‘Mike Bell is my buddy,’ Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, has said of Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, an independent.
The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
When the dust clears from the Toledo mayoral filing deadline on Friday, it is unlikely there will be a serious Republican candidate for mayor.
Or, put another way, there will be a Republican candidate for mayor and his name is Mike Bell.
Mayor Bell is a political independent, having broken with the Democratic Party four years ago to run successfully against its endorsed candidate, Keith Wilkowski.
Mr. Bell had significant Republican support in 2009 and has continued to gain Republican backing because of the positions he’s taken as mayor. He became one of the few public officials in Ohio in 2011 to endorse Issue 2, the ballot question to enact Senate Bill 5, which would have diminished the bargaining rights of public-sector unions.
Republican Gov. John Kasich, who supported Issue 2 and suffered a decline in popularity as a result of its stinging defeat, told a crowd of Republicans at the party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner in February that “Mike Bell is my buddy.”
Sitting at the table with Mr. Kasich at that event was Theresa M. Gabriel, a longtime African-American Toledo Republican and city official who at the time was considering running for mayor as a Republican. A couple of months later, Ms. Gabriel, unable to gain GOP backing for a mayoral run, opted to run for Toledo City Council as an independent.
“Mike Bell has strong Republican support,” said George Sarantou, a Republican city councilman who also declined to consider running for mayor this year. “He leans pretty heavily toward the business community. Kasich’s support of Bell is a factor. People look at that and say ‘Why should I run if the governor is supporting Mr. Bell?’ That's awfully hard to combat.”
Lucas County Republican Chairman Jon Stainbrook declined to say what Mr. Kasich has said to him about Mr. Bell. “It speaks for itself when the governor comes to the Lincoln Day Dinner and speaks so highly of Mike Bell,” Mr. Stainbrook said.
He said it’s obvious that many Republicans who are usually major contributors to Republican candidates don’t want Mr. Bell to face any opposition from within the local Republican Party.
“As chairman of the party, my job is to make sure the core values and beliefs of the Republican Party are represented in the city and the county,” Mr. Stainbrook said. “Nobody’s coming up to me and saying, ‘Who’s our candidate for mayor?’ ” Mr. Stainbrook said.
He noted that Mr. Bell voted a Democratic ballot in the 2008 primary and had supported both Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland in 2010 but said Mayor Bell has made a “transformation” since then.
“He was a Democrat. He says he’s an independent, but he also enjoys the support of the Republican community because of his policies that are pro-business and pro-growth,” Mr. Stainbrook said. “He has earned the support of conservatives and business owners.”
Mr. Stainbrook is putting his energy into recruiting candidates for all offices on the ballot this year, including Toledo City Council and the Toledo Board of Education, as well as suburban boards of trustees, where Republicans typically fare better at the ballot box.
Mr. Stainbrook said Republican donors have committed to raising and spending $30,000 to $40,000 to support GOP candidates for council if they demonstrate they have a chance of winning. As of the last campaign-finance reports, there was $4,093 in the party’s general and candidate funds. Mr. Stainbrook said the Lincoln Day Dinner has added about $25,000 to the party's coffers to spend on party operations and campaigns.
Mayor Bell said he remains an independent, wherever his support comes from.
“I think what I’ve tried to do is reach across both sides and fix our city,” Mr. Bell said. “If people are willing to support me, I’m never going to be resistant to that. I am an independent, but it requires help on both sides to turn the city around. Any assistance I can get from either side I am happy to receive.”
More people are independent than are Republicans or Democrats, Mr. Bell said, adding that “it takes both philosophies to appropriately run the city. That’s what I’ve been trying to do the whole time I’ve been mayor.”
Though no one has filed petitions yet, candidates for mayor are expected to include Mr. Bell, Democratic Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez, Democratic Toledo Councilman Joe McNamara, independent Councilman D. Michael Collins, Libertarian Michael Konwinski, independent Alan Cox, and the only Republican to enter the race — Opal Covey.
Ms. Covey, a self-described “prophetess of God,” is not taken seriously by either party and is not being endorsed by the local Republican Party. She has run three times but never received a significant number of votes.
Matt Borges, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, defended the local party, saying urban Republican chairmen have an increasingly difficult time getting Republicans elected in urban enclaves. “We would hate to see another pro-union Democrat elected to another major office like mayor of Toledo,” he said. “It’s a unique set of circumstances. We’ll support the chairman in whatever decision he makes.”
Mr. Bell is believed to be the first mayor of Toledo since 1942 to win the mayor’s seat in Toledo with no political party affiliation.
“You’ve got an incumbent mayor who is independent and is not owned and controlled by the Democratic Party structure,” said Terry Casey, a longtime Ohio and Franklin County Republican operative. “If Jon Stainbrook could get a one-on-one shot with Anita Lopez, he’d have a candidate in a New York minute. If you don’t have much in resources and then you burn it all out in the primary and you still lose [in the primary], what the heck’s the point?”
The last time a Republican made it to the general election ballot for mayor in Toledo was 1997, when Nick Wichowski, a self-employed businessman, emerged at almost the last minute to get on the ballot. He nearly upset the incumbent, Democratic Mayor Carty Finkbeiner.
Unlike contests for county, state, and national office, Toledo has nonpartisan municipal elections, so the two highest vote-getters in the primary move on to the run-off election, regardless of party.
In 2001 and 2005, Toledo voters had two Democrats and no Republicans in the run-off election, as the Democratic Party temporarily split into warring camps known as the A-team and B-team — Jack Ford and Ray Kest in 2001 and Jack Ford and Mr. Finkbeiner in 2005.
In the 2009 mayoral election, the endorsed Republican candidate, James Moody, was a Sylvania Township real estate mogul who temporarily took up residence in one of his city-owned properties to run for mayor. He came in third, with 15.3 percent of the vote.
Toledo is not alone. Mayoral elections in Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Youngstown this year will have no Republicans on the ballot.
“In today’s political environment this is not uncommon,” Mr. Borges said.
Last GOP mayor
Donna Owens, Toledo’s last Republican mayor, who served from 1984 to 1990, is putting her support behind Mr. Bell this year. At the same time, she deplores the lack of a Republican candidate in the city.
“I haven’t agreed with everything, but I believe overall he’s done a great job of getting the city back on its feet in very turbulent times, and certainly we’re not going the way of Detroit,” said Ms. Owens, who is a member of the Lucas County Republican Party executive committee.
She said it’s “sad” that there’s no endorsed GOP candidate, but “I don’t think there should be an endorsed Republican just for the sake of putting up a name. We need to have someone who’s substantial, who's going to work hard, and be able to raise money.”
State Rep. Barbara Sears, a Republican from Monclova Township, said she is like many local Republicans who have contributed to Mr. Bell’s re-election and said there’s no shame in the Republican Party not putting up an opponent, given the independence of Mr. Bell and how heavily Democratic Toledo is.
“I think he’s done a good job for the city of Toledo,” said Ms. Sears, citing his appearances in Columbus representing the city.
Contact Tom Troy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6058.