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Published: 2/12/2013

Bell welcomes McNamara to mayoral race while pointing out differences

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

Mayor Mike Bell welcomed his first major opponent, Democrat Joe McNamara, to the election contest today with a compliment and a slam.

"Running for mayor and holding the position are not easy, so I commend him for getting involved in the process," Mayor Bell said, just hours after Mr. McNamara, Toledo city council president, kicked off his campaign to take Mr. Bell's job away from him.

"I'm a change agent. I'm moving in totally different directions than he'll ever move. I have more spinal cord than he has," Mr. Bell said, standing in the lobby of One Government Center.

Mr. McNamara, 35, a Toledo lawyer, opened his campaign in front of a shuttered North Toledo fire station today with an attack on the mayor's economic development record.

"Our mayor is responsible for making the most of the economic development opportunities that present themselves, and in this respect Mayor Bell has failed. I want to shift the focus of the city of Toledo's economic development, [to] focusing on jobs," Mr. McNamara said.

He said if people are earning paychecks, revenue will flow back into the city.

"We've seen a lot of turnover in the Department of Economic Development, we've seen the ball dropped many times," Mr. McNamara said, promising to roll out examples as the campaign moves forward. "We need to hire a professional staff in economic development that has a background, that is focused on creating jobs."

He also blasted the mayor's record on safety, noting that there are fewer police today than in 2009 when Mr. Bell was elected.

Mayor Bell, a political independent, declared his candidacy two weeks ago. Also running for mayor are Alan Cox, a city neighborhood development specialist and president of one of the city unions, and Opal Covey, a church minister. Both are political independents.

Two more potential candidates are Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez and retired Toledo assistant chief of staff Theresa Gabriel. Ms. Lopez, a Democrat, brushed off reporters seeking to interview her today, telling them to make an appointment. Ms. Gabriel, a Republican, said she hasn't decided yet whether to become a candidate.

The filing deadline is July 12 to run in the Sept. 10 nonpartisan primary election. The top two vote-getters in that election, regardless of political affiliation, will face off in the Nov. 5 general election.

Mr. Bell rejected Mr. McNamara's criticism on both economic development and safety grounds.

He said the city's income tax revenues have rebounded by $19 million a year since he was elected and was confronting a $48 million shortfall, which he did without raising taxes.

"We are meeting the goal of economic development, knowing that most of that is privately driven," Mr. Bell said, noting that some other cities are facing deficits and layoffs. "I think we've done an unbelievable job of getting us where we're at."

He disagreed that he should have to keep track of the number of jobs created during his administration.

"All I know is the bottom line of the revenue that we have coming in helps the quality of life. I don't have to quantify it," he said. "What are you going to do that hasn't already been done? I've got more partnerships going for me than any mayor has ever."

And to Mr. McNamara's criticism that Mr. Bell is overly focused on business and profits rather than using his office to recruit jobs to the city, Mr. Bell said, "We're in better shape today because we've reached out to the business community."

The mayor also countered Mr. McNamara's criticism that there are fewer police officers on the force now than when he took office, saying that no officers were hired in the four years preceding his time in office and that he has hired more police officers and firefighters than any previous strong mayor. Toledo's strong-mayor form of government began in 1993.

Spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei and Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat cited several expansions that occurred during Mr. Bell's tenure, including at the Chrysler Jeep assembly complex, the new Hollywood Casino, and the Hickory Farms Inc. headquarters that moved from Maumee to downtown Toledo in 2012.

Mr. McNamara, who lives in West Toledo, chose to kick off his election campaign in front of Fire Station 3 on Bush Street, an example of the historic nature of the Vistula neighborhood. He said he fought to keep the fire station open.

The administration closed the building because of a buckle in the station floor in September, with plans to build a new fire station elsewhere, but agreed in November to look into renovating the 86-year-old structure, in response to neighborhood pressure.

"Neighborhood police and fire stations like this not only promote public safety but serve as neighborhood stabilizing anchors," Mr. McNamara said.

Among those who cheered on the announcement speech was Sy Kreais, head of the neighborhood Block Watch. Mr. Kreais blasted the present administration as unresponsive.

"It's great to have someone that's concerned with the neighborhood and not sitting behind a desk and dictating," Mr. Kreais said.

On hand in the crowd of about a dozen family, political, and neighborhood supporters was Mr. McNamara's wife, Valerie Moffitt, who is assistant director of the United North community development corporation, which serves the Vistula neighborhood.

Mr. McNamara said "the jury is still out" on the Marina District, the East Toledo riverfront parcel that Mr. Bell sold, with council approval, in 2011 to Chinese investors for $3.8 million with plans for eventual construction of a commercial and residential project, though no work has begun. Mr. Bell has defended the move as raising money for the cash-strapped city, and returning a tax-exempt property to paying property taxes.

"Selling city assets to foreign investors is not the same thing as getting investment," Mr. McNamara said. "We hope they do something with it, but what jobs have been created?"

He said poverty is growing in Toledo and said economic development is the weapon to reverse that trend.

Mr. McNamara will give up the opportunity to run for another four-year term as an at-large councilman to run for mayor. He said he is motivated by his family tradition of public service and by passion and concern for the city to run even though he has been advised by some of his political associates to run again for council, which he called, "a dream job," or wait and run for another office.

"To borrow from Dr. [Martin Luther] King, I am moved by the fierce urgency of now," Mr. McNamara said.

He said that council passed two budgets unanimously under his leadership, in 2012 and this year, which he attributed to “the power of good leadership, clear vision, open communication, and honesty and transparency in government." He said he has put meetings and documents online, co-sponsored and passed a balanced budget amendment, and reduced the cost of public records requests.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com, or 419-724-6058.



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