COLUMBUS -- Independent mayoral candidate D. Michael Collins, who has staked out a strong pro-labor stance, got the backing of the Ohio Democratic Party Wednesday night against incumbent independent Mayor Mike Bell.
The state party's executive committee insisted the move was not an official endorsement, an honor reserved only for registered Democrats, but it could still make a big difference in Councilman Collins' surprisingly strong run against Mr. Bell. Both Mr. Collins and Mr. Bell are political independents.
"It was a resolution encouraging Democrats in Toledo to support labor-endorsed candidate Mike Collins based on Mike Bell’s support of Senate Bill 5 and [Gov.] John Kasich, and Mike Collins' objections to S.B. 5 and John Kasich," said state Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern.
"What we will do is we will not coordinate with Mr. Collins' campaign," Mr. Redfern said. "We will communicate directly to registered Democrats in the city of Toledo about the importance of defeating Mike Bell."
He declined to detail whether that campaign would involve television, direct mail, or phone calls, or how much might be spent, saying that he didn't want to tip off the opposing campaign.
"We'll be comparing and contrasting Mike Bell’s commitment to labor, or lack thereof, and Mike Collins' commitment to labor. I think the differences are stark. By communicating those differences I think we can be successful," Mr. Redfern said.
Mr. Redfern and Ohio labor leaders see defeating Mr. Bell as part of the campaign to defeat Governor Kasich, a Republican, in 2014.
The resolution of support occurred one day after the Lucas County Democratic Party opted, by a 24-23 vote, to stay neutral.
Two local Democrats -- Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez and Toledo Councilman Joe McNamara -- ran in the Sept. 10 primary, but neither won enough votes to move on to the Nov. 5 general election, leaving Toledo voters without a Democrat running for mayor for the first time in modern memory. Mayor Bell, a former Democrat, was endorsed by the Lucas County Republican Party, but the mayor declined the endorsement.
Mr. Collins was a strong opponent of Senate Bill 5/Issue 2, while Mr. Bell was featured prominently in a television commercial in favor of the 2011 referendum. The GOP-backed bill to weaken public-employee bargaining was defeated in a statewide vote after Democrats and labor unions teamed up in opposition.
Mr. Collins, 69, a retired police officer who was the president of his union, the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association, for 10 years, and a councilman since January, 2008, said Thursday he was humbled and honored by the resolution of support, but said he would continue to be independent.
"I represent all parties and all persuasions and all ethnicities, and therefore having their support embraces what my philosophy is, and that is that I will be a mayor for everyone," Mr. Collins said. He also disputed that his administration would be beholden to organized labor.
"That's very narrow-minded. I think labor knows me well enough to know that while I will always have an open door for them, the same holds true for everyone. There will be no exclusivity to anyone," Mr. Collins said.
Mr. Bell laughed when told of the state party's decision, and suggested Mr. Redfern is obsessed with his defeat. Mr. Redfern has said Mr. Bell was the state party's No. 1 target in 2013.
"That cat Redfern, he should take a chill pill," Mr. Bell said. "This is a local election. The local party has already made a decision on what they want to do. This is teetering on the edge of desperation. I think Mr. Redfern has lost focus. He has made something that is designed to be democratic in nature and turned it into something personal."
Contacted later, Mr. Redfern said he doesn't take chill pills but is considered "a pretty cool cat."
"Mike Bell ... tried to repeal the collective-bargaining rights of the firefighters he once worked with. The pension Mike Bell enjoys is due in part to the hard work of the men and women of his collective-bargaining unit, but he's forgotten that," Mr. Redfern said.
Mr. Bell, 58, is a former firefighter, former city fire chief, and former state fire marshal. He was elected in 2009 as an independent.
Mr. Redfern said it's not uncommon for the state party to endorse at the mayoral level, and the party has supported independents before, including an independent mayor in Youngstown who was formerly a Democrat.
Jerid Kurtz, spokesman for the Ohio Democratic Party, said, “moving forward, we’ll continue to discuss with local labor leaders what level of resources we should allocate to this race.”