Tussles over Toledo’s $48 million budget deficit, questions about racial profiling by police, and the sale of the waterfront Marina District to Chinese investors were among the highlights of the first forum for Toledo’s mayoral candidates on Tuesday night.
Incumbent Mayor Mike Bell played defense several times, including for his support of the union-opposed Senate Bill 5 in 2011, the Marina District sale, and the tactics he used to balance the city budget in 2010. At the same time, he was unapologetic and struck back at aggressive comments from Joe McNamara, Anita Lopez, and D. Michael Collins.
“I am the person who took on a $48 million deficit,” Mr. Bell said in his opening statement. “Three and a half years down the road here, we forgot where we started. In some ways, our budget was worse than the city of Detroit.”
The two-hour forum, sponsored by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the Stephenson-Roberts Hall, 640 Indiana Ave., included all eight candidates.
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The crowd of 200 predominantly blacks turned slightly sour on Mr. Collins, a politically independent Toledo councilman, when he said Toledo police do not racially profile black people.
At other times, some giggled at Opal Covey's declaration that God had chosen her to be mayor and told her to put an amusement park along the waterfront downtown.
Ms. Covey and Don Gozdowski, who won’t appear on the Sept. 5 primary ballot but is a write-in candidate, are both ordained ministers. Ms. Covey says she’s a Republican, but last voted as a Democrat. Also attending was Libertarian Michael Konwinski, a former city employee, and Alan Cox, president of AFSCME Local 2058, who said he would be Toledo’s chief executive officer and has proposed restoring a city manager form of government.
The two Democrats— Mr. McNamara, a Toledo councilman, and Ms. Lopez, the Lucas County auditor — didn't hold punches against Mayor Bell, an independent.
Ms. Lopez, calling herself a daughter of Toledo, said she doubts children of the city can overcome the obstacles of poverty and crime.
“The way the city is run now, it is not in touch with the citizens and businesses of this community,” she said.
Mr. McNamara plugged his platform of jobs, crime reduction, neighbors, and schools, but also criticized the mayor for taking credit for the city's economic rebound.
“Mayor Bell, it’s not your fault the country went to a near economic collapse, which caused double-digit unemployment in the city of Toledo. But it’s also not to your credit that we’ve come out of the recession,” Mr. McNamara said. “The unemployment rate is 9.3 percent. That is too high. ... The American dream is tough in parts of Toledo.”
Mayor Bell said he fixed a mess he inherited.
“We started with a $48 million deficit. Now we have a $5 million surplus ... we are fixing what was broke,” he said.
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He also pointed out that unemployment was above 14 percent when he started nearly four years ago, and he has hired more police and firefighters than the past two administrations combined: By the end 2013, it will be a projected 165 police officers, and 172 firefighters.
Regarding the Marina District, Ms. Lopez said the city-owned property should not have been sold and she criticized the mayor for his trips abroad to attract foreign investors.
“I believe that before we can court any investors, including foreign investors, we need to get a mayor who can get our house in order," Ms. Lopez said. "We already treat our citizens and businesses poorly."
She said the 69 acres sold for $3.8 million was "practically given away with no plan, no benchmarks, and no accountability," and that she would have given local business the opportunity first.
Mr. Bell said he was ticked off by the way Ms. Lopez referred to Chinese investors. “Everyone who’s come here has come here on a boat at some point,” he said.
After the forum, city spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei pointed out the property was city-owned for more than 12 years, during which multiple development plans failed. She also said it was disingenuous of Ms. Lopez to say the Bell administration had not worked with Toledo businesses.
The mayor worked with Chrysler-Fiat for expansion, Libbey Glass headquarters to stay downtown, and the OmniSource expansion plan, Ms. Sorgenfrei said.
Mr. Gozdowski said he’d like to see a campground established at the former Sports Arena site at the south end of the Marina District, near Main Street.
Mayor Bell and Ms. Lopez received the majority of support from the crowd, with Ms. Lopez enjoying a round of applause and cheers every time she answered a question. The Lopez campaign, which has strong union backing, sent out a notice to attend the event.
Although Aziza Maddox-Abdegeo, 60, of the Old West End said that at the moment her vote is for Mayor Bell, she enjoyed Ms. Lopez. “She was very passionate about small business, about keeping the power within,” Ms. Maddox-Abdegeo said. “I felt like she really understood the people and wants to empower the people.”
Brian Hayward Sr., 47, of West Toledo said that Mayor Bell, Ms. Lopez, and Mr. McNamara were all front-runners for him. He was impressed by Mr. McNamara’s attempts to seem in touch with issues faced by minorities. “McNamara comes across as wanting to connect more, being a Caucasian male,” he said.
Mr. Collins’ denial of police racial profiling drew boos and groans from the audience.
“I disagree with D. Michael Collins making the statement that he rejected the fact that racial profiling happens here,” said Mr. Hayward, an African-American who claimed to have been profiled himself. “You’re out of touch.... He is most definitely out.”
In response to a follow-up question about the issue, Mr. Collins, a retired police officer, said it does not happen to the extent it does elsewhere. “We don't have a police department run by ... people who are bigots, who are racially biased” he said. “We have a very diverse police department.”
Another contentious issue raised was Mr. Konwinski’s support of stand-your-ground legislation in Ohio. He was the only one to say he would support it. “It amazed me that someone in that eight would support Stand Your Ground,” said Theresa Gabriel, who is running for Toledo City Council.
The forum was moderated by Fletcher Word, co-owner and publisher of The Sojourner’s Truth weekly newspaper, and Doni Miller, a host on WTVG-TV Channel 13. Ms. Miller declined to say who she believed performed the best but was disappointed the evening was full of sound bites with little substance. “I think there was was too much avoiding the specifics at this point,” Ms. Miller said. “There should not be this grand rhetoric and posturing at this point.”
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com or 419-724-6171.