Lucas County Commissioner Sandy Isenberg and challenger Maggie Thurber squared off in a televised debate last night focusing largely on job training, pledges of more support for senior citizens, and help for children's programs.
The debate at the University of Toledo was the first of the high-profile race and the first time either candidate had faced voters side-by-side.
Ms. Isenberg, a county commissioner since 1985, promoted accomplishments during her tenure in office, while Ms. Thurber pointed to problems in the county government, controlled by incumbent Democrats, especially its troubled job training programs, saying it was time for a change.
The two are competing in the highest-profile race on the local ballot this fall, as Ms. Isenberg, president of the county commissioners, defends her office against the toughest competitor she has faced in her career.
The debate - sponsored by The Blade and WTVG-Channel 13 - was broadcast live from Nitschke Auditorium on the campus of the University of Toledo on Channel 13 and was hosted by station news anchor Diane Larson.
“Together we have accomplished a great deal. Together we have brought Fifth Third Field to downtown Toledo, to help revitalize our wonderful downtown and our community,” Ms. Isenberg said. “We have in fact provided stronger child-support enforcement so custodial parents do, in fact, collect their dollars on time. We have provided insurance for kids who don't have insurance, and shots for tots, and advocacy programs for our seniors. And we have provided EMS, which is probably the best one in the state of Ohio.”
“We have suffered through tough times, and heavy, big challenges. It takes real leadership making tough decisions in tough economic times. I have been honored to serve this community, and I would like to continue to be able to continue my service,” Ms. Isenberg said.
Ms. Thurber said: “Democracy does not flourish under a one-party rule, and Lucas County has had a one-party rule for almost 20 years, and still we lag behind. This race is not just about the scandals, but issues of character and integrity do matter. This is not just about the next four years, but about a foundation for the next 40.
“I see us with workers who are highly skilled and sought after because they can meet the future needs of employers. I see us as a community which is a model for cooperation and growth, but most importantly, I see our families with good, steady, well-paying jobs, jobs that will help them achieve their dreams. We can have this kind of future, Lucas County, but we need to make a choice for change.”
Both candidates showed the effects of nerves early in the debate, stumbling over words and mixing up phrases, but both eventually settled into a rapid-fire rhythm, dancing through questions about county support for the Marina District in East Toledo, government efficiency, and the extension of waterlines to outlying communities. Both said they believed there is room in Lucas County for a revitalized Southwyck Shopping Center and the proposed Fallen Timbers Mall in Maumee.
“I would shop ... at both of them,” Ms. Isenberg said.
“I agree,” said Ms. Thurber, in one of the lighter moments of the hour-long debate.
Not surprisingly, the chairmen of the county's Republican and Democratic parties said they were pleased with their candidate's performance.
Bernadette Noe, chairwoman of the Lucas County Republican Party, said Ms. Thurber did a “fabulous” job. Although Ms. Thurber stumbled in the beginning - erroneously thanking the wrong television station for co-sponsoring the debate - Ms. Noe said she recovered well.
Paula Ross, Ms. Noe's counterpart in the county Democratic party, said Ms. Isenberg talked about how the county has done its job during her tenure.
“It's her job to talk about her accomplishments, which are many,'' Ms. Ross said.
Ms. Ross said the format forced Ms. Isenberg to alter her speaking style. “Sandy's a great communicator,” Ms. Ross said, “but she's not used to communicating in 30 second or 60-second blocks.”
Three journalists - Blade reporters Dale Emch and Joe Mahr and Channel 13 anchor Lee Conklin - posed some of the questions, while the candidates also answered queries that were sent in via e-mail or videotaped earlier.
Ms. Isenberg answered a question from a citizen about her attempt to take a one-day retirement at the end of the year in order to begin collecting her $40,000 annual public pension along with her salary of $76,000, if re-elected - a plan she later abandoned after a public outcry.
After making her decision, she said she felt uncomfortable and changed her mind.
She also defended her handling of a controversy stemming from a new roof put on her house by a supporter who later benefited from two zoning votes she cast in the course of business. She did not pay for the roof until nearly a year later.
“I paid for that roof. I was the one who notified the [Ohio] Ethics Commission. I feel very strongly that I did nothing wrong. I also will cooperate with the Ethics Commission in any inquiry that they make in this particular effort,” she said.
Ms. Thurber, who cited the two controversies as reasons she entered the race when she began her campaign in August, said she thinks it is “important to remember that elected officials are held to a higher standard. We don't have to have no appearance of conflict, we have to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It was the appearance of impropriety.”
Ms. Thurber, the clerk of Toledo Municipal Court, was asked about complaints that surfaced in past years that her office operated inefficiently.
“I inherited a large backlog when I took over [in 1994]. I inherited large journals that people had to hand write and try to read judges handwriting and copy into those journals,” she said. “By 1998, we no longer had a backlog. We had a new computer system that was in the process of being designed, and today, we are a modern example of what other courts are trying to duplicate throughout Ohio and even into Pennsylvania.”
Ms. Isenberg defended the county record of broadening the local economic base.
“We are part of the Regional Technology Alliance, and we are out every single day looking for businesses to bring high-tech jobs to the Toledo Lucas County area,” she said.
“I keep hearing that we are going to be bringing high-tech jobs, and we have missed the boat,” countered Ms. Thurber. “The high-tech jobs are not really coming to Toledo. We need to find something else that we can focus on, instead of this nebulous phrase of high-tech jobs. We need to have a vision and a plan that says this is an industry we want to focus on.”
The pair also sparred over the loss of $557,000 in county job training funds, which reverted to the state after the county failed to spend it on the local unemployed. Ms. Thurber tried to lay blame on the lost money at Ms. Isenberg's feet, but Ms. Isenberg said the job training program was far more complicated than one person making a mistake. She added that plans are under way to improve the way the county manages the federal money.
Ms. Isenberg and Ms. Thurber face each other again tonight in a debate sponsored by Channel 11 and the University of Toledo College of Law.