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Published: 8/11/2013 - Updated: 8 months ago

Iron-willed Lopez aims to revamp city

‘Self-made’ Democratic hopeful vows to ‘clean house,’ create jobs

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Second in a series

The pivotal scene from the Godfather II when mobster Michael Corleone embraces and kisses his brother Fredo — the kiss of death that foretells the penalty for betrayal — became emblazoned in the mind of anyone visiting Anita Lopez’s government office downtown.

A picture of the famous cinematic kiss hung on the Lucas County auditor’s wall, just to her right, for years. For some, it was a hint into her management style and warned against betrayal of the officeholder known for being tough with her staff, terminating managers she’s known for years, and climbing the political ladder quickly.

Ms. Lopez, one of seven people on the Sept. 10 primary ballot for Toledo mayor, says people shouldn’t read too much into her love of the Godfather movies or the picture, which is now gone from her wall.

“It was joke,” said Ms. Lopez, one of two Democratic candidates for mayor.

As a child, Ms. Lopez said she wanted to marry a man like Michael Corleone — something her father sternly warned against.

“I do like the Godfather movies, so my father used to like watching them with me,” she said. “It was one of the things we would, strangely, watch together. One of my directors had given [the picture] to me in jest like, ‘Be strong.’”

Anita Lopez, 44, is running on a platform of improving neighborhoods, reducing crime, spurring job creation, and boosting economic development. Her opponents in Toledo’s mayoral race have criticized her plan for lacking specifics. Anita Lopez, 44, is running on a platform of improving neighborhoods, reducing crime, spurring job creation, and boosting economic development. Her opponents in Toledo’s mayoral race have criticized her plan for lacking specifics.
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Her supporters say Ms. Lopez is just that: a strong, ambitious, and persistent woman. If elected, she would be the first Hispanic mayor and the second female mayor. The first was Republican Donna Owens, who served as mayor in the 1980s.

Toledo Councilman Lindsay Webb is a strong Lopez supporter who lately has acted like Ms. Lopez’s proxy when dealing with two other Toledo councilmen running for mayor — Democrat Joe McNamara and Independent D. Michael Collins.

“Her story is one of overcoming adversity and maximizing your potential,” said Ms. Webb, also a Democrat. “Anita’s had roadblocks and overcame them. Poverty, a tough neighborhood, a disabled father. I feel she is a shining example of someone who has been able to overcome their circumstances to achieve.”


The Lopez File

Name: Anita Lopez

Age: 44

Address: 2009 Belvedere Dr.

Family Status: Divorced. Two children, Armand, 12, and Andres, 10

Political affiliation: Democrat

Occupation: Lucas County auditor

Education: University of Toledo undergraduate and law school

Campaign Web site: anitalopezformayor.com

 

Ms. Lopez, 44, is a longtime Democrat who started in politics in 2001 when she was elected to the Toledo Board of Education. She left the school board before her term was up when elected Lucas County recorder in 2004, and then left that office — again, before the term expired — when elected Lucas County auditor in 2006. She was re-elected in 2010 as county auditor.

Drawing criticism

Ms. Lopez is running for mayor on a platform of improving neighborhoods, reducing crime, and spurring job creation and economic development. Her opponents have criticized her plan for lacking specifics — such as when she announced in July that Toledo needs more police officers but did not know how many officers are on the force or how many more would be needed, or how she would pay for the additional officers with an austere general fund budget.

She has come under fire during the campaign for hiring her political supporters in the auditor’s office and giving them $150,000 in raises, while agreeing to $70,000 in out-of-court settlements with three auditor’s staff members who were fired.

Her personal life also has become campaign fodder, including her credit score and an overall personal debt topping $260,000, and because her credit report is riddled with examples of late bill payments. Her pay as county auditor in 2007 was $91,762 and it was increased by the state to $94,246 in 2008. As county recorder, she received yearly 3 percent raises. Her 2011 tax documents showed $79,127 in salary from her elected job as Lucas County auditor and $7,000 in alimony for a total of $86,127.

Rest of the field

In the Sept. 10 primary, Ms. Lopez not only is challenging Mayor Mike Bell, the politically independent incumbent seeking a second term, but is battling five other candidates on the ballot as well as a write-in candidate.

Besides Toledo Councilmen McNamara and Collins, also on the mayoral ballot is Independent Alan Cox, a city neighborhood development specialist and president of the city’s supervisory and technical union, AFSCME Local 2058; Libertarian Michael Konwinski, a retired city worker from the departments of water distribution and finance, and Republican Opal Covey, who has run three times previously, is a former pet shop owner, and who says she is a “prophetess” and evangelist.

An eighth mayoral candidate, Don Gozdowski, has registered as a write-in. The two candidates who win the most votes in the nonpartisan primary will face off in the Nov. 5 election.

During her campaign for mayor, Ms. Lopez repeatedly has stressed that family means everything to her and regularly cites how her upbringing molded her.

“My father made it very clear that poverty, that his lack of education, was not an excuse for me to feel sorry for myself,” she said. “The tough times I went through when I was a child with my father has made me who I am and allowed me to relate to the struggle of Toledoans. So I think people look into that [Godfather picture] a little in the negative like media would like to do, but really it was more symbolic of a jest by some of my friends saying you are still that little girl who was molded from the Old South End to overachieve and believe in yourself.”

Humble origins

Ms. Lopez portrays herself as a “daughter of Toledo,” a self-made woman who came up from nothing, is ambitious, and is a person who doesn’t quit. Her resume backs up the claim.

She grew up in the Old South End often wearing hand-me-downs as the youngest of seven children born to migrant farm workers. Her father later worked as a butcher and her mother stayed at home. Ms. Lopez’s first job was checking ID cards at the Boys & Girls Club at the age of 14.

While Ms. Lopez’s other siblings went to public school, her schooling and upbringing would be different, she said.

“My dad really took a hard look at himself and how he was raising his children,” Ms. Lopez said. “He stopped drinking, smoking, and they were really concerned about the neighborhood and some of the things they had experienced with my sisters and brothers, so they said they had to do something.

“My dad completely changed how he was raising me and he basically told me, ‘You are going to be a lawyer, stay away from boys, stay away from running the streets.’ ”

After graduating from Central Catholic High School in 1987, Ms. Lopez studied political science at the University of Toledo, where she first became interested in politics. It took seven years to receive her undergraduate degree.

“I went full time and part time,” she said. “I was paying for myself after freshman year.”

UT law school was next from 1994 to 1997.

After she received her Juris Doctor degree, Ms. Lopez failed the Ohio bar exam three times. She said persistence pushed her to finally pass on her fourth attempt in February, 1999.

“When I set my heart to something, I don’t give up,” Ms. Lopez said. “There were so many other people counting on me. I didn’t want to fail.”

Anita Lopez says she will 'shake up' city government, forcing all nonunion employees to reapply for their jobs, and improve customer service, especially at the Department of Public Utilities — a frequent target of her criticism. Anita Lopez says she will 'shake up' city government, forcing all nonunion employees to reapply for their jobs, and improve customer service, especially at the Department of Public Utilities — a frequent target of her criticism.
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Down to business

After graduating from law school, Ms. Lopez worked for the Toledo Fair Housing Center, Adelante, and Lucas County Children Services as a child abuse investigator.

She was hired in 2002 by Mayor Jack Ford as Toledo’s director of purchasing, contract compliance, and affirmative action — a post she held until being elected Lucas County recorder in 2004.

She said she was frustrated working for the city under Mayor Ford.

Ms. Lopez said she advised the mayor to make more changes and shake up the administration by firing some directors — something she says he was unwilling to do. “I had a frank conversation with Mayor Ford and I told him that he needed to fire directors,” she said. “Jack was not pleased with me ... and the recorder position became available and he said, ‘Well, if you think it’s so easy, why don’t you run an office?’ and I said, ‘I will,’ and I did.”

She has promised the same kind of “cleaning house” at the city that she did as auditor — cutting the staff from 172 to 112. The vast majority of the employees were in the management ranks while union employees in the office remained.

Ms. Lopez has strong support from unions — some say she’s in local labor’s pocket — with a few locals already endorsing her over the other Democrat in the race, Mr. McNamara. They include the Ohio AFL-CIO, the Northwest Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council, AFSCME Council 8, IBEW Local 8, and Teamsters Local 20.

She has picked up big campaign checks from labor unions, including $15,000 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, $12,000 from the Northwestern Ohio Building and Construction Trades Council, and $10,000 from the United Food & Commercial Workers.

Pledging change

Ms. Lopez also promises to “change the culture of government.”

She pointed to “merit-pay increases” negotiated into two union contracts with UAW Local 12 and Teamsters Local 20 as examples of changing the culture. But, under the Teamsters contract, employees get $1,000 and a 3 percent increase in 2013 retroactive to April 1, 2012. After a pay freeze in 2014, they will be given performance-based raises in 2015 after being rated.

Ms. Lopez said she will “shake up” city government, forcing all nonunion employees to reapply for their jobs, and improve customer service, especially at the Department of Public Utilities — which she has blasted on several occasions.

She said she would not travel overseas like Mayor Bell and instead concentrate on existing Toledo businesses. “We can’t keep chasing that big fish,” she said.

Her plan for economic development includes streamlining city services by hiring up to 10 employees to act as liaisons with businesses within neighborhoods; creating a business hotline; giving local firms preference in city procurement polices, and making sure investors are held accountable.

She does not support the city’s sale two years ago of 69 acres at the Marina District to Chinese investors for $3.8 million.

Ms. Lopez also wants to to create “Toledo Neighborhood Teams,” which she described as people whom residents can speak to every day and would focus on specific areas of the city.

What others say

Former Mayor Ford, who supported Mr. Bell four years ago, is so far neutral. He is among 17 individuals running for the six at-large seats on Toledo City Council.

Other elected officials — including other Democratic county officials — either have stayed out of the race since it has two well-known Democrats involved or offered a lukewarm endorsement of Ms. Lopez.

Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak called Ms. Lopez a strong Democrat and a fighter but is undecided. “The reality is there are two great progressive Democrats in the race,” she said. “I am not making any decisions.”

At the same time, Ms. Skeldon Wozniak hinted Ms. Lopez can be hard to work with. “At times, Anita keeps to herself and is guarded with her decision-making,” she said. “For the most part we get along well … Anita is challenging just by her personality — that is just Anita.”

County Treasurer Wade Kapszukiewicz is also split between Mr. McNamara and Ms. Lopez. “Just like any candidate and any human being, she has her good qualities and bad qualities,” he said. “I do worry a little because she doesn’t take criticism well, sometimes can be hard on her staff, and I think is a little insulated by folks who don’t want to give her bad news.”

He added: “If Anita clears the primary, I will certainly support her over Mike Bell.”

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171 or on Twitter @IgnazioMessina.



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