NAACP hosts first Toledo Mayor debate
By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent
Indiana Missionary Baptist Church served as the backdrop for the first debate among the four elected officials vying to be Toledo mayor, as well as four lesser-known candidates who stand little chance of advancing beyond the September primary. The Aug. 5 debate was sponsored by the Toledo chapter of the NAACP.
Toledo City Council members Joe McNamara and Mike Collins squared off against Lucas County Auditor Anita López and incumbent Mayor Mike Bell for nearly two hours before a standing-room-only crowd of better than 150 supporters and city residents.
The mayoral candidates spent the first hour introducing themselves to the audience and answering questions from a pair of moderators. Then the candidates took turns giving responses to concerns submitted by the audience, ranging from sinkholes to crime.
Three main themes emerged during the opening hour of the debate: job creation, racial profiling, and what to do about the dormant Marina District development. Some tense and fiery moments erupted, especially between Mayor Bell and Ms. López, who called herself a “daughter of this community” who was “able to lift me up” when her family faced troubled times in her youth.
“I’m not sure if the children in this community can overcome those obstacles right now,” she said in her opening statement. “I think the level of poverty…the lack of good-paying jobs, the safety concerns we have, and most importantly, the way the city is run. It is not in touch with the citizens and businesses of this community.”
“When we started, our budget was in worse stress in some ways that the city of Detroit--- and we have turned this city around. I realize that some of my tactics have made people mad,” said Mayor Bell in discussing his first term in office. “I understand that. But if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today—balanced as it is. ”
The mayor stated he looked forward to his opponents “say exactly what they’re going to do” about the city’s problems, “because sometimes I listen to them and I’m thinking there’s a money tree somewhere that I haven’t seen.”
Ms. López attacked the mayor’s pursuit of Chinese investment in the city, particularly the $3.8 million sale of the Marina District property to the Dashing Pacific Group.
“It was practically given away with no plan, no benchmarks, and no accountability. That is a pattern and practice that has happened at the city of Toledo for too long,” she said. “I would have tried to identify investors with a solid plan before allowing foreign investors to come here. I would have given local businesses, first, an opportunity.”
The county auditor criticized the incumbent mayor directly, stating “that before we can court any investors, including foreign investors, we need to get a mayor who can get our house in order. Ms. López also blamed Bell for “being out of touch” and that “we already treat our citizens and businesses poorly."
“I think we’ve spent way too much time chasing international investments abroad with no results,” she said. “At some point, you have to sit and say maybe this is not the right approach.”
The incumbent mayor bristled at her remarks, openly admitting “they ticked me off a little bit.”
“Everybody that has come here, has come on a boat from somewhere,” Bell said, drawing loud applause.
Councilman McNamara stated his job creation policy would start with “hiring a qualified economic development director.”
“Sometimes people get jobs in local government for the wrong reasons—either because of political connections or to work on political campaigns or who they know,” he said. “In my opinion, that is cheating the taxpayer.”
Mayor Bell stated his focus in a second term will be on retraining Toledo’s workforce for jobs where no one is qualified to fill them, citing a recent program where 27 people graduated from a program that taught them environmental cleanup so they can go to work for companies that focus on brownfield remediation.
“They have to be retooled to what’s needed. I have people right now that have jobs, but we don’t have people that meet that educational requirement,” he said. “We have to be able to realign people for the positions to be able to get that job.”
Mayor Bell also explained his support for the controversial SB 5, which would have curtailed the power of public unions in Ohio. The mayor focused on the city’s budget crunch at the time the legislation surfaced at the statehouse, but was later defeated at the polls. He used “exigent circumstances” to force contract concessions from several municipal unions.
“We needed to have leverage just to negotiate, to be able to take care of the citizens. I am not anti-union. I am very pro-citizen,” he said. “We had to work inside the framework that people told me we had to work inside of. That framework was to continue the services we currently have, but do not raise taxes. That meant I had to look on the inside to be able to fix it.”
Councilman Collins, a retired police officer, was asked about racial profiling in Toledo. His answer sparked boos and grunts from the audience, which was mainly African-American.
“I do reject the thought that there is profiling going on,” he said, calling the city’s police force both “professional” and “diverse.”
Collins later softened his stance a bit. “If we have, within our organization, individuals, because of bigotry, because of prejudice, we have a means to handle them,” he said. “I am quite sure if that diversity was negatively impacted, they would be raising their voices, too.”
Councilman McNamara countered the remark by stating “to say there is no tension between police and the minority community is wrong.”
“My administration is not just about black and Hispanic, it’s about every citizen inside the city of Toledo,” said Bell, while pointing out his administration has invested $28 million in the central city. He also stated the city will have added 180 new police officers and 192 new firefighters by the end of the year, all without raising taxes.
The other four candidates for mayor include Opal Covey, a self-proclaimed prophetess who’s running as a Republican; city employee and union president Alan Cox, who is running as an independent; Libertarian candidate Michael Konwinski, who recently retired as a municipal employee; and write-in candidate Don Gozdowski, an ordained minister who also is a student at Owens Community College.
At least the four elected officials will debate each other two more times before the primary. The Fair Housing Center is sponsoring a Neighborhoods of Opportunity debate at the University of Toledo College of Law on Wed., Aug. 22, 7 p.m.
A debate without an audience is scheduled Sept. 4 at the WTVG-TV 13-abc studios. A panel of TV and newspaper journalists will ask questions during the televised event, which is scheduled to last one hour.