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The battle lines are shaping up in the race for mayor of Toledo this year with three major candidates — incumbent independent Mike Bell and Democrats Auditor Anita Lopez and Councilman Joe McNamara — each in the fledgling stages of their campaigns to win over voters.
Six candidates have announced their plan to run on the Sept. 10 primary ballot, with the deadline to file two months from today, July 12.
Sometime this week, a seventh and even an eighth candidate could jump into the contest. Independent Councilman D. Michael Collins has said he is being urged by a group of supporters to run, while Republican Theresa M. Gabriel said she’s still trying to make up her mind.
It’s a race that will play itself out at church festivals and Toledo Mud Hens games, with squads of political loyalists going door-to-door to talk with voters and appeal to homeowners to allow candidates’ signs in their front yards.
To armchair political analysts across Lucas County, Mr. Bell is in the best position to at least make it through the primary election. The top two finishers in the primary then will square off in the general election Nov. 5.
According to former Mayor Jack Ford, who supported Mr. Bell four years ago and is so far neutral this year, Mr. Bell has a mix of political and nonpolitical associations that will help in September and November, especially in the vote-rich areas of northwest Toledo.
"Each of the candidates has different kinds of natural constituencies, but looking at the field right now, I think Mike Bell is probably playing to that area that most elections end up being decided in: Alexis Road, Trilby, down Reynolds Road into South Toledo. If you get the lion's share of that, you win," Mr. Ford said.
The election is splitting Democrats between Ms. Lopez and Mr. McNamara.
Ms. Lopez, the Lucas County auditor, is already reaping the benefits of early backing from unions such as the Teamsters and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Teamsters Local 20 hosted a fund-raiser for her Thursday, packing the auditorium and festooning its headquarters on the Anthony Wayne Trail with a long line of “Lopez” yard signs for motorists to see.
John Irish, a longtime Toledo Democratic operative who is supporting Ms. Lopez in this election, and whose daughter, Abby Arnold, is Ms. Lopez’s chief-of-staff in the auditor’s office, predicted the auditor and Mr. Bell will emerge as the candidates in the November election.
“I think Anita’s support stretches across all kinds of walks of life in the city and her vote-getting ability in the past has been very strong,” Mr. Irish said. “Joe’s support is limited. I expect to see a Bell-Lopez general election for mayor.”
Lindsay Webb, a Democratic city councilman who has served alongside Mr. McNamara for several years, is supporting Ms. Lopez. She said Ms. Lopez brings political strengths — a reputation for customer service and the benefit of being a woman in politics.
“In general, my sense is Toledoans respond very positively to female leadership,” Ms. Webb said.
And she said Mr. McNamara, as the president of Toledo council during much of Mr. Bell’s term, will be linked to the positions of the Bell administration that he supported, such as privatizing trash collection and raising water rates. Ms. Lopez has already attacked the two as “considering” pay raises for the mayor and members of council while a new round of water rates was being proposed.
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A critic of Bell
Mr. McNamara rejected that comparison and said he’s been a critic of Mayor Bell as “anti-worker” and “anti-neighborhood,” and that council has no control over the mayor’s agenda.
“I have consistently been at odds with the Bell administration’s approach, or failures, especially when it comes to economic development. So there is a huge difference between me and Mike Bell. The strong mayor has the ability to set the agenda, to carry out policy. He hires and fires all administrators. I have a very strong record of being a policy guy on city council. As the campaign continues, we’re going to continue to roll out policy ideas,” Mr. McNamara said.
As an example, he cited an ordinance he’s introduced that would stiffen requirements for the city administration to hire local contractors when Toledo starts work on a massive renovation of the water-treatment plant.
And while Ms. Lopez seems to be aiming her barbs equally at Mr. Bell and Mr. McNamara, Mr. McNamara has accused both Ms. Lopez and Mayor Bell of having low ethical standards. He said that’s because they refuse to reject contributions from government employees who work for them, or to prohibit their taxpayer-paid supporters from doing campaign work for them during the regular business day, even if they take personal leave to do so.
The Lucas County Democratic Party is staying officially neutral in the race until after the Sept. 10 primary.
Mark Austin, chief deputy treasurer under Democratic County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz, said he is like a lot of Democrats.
“I’m probably giving them both money and waiting to see what happens because they both bring things to the race. There’s a lot of people who like them both and think they both have something to bring to the game,” Mr. Austin said.
Ken Lortz, director of the United Auto Workers for Ohio and Indiana, said a poll two years ago was “very favorable for Anita.” Whether she or Mr. McNamara or Mr. Collins gets the UAW’s endorsement won’t be decided until the primary’s over, but it won’t be the incumbent, he said.
“I think you will find that most of labor will say anybody but Bell,” Mr. Lortz said.
Former Mayor Ford said voters in 2013 are hungry for some ideas, which he sees as an opportunity for Mr. McNamara.
“The housing stock in the older neighborhoods and the streets are in terrible repair. The [Blade] series on the gangs has generated a lot of concern and I think whoever comes in with some big ideas to tackle those will capture the imagination of the voters,” Mr. Ford said.
“Joe’s running as a progressive and that’s good with folks that see themselves as progressive, but Toledo is still kind of a beer-and-shot town,” Mr. Ford said. “Joe needs to get away from the more progressive stuff and add to that more of the breadbasket issues, safety, and neighborhood services. I think people are waiting for Joe to kick in gear.”
Mr. McNamara is known for his interest in policy. He’s dug deep into the process of funding the neighborhood community development corporations, sponsored a domestic partner registry at the city level, and promoted a registry for vacant houses that has evolved into an effective tool for forcing property owners to rent or sell empty homes or pay a vacant property fee to the city every year.
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A perennial factor in politics is the candidates’ appearance, and this year’s election campaign promises Toledoans with a bounty of variety.
Both Mayor Bell and Ms. Lopez create an impression that voters remember.
Mr. Bell, a former UT linebacker and usually the biggest guy in the room, is comfortable in his skin. He has an eclectic wardrobe style — everything from classy business suits to tooled cowboy boots and motorcycle leathers — sports a trim gray beard, is known for his love of social events and overseas travel, and is often seen downing a beer or more at local bars.
Ms. Lopez, who dresses impeccably and tosses around a thick mane of black hair, also can create an impression on voters, male and female, with her vivacious personality. And she doesn’t mind reminding voters how often she has cut their property taxes as county auditor.
Mr. McNamara has more of a challenge in convincing Toledo voters he’s like them. Clearly the most cerebral of the three — a lawyer and known policy wonk on city council — he normally dresses in a conservative business suit and tie with white or blue buttoned-down shirts that don’t quite conceal a few extra pounds around the middle.
Once compared in looks with film star Omar Sharif, Mr. McNamara today looks more like somebody who spends too much time bent over his computer, or pushing the buttons on his TV remote.
“I was the last one who could get away with being nonsmiling and a little bit chubby,” joked Mr. Ford, who during his tenure acknowledged a need to lose some weight.
Whether it makes any difference to voters is not known.
Mr. Austin, for example, said he had no opinion about Mr. McNamara’s weight — or at least wouldn’t share one.
“I’ve never thought of it. He looks like a city councilman and a young guy to me. It’s never occurred to me, so it must not be a factor in my mind," Mr. Austin said.
Mr. McNamara refused to discuss his weight, or relate it to the experience of very overweight New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender who recently revealed he underwent a surgical procedure to restrict food intake and thus lower his weight.
“I care about jobs and building Toledo up as best as it possibly can and I think that that is the most important thing in this race — creating a plan to bring jobs to Toledo and addressing crime. Those are the two issues that matter above anything else,” Mr. McNamara said. “And I think that’s what voters care about as well.”
Keith Wilkowski, a McNamara supporter, said he didn’t think any candidate’s physical appearance has been, or will become, an issue for voters.
“What I care about is, is the person going to be addressing the issues I care about and work hard," said Mr. Wilkowski, who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Bell four years ago. “I’m more interested in what’s between their ears than anything else.”
Billy Benner, a spokesman for Ms. Lopez, said she, like most politicians, takes care to “give the most professional appearance possible.”
While Mr. McNamara and Ms. Lopez battle it out for the backing of the Democratic Party and labor unions, Mayor Bell is burnishing the story he thinks correctly portrays the last four years of the city.
Mr. Bell, who has no organized party machinery, is raising money aggressively. An event at the rambling estate-style headquarters of Health Care REIT on Dorr Street, organized by company Chief Executive Officer George Chapman, produced about $50,000 for Mr. Bell in one night. The last reports filed by the candidates, in January, showed Mr. Bell trailing his two opponents with $46,701 in his account, compared with $47,209 for Ms. Lopez and $69,524 for Mr. McNamara.
The mayor said his opponents offer criticism but no experience that compares with his own, and they won’t say what difficult steps they would have taken in his place.
"I haven’t heard any of them say what they would have done in this most adverse time in the city’s history,” Mr. Bell said. “They’re attempting to be political so they can stay in the neutral zone.”
He's planning to remind voters of his record that he says includes more police hired than his two predecessors combined, action to deal with a failing water system, overcoming a $48 million deficit while not raising taxes, decreasing crime, paving streets, and demolishing abandoned homes.
“If you got something that’s going to make Toledo better, quit jawboning and bring it,” Mr. Bell said.
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Mr. Collins’ entry into the race could mean trouble for Mr. Bell. As an independent, a former Toledo police officer with a reputation of being politically conservative who was also a city union president for 10 years, Mr. Collins likely would chip votes away from Mr. Bell.
“I think the time is right for an Independent such as me to be elected to lead the city out of its present troubled economic situation,” Mr. Collins said.
Also thinking of jumping in the race is Ms. Gabriel, a former top city administrator and loyalist of former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner whose previous effort at elective office — municipal clerk of courts in 2003 — narrowly fell short to Democrat Vallie Bowman-English.
Like the county’s Democrats, the Lucas County Republicans haven’t settled on an endorsed candidate, but Jon Stainbrook, county GOP chairman, said that day will come.
He said Ms. Gabriel is the front-runner for the party’s backing right now, while he said many Republicans support Mr. Bell. Among them appears to be Gov. John Kasich, who told a Lucas County audience of Republicans in February, “Mike Bell is my buddy.”
“It is yet to be determined which will be the candidate that the party will endorse,” Mr. Stainbrook said.
Three more candidates round out the current field.
Alan Cox, a city neighborhood development specialist and president of the city's supervisory and technical union, Local 2058 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, is running on a platform of abolishing the position of strong mayor and returning Toledo to the city manager form of administration.
According to Mr. Cox, the number of management and exempt workers has risen from 243 in 1993 to 337 in 2013, while the number of unionized employees has fallen from 2,802 to 2,555 because of the politicization of city government.
“I’ve worked with all three administrations that we’ve had in the city under strong mayor. None of them seemed to operate as a true CEO. There is confusion or they just don’t have the management expertise,” Mr. Cox said.
Taking similar aim at the machinery of city government itself is candidate Michael Konwinski, a retired city worker from the departments of water distribution and finance.
Running as a Libertarian, Mr. Konwinski said the city has too many political appointees in high-level jobs, though he won’t name names. “If you eliminate five [“unnecessary administrative/managerial positions”] in utilities and five in the general fund, you’re saving half a million in each [and] every year,” Mr. Konwinski said. “If you had done that over 20 years, you’d have $20 million more in your rainy-day fund.”
Republican Opal Covey, who has run three times previously, is a former pet shop owner in Toledo who says she is a “prophetess” and evangelist and believes her vocation is to minister to local government. Her policy claim to fame is her idea to create an amusement park on the downtown waterfront. In a recent hand-written statement to The Blade, she said she declared herself a Republican because “Democrats have almost destroyed this city” and “Republicans will restore Toledo with love and a miracle from God. I will be mayor.”
Contact Tom Troy at email@example.com or 419-724-6058.