McNamara says aiding Toledoans is his ‘dream job’

Labor often at odds with Democratic candidate

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  • Toledo mayoral candidate and City Councilman Joe McNamara, 36, in his campaign office in the Spitzer Building, says the city can’t afford politics as usual.
    Toledo mayoral candidate and City Councilman Joe McNamara, 36, in his campaign office in the Spitzer Building, says the city can’t afford politics as usual.

    Third in a series

    When Joe McNamara finished law school at one of New York’s most prestigious universities he was offered a dream job for a young lawyer.

    Office in New York, big money, and the prospect of bigger money down the line.

    But it wasn’t his dream.

    “I went to University of Michigan for undergrad, I lived in Chicago for a year, went to law school at New York University, but I always knew I was going to come back to Toledo to help the city,” Mr. McNamara said.

    “This is my dream job,” the two-term at-large councilman said in his mayoral campaign office last week.

    “Serving my city and helping it grow and helping the people who live here is what I find most fulfilling.”

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    His two terms on Toledo City Council are highlighted by pushing through progressive issues such as a law mandating that adult-entertainment businesses post information for potential victims of trafficking to find help, a city domestic partnership registry, a municipal solar field, and a local business preference ordinance.


    Name: Joe McNamara

    Age: 36

    Address: 4619 Cranbrook Dr.

    Family: Married to Valerie Moffitt

    Political affiliation: Democrat

    Occupation: Lawyer/​Toledo City Council member

    Education: University of Michigan undergraduate, New York University school of law

    Campaign Web site: joefortoledo.com

    Council passed two budgets unanimously under his leadership, in 2012 and 2013, and Mr. McNamara also put council meeting audio and documents online, co-sponsored and passed a balanced budget amendment, and reduced the cost of city public records requests.

    After all that, the Democratic councilman says he is ready to lead Toledo as mayor.

    But some of his decisions are increasingly causing friction with his own party and local labor bosses, crucial to any serious run for elected office by a Democrat in this town.

    Mr. McNamara is a relatively young councilman at 36 and has risen in popularity as a progressive Democrat.

    He is a lawyer with a downtown office but takes few clients because of the time he spends working on city issues.

    He home-brews beer and admits to loving it.

    He won his second council term in 2009 with more votes than any other candidate and was twice elected council president.

    Now, Mr. McNamara is opposing well-known candidates, including independent incumbent Mayor Mike Bell; independent Councilman D. Michael Collins, and fellow Democrat Anita Lopez, who is the Lucas County auditor, in the Sept. 10 mayoral primary.

    Also on the mayoral ballot are 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 water distribution and finance departments; 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, registered as a write-in.

    The two candidates who win the most votes in the nonpartisan primary will face off in the Nov. 5 general election.

    Mr. McNamara said ethics sets him apart in the group.

    “Taxpayers cannot afford politics as usual,” he said. “It happened too much in this town where insiders are given raises because they worked on political campaigns.”

    Butting heads

    This is not the first time Mr. McNamara has attempted to vault into a higher political office.

    In 2010, he took on fellow Democrat Edna Brown for an elected state seat — even with unofficial warnings from party and union leaders to back off. He lost that primary election for the 11th Senate District — sorely.

    Butting heads with his own party didn’t stop there.

    It continued early this year when Mr. McNamara refused to support union-backed, party-endorsed Shaun Enright for a City Council at-large seat. The refusal to capitulate led to labor leader Dennis Duffey declaring Mr. McNamara “should be removed, tarred, and feathered, or denutted.”

    Mr. McNamara has recently targeted Ms. Lopez, who has wide union support. Neither has been officially endorsed by the Lucas County Democratic Party.

    Critics and backers

    Former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner was critical of Mr. McNamara’s negative campaign mailers against Ms. Lopez, although he too has not endorsed a candidate. The former Democratic mayor admits to supporting Mr. Bell four years ago, but he now wants the incumbent removed.

    “As a Democrat, I am looking for the Democrat I believe can win the general election by positioning himself or herself as the individual who will clean up crime, litter, violence, gangs, and help those whose positions are less fortunate,” Mr. Finkbeiner said.

    Party Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler said the party withholds its endorsement until after the primary.

    District Councilman Mike Craig, another Democrat who has also been at odds with his own party leadership, is supporting Mr. McNamara to the point that he is going door-to-door talking with voters about Mr. McNamara and what he has to offer the city as mayor.

    “He has experience in city government, he understands the problems, and he knows what the solutions can be,” Mr. Craig said.

    “He’s not going to be creating a second youth commission or doing things to the water department that will cause the rates to go even higher,” he said referring to Ms. Lopez, who on Wednesday suggested creating a Toledo “Children First” committee. The proposed committee is strikingly similar to two groups already operating.

    Ms. Lopez also has hammered Mayor Bell for the state of customer service in the city’s water department, as well as the introduction of across-the-board $200 water account deposits and inaccurate water meter readings.

    Mr. Craig said his support of Mr. McNamara is not based on opposition to Ms. Lopez’s candidacy.

    “He understands city government, he has the temperament, he has the knowledge, he has concrete plans on what needs to be done for the city, and he could come in this January and wouldn’t need two years of training to figure out what is going on in the city,” he said. “He can bridge the gap between people of different ideologies.”

    Republican Councilman George Sarantou stressed that he also is not endorsing a mayoral candidate for the primary, but his thoughts of Mr. McNamara were not entirely positive.

    “Most recently his leadership on making sure the discount for senior citizens on water bills would be preserved was very good,” Mr. Sarantou said. “I think on the other side of things, as council president, my observation is that he has a lot of difficulty accepting other points of view, and at times he lacks political maturity.”

    Mr. Sarantou, longtime finance committee chairman, said Mr. McNamara “lacked the courtesy” of first discussing issues brought forward publicly during finance committee meetings.

    “I think he has the potential to become more politically astute,” he said. “He is not a great communicator with members of council, and a number of times he spoke on the floor of council and never had the courtesy to call me and let me know what he was going to do.”

    Councilman Rob Ludeman, another Republican on council, is also not identifying his pick for the mayor’s office. But he is more complimentary of Mr. McNamara.

    “Joe and I have gotten to know each other well on council and I respect him,” Mr. Ludeman said. “I have seen him mature, and one thing I did appreciate was when I came back on council four years ago, he asked me if I would make myself available to him to get my perspective on things, and we have had quite a few conversations over the past few years on different topics.”

    Lucas County Auditor Dan McNamara holds his son, Joe. Mr. McNamara was killed in a freak accident in 1983.
    Lucas County Auditor Dan McNamara holds his son, Joe. Mr. McNamara was killed in a freak accident in 1983.

    Shaped by tragedy

    Mr. McNamara’s political life has been driven in part by tragedy three decades ago.

    His father, Dan McNamara, was the Lucas County auditor and a rising political star when he was killed in a freak auto accident on Dec. 4, 1983. He had previously sat on Toledo City Council and was considering a run for Congress.

    His young son was sitting in the passenger seat but was unharmed when a wheel came off an oncoming car and crashed through the windshield of his dad’s Renault, smashing into his father’s head.

    “Growing up, I always heard stories about what a good person he was and how he tried to help people,” Mr. McNamara said. “And so it’s more like the memory of my father and the people he influenced that inspired me to go into politics.”

    In 2006, during his first campaign for an at-large council seat, Mr. McNamara described the accident in detail.

    “That’s when I saw all of this blood everywhere. It was just pouring, pouring out of him like a waterfall,” he told The Blade in 2006.

    Mr. McNamara’s parents were divorced at the time of the accident. His 37-year-old father was taking him to see a movie at the former Southwyck Shopping Center.

    The car was so mangled that 6-year-old Joe rolled down a window to escape.

    He didn’t linger on that tragedy, or another one that occurred when his stepfather, Mike Ordway, died of cancer when Mr. McNamara was in high school at Sylvania Southview. He had moved around as a child until his mother, Jill Kelly, settled in Sylvania.

    “I like it when people remember my dad,” he said. “He is an important figure in my life even though he wasn’t in it very long.”

    Helping Toledoans

    Like the local legend of his father, Mr. McNamara said helping Toledoans is his top goal. If elected mayor, he said job creation would be his main task.

    His five-point economic plan includes expanding the existing Better Buildings Program, which allows owners of older buildings to request an energy audit of their building; local preference for city companies; a building materials recycling plant; hiring a qualified economic development director; and creating an “evergreen co-op.”

    An “evergreen co-op” is an employee-owned for-profit business that lets workers gain ownership in the company through “sweat-equity.”

    Mr. McNamara, who lives in West Toledo, said he chose a North Toledo fire station to announce his run for mayor to emphasize his commitment to Toledo’s neighborhoods and safety.

    Additionally, he promises to hire more police officers; reopen the Northwest District Police Station; support community development corporations; and buy back the 69 acres of Marina District property sold to Dashing Pacific Group Ltd. for $3.8 million if not developed within five years from the July, 2011, sale date.

    Mr. McNamara voted in favor of the Marina District sale — along with the majority of council. The Ohio AFL-CIO — which endorsed Ms. Lopez — has used that vote as ammunition against Mr. McNamara.

    Union criticism

    The union group accused him in a Twitter posting of “coziness with Chinese investors.”

    Michael Gillis, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO, said his support of the cash deal to sell vacant, once-polluted property to Dashing Pacific was the reason for the criticism.

    “Yes, Anita is in the corner of Toledo workers, while Joe prefers Chinese ones,” the group tweeted on July 23.

    The Ohio AFL-CIO also said Mr. McNamara “rode his dad’s name to get a city council seat.”

    Mr. McNamara rolled his eyes at the suggestion he does not support local workers — stressing that he is pro-union, supports organized labor, and wrote a local preference ordinance to give Toledo businesses an advantage winning municipal contracts over out-of-town companies.

    Still, some union leaders seem to have declared war on Mr. McNamara.

    In February, Bill Lichtenwald, president of Teamsters Local 20 blasted Mr. McNamara in a letter that, ironically, started off by assailing him for writing a Blade column opposing the anti-union “right-to-work” movement.

    The letter, which was sent to all members of council, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, and other unions, hinted that Mr. McNamara voted in 2010 for an “exigent circumstances” declaration to force concessions from most city labor unions.

    Mayor Bell pushed for the legal maneuver, which unilaterally imposed temporary cuts in employee pay and benefits because of the unforeseen drop in tax revenues over the previous two years.

    Mr. McNamara voted against that request from Mayor Bell.

    Mr. Lichtenwald did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

    Mr. McNamara said he does not know why the union president and the Ohio AFL-CIO have taken those stances. The Teamsters local also has endorsed Ms. Lopez.

    Four years ago, the local endorsed Mike Bell and contributed $11,200 to his campaign for mayor that year.

    “I voted against exigent circumstances, I spoke publicly against Senate Bill 5, and I have been against right-to-work laws,” Mr. McNamara said. “I am absolutely a pro-labor Democrat who supports collective bargaining.”

    At the same time, Mr. McNamara said he is his own man.

    “I don’t think it’s healthy for a candidate to be owned by one particular group, whether it’s labor or anyone,” he said. “You need to be able to vote your conscience and represent everyone.”

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