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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2007

The late Paul Mifsud is credited with making the Skyway reality

BY DAVE MURRAY
BLADE SPECIAL ASSIGNMENTS EDITOR
Paul Mifsud, who was hired to lobby for Toledo, was described as an 'inventive entrepreneur for state projects.' Paul Mifsud, who was hired to lobby for Toledo, was described as an 'inventive entrepreneur for state projects.'
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The opening of the Veterans Glass City Skyway caps decades of work by an entire community.

Government agencies commissioned feasibility and environmental studies. Neighbors attended town hall meetings to discuss the bridge s design and location. And construction crews labored, often at great risk, to build a 1,225-foot span that sails 13 stories above the Maumee River.

But while there is universal acknowledgment of the vital role played by the community in the new I-280 bridge, John Robinson Block, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade, said there is one man responsible for securing the Skyway s construction the late Paul Mifsud, a controversial political operative hired to lobby for Toledo.

With the 1998 political campaign to succeed Gov. George Voinovich heating up, Mr. Mifsud saw an opportunity for Toledo.

A former chief of staff for Mr. Voinovich, Mr. Mifsud advised The Blade to run an editorial that challenged gubernatorial candidates to promise voters an I-280 bridge. The editorial appeared on July 24, 1998, joining a long history of Blade editorials claiming that the state government neglected Toledo and the "other Ohio."

In response to the editorial, Democrat Lee Fisher and Republican Bob Taft publicly championed the bridge. Both candidates eventually said that tolls should not pay for the bridge s construction costs. Mr. Taft won the race.

"Once a candidate takes a position, you expect them to keep that position once they re elected," said Mr. Fisher, who is now the lieutenant governor.

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who was present when Mr. Taft decided against charging tolls, said Mr. Mifsud s plan helped prevent Toledo residents from subsidizing their own bridge with toll booths.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas last week described Mr. Mifsud as a "creative, inventive entrepreneur for state projects." Mr. Douglas said that based on his firsthand experiences Mr. Mifsud helped the Toledo-area on several projects, including the Buckeye Basin Greenbelt, the Owens-Corning headquarters, and the Jeep plant.

Christian Fuellgraf worked as Mr. Mifsud s aide in the Voinovich administration and remained close friends afterward. "Paul was very dedicated to doing what he could to improve the economic health of the state, and he had a keen interest in the Toledo-area," Mr. Fuellgraf said in an interview.

Gordon Proctor, the former director of ODOT who was at the agency when the decision was made to build the Skyway, said the downsizing of the agency s staff and an increase in federal appropriations generated enough money for the bridge to receive state approval in 1998. Mr. Proctor said a consensus supporting the bridge already existed.

Mr. Douglas said that s not how things happen in state government. He said it would take someone like Mr. Mifsud to make a project as ambitious as the I-280 bridge a reality. "Could bureaucrats get these things done?" he said. "The answer is unequivocally, No. "

Mr. Block said it took a political operative like Mr. Mifsud to secure the bridge project for Toledo.

He said ODOT officials such as Mr. Proctor lacked the authority to grant state support to the bridge.

"They were managing a long list of projects, and politicians decide when stuff is going to be built, not functionaries and gophers," Mr. Block said.

Mr. Mifsud s private sector career was sidetracked in 1997, when he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for state ethics violations. He ended six months of a jail work-release program in April, 1998, just in time to advise Toledo officials about the Skyway. He died in 2000 from lung cancer.

The Paul Mifsud remembered by Mr. Block was ethical, a shrewd Renaissance man of state government. "He was so very effective and so capable that he was able to do multiple roles," Mr. Block said. "He could serve as the chief of staff. He could serve as the Karl Rove to Voinovich, his main political guy."

Shown in these photos from Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006, in Columbus, Ohio, are gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, left, a Democrat from eastern Ohio, and his running mate, Lee Fisher, the president of a nonprofit social service agency in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete) Shown in these photos from Thursday, Jan. 26, 2006, in Columbus, Ohio, are gubernatorial candidate U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, left, a Democrat from eastern Ohio, and his running mate, Lee Fisher, the president of a nonprofit social service agency in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
JAY LAPRETE / AP Enlarge

Mr. Block and Mr. Mifsud first met after The Blade ran a series of editorials about the 3 C s Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. The Blade, at Mr. Block s urging, ran a series of articles and hosted conferences about the "other Ohio" the parts of the state, including Toledo, that were outside the state s three largest cities and outside the state s favor when budgets were finalized.

"The worst of the 3 C s is Columbus," Mr. Block said. "Columbus is just a greedy ravenous kind of monster, sucking, living off the taxes of the rest of the state."

It was The Blade s editorial stance that caused a frustrated Governor Voinovich to have his chief of staff, Paul Mifsud, reach out to the newspaper s publisher and editor-in-chief.

A friendship grew between Mr. Block and Mr. Mifsud, a bond that centered on the welfare of Toledo and developed at the time the city was lobbying for construction of a new Maumee River crossing. "We were right smack in the center of the process," Mr. Block said.

At the same time, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) and former U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum had reserved millions in federal funds for a new bridge for design and right-of-way issues.

Miss Kaptur said the legislation she was pushing contained specific language about the I-280 bridge because Ohio had spent most of its share of a federal gasoline tax for roadway projects in Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. The Democratic congressman from Toledo had one other caveat attached to the money. "I don t want some old piece of metal hanging up there," Miss Kaptur recalled saying. "If I m able to do this, I want a piece of art."

As the bridge nears completion, Miss Kaptur placed total designated federal funds at $263 million, of which $178 million went to repay bonds taken out by ODOT. That is more than half of the price tag for the bridge and accompanying roadway improvements.

Mr. Block said Miss Kaptur s efforts in Washington deserved credit, but the fate of the bridge rested on the choices made in Columbus.

While state bureaucrats like to talk about committees, appropriations, and traffic flow patterns, Mr. Block s view is more real world a world of politics, politicians, and the decisions that make government work.

He said The Blade s endorsement of the bridge, engineered by Mr. Mifsud, sheltered the project from being cut after the Ohio economy entered a prolonged recession in 2001, when construction on the Skyway began.

"Paul Mifsud made that happen," Mr. Block said. "He brought [it] in like a brilliant orchestra conductor, who points to the violins and they start to play. And he points to the brass section and they start to play.

"And he pointed at The Blade, and obviously we would only help if it was a reaffirmation of what we believed and what we had said in many editorials, but he thought it would be very helpful to have an editorial at the time we did."



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