbers and they're very concerning to me," he said.

"I would sincerely hope that on Tuesday this community realizes the importance of going to the polls and casting their vote for the candidate that they would like see make the [runoff]," Mr. Collins said.

Republican Jim Moody said he expected the excitement generated in last year's presidential elections to carry over but now says his guess is for 18 percent turnout.

"I think it's going to be low, which really catches me off guard, coming off the presidential race and the awareness" of voters last year, Mr. Moody said. "I'm probably also somewhat disappointed because we're at a crossroads with the economy and Toledo needs to do something about it."

Ben Konop, a Democrat, said there are still a lot of undecided voters. He's predicting a strong turnout.

"I think turnout will probably get to where it normally has been if not surpass it because of the importance of this election," Mr. Konop said.

He said Toledo is at a "tipping point" with the potential of going down the path of economically devastated cities such as Detroit and Flint, Mich., and Gary, Ind.

"So I think this is an election with a sense of urgency about it," he said.

Mr. Wilkowski said the election takes place during a period of economic transformation. But "if we look back over [previous strong mayor elections] we see nothing similar to these kinds of deep economic trouble," he said.

"I hope for a large turnout because I think that is always in the best interests of our democracy, and I know I'm doing my part to drive that turnout as large as it can be," Mr. Wilkowski said. "I hope my fellow candidates are doing their part."

He said his campaign had been knocking on doors but is now reaching voters mainly by telephone.

Mr. Bell also employed the phrase tipping point to describe Toledo's situation and the importance of voter involvement.

"This is a very, very critical election to the citizens of Toledo because we're at what I consider a tipping point in our city's direction. We're going to have to be able to make some hard choices, and in order to do that it would be good to have the confidence of the people," he said.

He said he's heard predictions as low as 12 to 15 percent. "I would hope and pray that more Toledoans vote than that because this is our city and it's very easy to sit on the sidelines and blame someone else for poor choices, but the biggest poor choice that can be made is by not voting in this election," Mr. Bell said.

Lucas County Republican Chairman Jon Stainbrook said his party has endorsed a full slate of candidates for the first time in a long time and is working the festivals and making phone calls to win over voters and get its supporters out to vote. Still, he said turnout could be as low as 13 percent.

"I'd like to see more. People are very, very interested in the mayor's race. That's the top of the ticket and that's what will draw people to the polls," he said.

Ron Rothenbuhler, chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party, envisions a better-than-expected turnout.

He said some turnout will be motivated by the two proposals on the ballot - Issue 1, to change the way the 0.75 percent temporary income tax is allocated, and Issue 2, to reduce the size of City Council and phase out at-large seats.

"I think the issues will draw more attention than the mayoral candidates," he said.

He added, "I think the Democrats are a little more pumped up than we realize."

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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