Theresa M. Gabriel has been a Republican for most of her life, but she’s leaving that fact out of her campaign for city council.
Ms. Gabriel has decided her party affiliation won’t help her get elected in November, and she’d rather voters knew her as an independent.
Ms. Gabriel recently became the second Republican candidate in this year’s at-large council races to declare as an independent. Sandra Spang, a South Toledo business owner with a history of voting Republican in the primary, in April announced she would run for council as an independent.
Both said they wanted voters to see them as not beholden to a political party.
“It’s a smart move,” Ms. Gabriel said as she took out her petitions at the Lucas County Board of Elections. “Working as an independent, I would be independent of any party.”
Ms. Spang said she stopped identifying herself as a Republican in 2010 and said she doesn’t see the party as relevant to local issues.
“The party model is not the only effective way to run for office or to govern. If I am elected, I will be unencumbered and be able to make wise decisions for all of the citizens of Toledo,” said Ms. Spang.
Successful independent candidates are rare in Toledo city politics. Mike Ferner was elected as an independent councilman in 1989 and 1991.
And in 1993, Edna Brown, now a Democratic state senator from Toledo, ran successfully as an “independent” but reverted to a Democrat when she ran for re-election in 1997.
It wasn’t until 2007 that another independent got elected to city government. That was when former police officer and police union president D. Michael Collins won City Council’s vacant District 2 seat.
Two years later, former city Fire Chief Mike Bell, a Democrat up to that point in his life, won election for mayor as an independent. He is seeking re-election this year, again as an independent, against at least six challengers, including Mr. Collins.
It was nearly 100 years ago that Toledo voters adopted a new charter that abolished partisan elections (in which party labels appear on the ballot) in favor of nonpartisan elections, in which candidates are not identified by party at all.
The abolition of partisan elections in the 1914 Charter was supposed to weaken the power of political parties, and “bossism.”
In fact, candidates have continued over the years to affiliate with parties, and it is rare for a candidate who doesn’t claim a political party to get elected to city council or the Toledo Board of Education. “Endorsed Democrat” is perhaps the most coveted label a candidate can have in Toledo.
‘It’s a new trend’
“I believe it’s a new trend,” Ms. Brown said. “It’s people wanting to be universally appealing to both sides and I don’t see that as a bad thing.”
She said being labeled a Republican would not help Ms. Gabriel get elected in heavily Democratic Toledo, especially by the overwhelmingly Democratic African-Americans among whom Ms. Gabriel is well-known.
“I think she has increased her chances without the ‘R’ next to her name,” Ms. Brown said. “Look at the numbers.”
The evidence suggests that the “independent” label works best for candidates who already have name recognition among voters.
Jerry Chabler, a Democratic Party operative from Sylvania, said it makes no sense for someone to run as an independent in Toledo, especially if they had a chance of getting a party’s backing, as Ms. Gabriel and Ms. Spang did.
An endorsement means the candidate’s name gets printed on the party’s sample ballot and in party-funded advertising, and volunteers help by walking door-to-door and making phone calls. He said there’s no downside because no party affiliation appears on the ballot — a fact that helps explain why five of the seven judges on Toledo Municipal Court are Republicans.
“Everybody appears on the ballot without party identification. Nobody knows they’re independent because there’s nothing on the voting machine that says they’re independent,” Mr. Chabler said.
In 2009, a group of six conservatives calling themselves Teamwork Toledo ran for council at-large seats as independents. Only two made it through the primary, and none ended up among the top six vote-getters, who were elected.
One of those, broadcast journalist Kevin Milliken, said the best hope for an independent is to start raising money early.
“If I had to do it over again, it probably would have been advantageous to enter earlier,” said Mr. Milliken, who said he has rebuffed suggestions that he run this year. “Fund-raising is very important. People tend to quit paying attention to stuff like this between Memorial Day and the start of the school year.”
Even though two Republicans with significant party support have chosen not to affiliate with the party, Lucas County Republican Party Chairman Jon Stainbrook said he doesn’t believe there’s a problem with the Republican brand. He said Ms. Gabriel and Ms. Spang are doing what they want for their own reasons.
“We will have a full slate of candidates,” Mr. Stainbrook said. “I’m going to have a hard time deciding what six to endorse. Many of them are very good, qualified candidates.”
Some suspect that Mr. Stainbrook’s contentious tenure chairing the party is scaring away good candidates.
Mr. Chabler said Ms. Gabriel “is running away from Jon Stainbrook’s Republican Party because she knows she can’t get money from the Republican Party when Jon Stainbrook is chairman.”
Mr. Stainbrook rejects that argument. For one thing, Republicans have had a hard time getting elected in Toledo since long before Mr. Stainbrook became chairman in 2008. He says he’s rebuilding the party and developing a “farm team” and has had successful party fund-raisers.
“The credibility of the brand of the Republican Party is strong. We had 500 people at the Lincoln Day Dinner for John Kasich,” he said.
Others suggest that in fact the party’s brand in Toledo is tarnished by the policies of Republican Gov. John Kasich, who is accused by Democrats of underfunding local governments and school boards and is remembered for the failed attempt to enact Senate Bill 5 in 2011, which would have undermined public employee unions’ bargaining power.
Ms. Gabriel said she has no disagreement with Mr. Stainbrook and continues to be his friend, and she expressed no disapproval of the Republican brand.
However, she supported President Barack Obama’s re-election last year and was opposed to Senate Bill 5. Ms. Gabriel, as a former city employee used to belong to city unions, and was president of one for a time.
Nonetheless, “I never thought of the Republican label being a drag on me,” Ms. Gabriel said.
Robert Reichert, a former Lucas County Republican Party chairman, said Ms. Gabriel’s party identification won’t make much difference for her because of her reputation for knowing city government as a longtime employee.
“People that pay attention are going to know that she’s been a Republican,” Mr. Reichert said. “With what’s going on in Washington, a lot of people don’t like either party at this point in time.”
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Toledo by more than 2-1, but there are more voters who don’t publicly affiliate with either party than all Democrats and Republicans put together.
The Republicans, who now have three seats on the 12-member city council, are in danger of losing one of those seats with the departure at the end of this year of Republican George Sarantou. Mr. Sarantou cannot seek re-election because of term limits in the city charter.
Six council at-large seats are up for election. The deadline to file is July 12, and the field of candidates is far from complete.
Those known to be running include four incumbents: Steven Steel (D), Adam Martinez (D), Robert Ludeman (R), and unelected Shaun Enright (D).
Mr. Enright was appointed to council after an internal Democratic Party fight between him and former Democratic Mayor Jack Ford, who is also running for an at-large seat this year. Incumbent Democrat Joe McNamara is running for mayor rather than council.
Also announced is Sean Nestor of the Green Party. Several other Democrats are known to be considering a run for council but have not declared or pulled petitions.
Six other people have publicly signed out petition forms from the Lucas County Board of Elections.
They are Frank Wollenbecker, Jr., of East Toledo; William Delaney of West Toledo; Ronald Johns of South Toledo; James Nowak of Point Place; Micah Childers of South Toledo, and Glen Cook of East Toledo.
Mr. Nowak, an attorney who lives in Point Place, said he will definitely run as a Republican.
“Technically I guess everyone running for city council is an independent,” Mr. Nowak said. “If I’m fortunate enough to have a group of people from the Republican Party who say they’re going to help me get elected, well why wouldn’t I take that help?”
Contact Tom Troy at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6058.