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Published: Sunday, 5/18/2008

Finkbeiner mum on 2009 contest

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

And you thought they started the presidential election campaigns early.

Lucas County politicians and political wizards are focused mainly on the presidential election this year, but are also beginning to talk about who might run for mayor when Carty Finkbeiner's term ends next year.

Mr. Finkbeiner, who will be 70 when the July 17, 2009, filing deadline rolls around, hasn't said whether he'll run. Longtime Finkbeiner-watchers can't imagine the veteran city politician voluntarily stepping down.

"Knowing Carty, I can't imagine he wouldn't run," said Bill Lichtenwald, president of Teamsters Local 20, who helped Mr. Finkbeiner get elected in 2005.

Mr. Finkbeiner has been dogged by near-constant controversy since he took office in January, 2005 - ranging from his veto in connection with a $30 million renovation of Westgate Village Shopping Center, his firing of three African-American political appointees, political interference in City Council, and his order to a Michigan reserve unit of the Marine Corps to stop training in downtown.

Just more than a year into his term, in March, 2007, a survey by The Blade and Zogby International, found that 54 percent of likely voters in Toledo held an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Finkbeiner, and fewer than one in four said they would re-elect him in 2009.

And a poll released by likely mayoral candidate Keith Wilkowski last month showed that little had changed for Mr. Finkbeiner. The poll, which Mr. Wilkowski paid for, showed him defeating Mr. Finkbeiner in a head-to-head race 59-13.

"He has no chance of winning," said City Councilman Michael Ashford of District 4, who added he plans to do his best to ensure that happens. "He's burnt too many bridges in too many neighborhoods. I think the city has got to the point that they're tired of his antics."

Mr. Finkbeiner, who did not respond to requests through his public information officer to be interviewed for this story, has defeated the dire predictions before.

He has run successfully for mayor three times, and only once did he win with a comfortable margin - in 2005 against incumbent and fellow Democrat Mayor Jack Ford.

Mr. Finkbeiner's previous re-election effort was in 1997, during his first two-term era as mayor, when he barely edged out unknown Republican businessman Nick Wichowski.

The most out-front candidate so far is Mr. Wilkowski, who has set up an exploratory committee.

"I would like to be mayor of the city of Toledo. I think I have something to offer," Mr. Wilkowski said. He said he knows the effort will involve hundreds of people and cost $500,000.

Mr. Wilkowski said the issue facing Toledoans is the same that he ran on in 2005 - will the city thrive or continue to decline?

"If we are to thrive, we need to fundamentally change how we are going to do business. We need to focus our economic development plan to highlight knowledge-based jobs," Mr. Wilkowski said. "We really haven't done that."

Other local politicians are remaining noncommittal.

Mike Bell, a popular former Toledo fire chief working as state fire marshal in Columbus while maintaining his home in Toledo, didn't rule out a possible run next year, but didn't express interest either.

"People have been saying this to me since before the last election. Every time I come home, I hear it. It's actually a distraction," Mr. Bell said.

"I'm just trying to be the best fire marshal I can. That's my focus. I'm good where I am. The only person who knows [whether I'll run for mayor] is God, and He hasn't told me anything different," he said.

Among those maintaining a wait-and-see attitude are Toledo City Councilmen George Sarantou and Mark Sobczak and Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop.

Mr. Sobczak, the vice president of the Teamsters Local 20 union and the president of City Council, has been a high-profile ally of the mayor, and is expected to run only if the mayor steps aside.

"I'm just trying to be a good councilman and City Council president. I've got my hands full with that," Mr. Sobczak said.

"I think that decision is best made by other people, by people coming together saying this is what we need for the community," Mr. Sobczak said.

Whether he thinks Mr. Finkbeiner will run again, Mr. Sobczak said, "There's no crystal ball over here, so I don't want to make any predictions."

Mr. Konop said he's been urged often to run for mayor, but said he's not sure that's the right step for him. He said voters want change and see him as someone who is able to make it happen.

"We're heading in the wrong direction on every conceivable economic indicator. How many more jobs are we going to lose before we take some bold new steps and get frankly some new people in charge?" Mr. Konop asked.

Like Mr. Konop, Mr. Sarantou said he's been approached by people suggesting he consider seeking the city's top spot. He said being of the minority party - Republican - doesn't have to be a major disadvantage.

"On a local level, I think people are looking for someone with strong leadership qualities, who can unite people. I think the partisanship of that is not a priority with the people," Mr. Sarantou said.

City Councilman Frank Szollosi and Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, both of whom have considered running for mayor, said they have decided against it.

Mr. Szollosi said he's starting on a master's degree program, and he and his wife are expecting a third child. Mr. Gerken said he wants to remain a commissioner and is up for re-election this year.

James Hartung, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said he was approached about a possible run for mayor, but has no interest.

"There were people who talked to me about it," he said, "but I don't think I'm in the right position to do it." He said he's focused on the port authority's issues, including the efforts to land an intermodal project that would make the area a hub for rail traffic.

Former City Councilman Rob Ludeman, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2005, said he is not considering a run. As a Republican who was allied with Mr. Finkbeiner for the first two years of his term, he said the mayor should not be counted out.

"A lot can happen in a year and a half," Mr. Ludeman said. "I feel the real estate market is starting to come around. The economy should be a lot better. Those should add into the popularity or unpopularity of any top official."

Mr. Wilkowski, a former Lucas County commissioner, came in third in the 2005 primary, behind Mr. Finkbeiner and Mr. Ford. Mr. Ludeman came in fourth.

Some believe that Mr. Wilkowski will pay a price among African-American voters for having run against the city's first African-American mayor, Mr. Ford.

Since then, Mr. Wilkowski has taken several actions that could improve his standing in the black community. He has represented community development corporations in efforts to limit neighborhood convenience stores.

And he was an early supporter in Lucas County of Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.), who is running to become the first African-American president.

Mr. Wilkowski denied he sees either issue through a demographic perspective.

"Convenience stores and the troubles they present cross demographic lines, and Barack Obama will be a president for all the people and bring the kind of change I certainly want to see," he said.

Mayor Finkbeiner also appears to be trying to mend relations with the black community, to make up for outrage in the black community for several perceived insults, such as referring to Chief Bell as "King Kong," demoting the status of the city's Office of Affirmative Action/Contract Compliance, and firing three black administrators, allegedly for discriminatory reasons.

Mr. Finkbeiner has also joined the Obama bandwagon, recently getting himself named as an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August. And he elevated Theresa Gabriel, an African-American female, to be assistant chief of staff in his office on the 22nd floor of Government Center.

Even though the election is a long way off, it's questionable whether the remaining 18 months is enough time for Mr. Finkbeiner to regain the voter confidence that propelled him to victory in 2005.

The Lucas County Democratic Party no longer is controlled by Finkbeiner loyalists. Close political allies from 2005, John Irish and Dennis Duffey, have lost their positions - Mr. Irish as party chairman and Mr. Duffey as central committee chairman. The new central committee chairman, Peter Silverman, is a Wilkowski supporter.

City tax revenues have forced Mr. Finkbeiner to cut city spending and have made it difficult for him to invest in the kind of capital projects that marked his first tenure, when city revenues grew substantially each year.

Even at that, some of his capital spending has attracted howls of opposition, including a plan for a bike path in South Toledo that had to be scrapped and the quiet expenditure of $10,000 on a shower stall in his Government Center office.

The mayor has implemented a monthly trash collection fee, begun a conversion to automated trash collection, and, in one of the few signs of voter approval, saw voters overwhelmingly renew the city's 0.75-percent income tax in March.

Acting as his own economic development director he has touted Toledo as an alternative energy research capital and competed in contests, including a United Nations-sanctioned competition that labeled Toledo the "most liveable city" in North America. But the same projects that he criticized as stalled under Mayor Ford still appear to many Toledoans to be at a standstill, including Southwyck Shopping Center and the Marina District.

The Marina District could yet come through for Mr. Finkbeiner.

Developer Larry Dillin has promised to begin construction on the housing development and riverfront park this summer.

Some of those units, along with some commercial development, could be occupied by the time Mr. Finkbeiner faces the voters in 2009 - if he does.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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