Don Plusquellic has been Mayor and the dominating political figure in the city of Akron for 24 years. “I still enjoy getting up every day, thinking about how to be creative, trying to improve the circumstances given the limited resources we have. So I really felt like I needed to stay during these difficult times. But it’s not just a matter of getting us through. We see some real opportunities, in the region and from foreign-owned companies moving to Akron.”
Supporters say Plusquellic is an innovator and that Akron has done well on his watch--especially in gaining a national and international profile among business interests. Critics call him confrontational and point to that as a leadership liability. They point to his bitter struggles with the city’s police and fire unions as evidence of the problem. Plusquellic says it’s passion for the job and for setting the record straight that people take for combativeness; and he argues that building relationships not walls is actually a hallmark of his administration. “I think that overall my record shows that we reach out and bring people here. And we do things in a very creative way, and the kinds of things that we have shown actually work we have been implementing because of the relationships that we have built.” Plusquellic refers to consolidation of Akron and Summit County’s health and building departments and collaboration between the city’s police and county sheriff’s departments as evidence of those relationships.
But, City Councilman Mike Williams says there’s trouble in those ventures and in the mayor’s relationships with Akron’s employees. A lawyer and deputy executive director of Alpha Phi Alpha Home--a non-profit housing & development Management Company--Williams has been on Akron City Council for the entire time Plusquellic has been mayor. “I’ve been on council now for 24 years, and I’ve enjoyed it. I still get the same high that I got when I started when I’m able to help somebody solve a problem. That has not changed.”
Critics of Williams say he has not been active as a legislator, attended only about half of city council committee meetings (until recently), and has been short on specifics about how he will run the city. Williams says his priority is neighborhoods, so that’s where his time and energy go. Related to that, he says building relationships with people and businesses already in Akron is the way to advance the city. “You have to empower neighborhood leadership. Now that’s tough for some elected officials. Neighborhood leadership can bite you in the behind. But they are the key mechanism for dealing with the problems and issues we have out there. They set, along with the community, the agenda for the community for where resources should be spent.”
Williams wants more communication between city employees and citizens in the neighborhoods, too. He says engaging makes people more “real” to each other and problems more understandable and solvable.
Janice Davis is a political newcomer. She grew up on Akron’s west side, and worked her way through school. She lists a BA in business from Malone University, a MA in health management form Baldwin-Wallace University, and is pursuing a doctorate on-line through Argosy University. She retired four years ago from Summa Health Systems, and works part time for Bank of America. And she says she wants to apply management tools to running the city. But she says that’s not what drew her to run for mayor. ”I have always liked politics. I would get caught up in watching political events on TV to the point where my family called me a hermit…a political hermit.”
When Davis first announced her candidacy some Williams’ backers speculated that she did so at the behest of Don Plusquellic--to try to split the city’s minority vote. She shrugs that off noting that she signed the petition to recall the mayor last year, and that although she did eventually change her mind about the recall effort she is not a supporter or ally of Plusquellic. Another criticism of Davis is that she’s too abstract in outlining the business formulas she would apply to running the city. She says those are just tools she’ll use, and that she’s still gathering information on what the city needs–a process she says she started years ago. “I moved back to a blighted area for four years, I took public transportation, I even went to the food line. I didn’t take food, I didn’t need food, but I wanted to get out amongst ordinary people to see what people were really feeling...and people are hurting so bad out here.”
The Republican race is between two candidates–Jennifer Hensal and Katie Marie Wilkins–for the Sept. 13th primary. Hansal is an attorney working primarily in the Medina area and living in West Akron. There is no information available on Wilkins, who does not appear to be campaigning. The Democratic and Republican winners will face off on Nov. 8th.
Regardless of who wins then, he or she will have to deal with tough economic facts. Like just about every city in Ohio, Akron is facing big cuts in the state’s “local government fund,” the end of federal stimulus money, and declining local tax collections as the city loses population. All three Democrats talk about finding greater financial efficiency as a way to deal with all that; and, although none is too specific how they’ll raise revenue or reduce expense, all three insist layoffs are a last resort for cutting cuts.
But, if layoffs DO have to me made:
Davis says she would make them based on input both from ordinary citizens and city leaders, and using decision-making tools like cost-benefit analyses.
Plusquellic says layoffs must be based on all the city’s needs, and be spread over all departments. And that would include police and fire.
Williams says he will stick to a priority of no safety force layoffs--unless the situation is dire and all other options are exhausted.
As a political realty, does this sort of campaign discussion potentially pit the city’s unions against each other? John Dolly says no. He’s with AFSCME, the union for workers who pick up trash, drive snow plows and fix streets and sidewalks. It’s the only union so far to formally endorse a candidate, choosing to back Mike Williams. Dolly says he understands how making sure that Akron has well-staffed safety forces, and maintains the reputation for being a safe city, benefits his union’s membership. “You’ll have people who want to invest in jobs here. You have people coming to live. That’s more revenue; more job opportunities for us. So, it works hand in hand. And we understand that if one’s not doing well the other is not going to be doing well."
Another political reality that could affect this three-way primary is the influence of incumbency. With a six-term Mayor seeking a seventh term, a 24-year veteran politician challenger, and a new-comer, the full range of the advantages and disadvantages of incumbency may play out. Steve Brooks is a University of Akron political scientist, who keeps his eye on Akron politics. “One advantage that an incumbent has is that in essence you are asking the voters to say, ‘Last time I voted I made a mistake.’ And we as people don’t like to admit we made a mistake. The disadvantage that an incumbent has is that if you do make difficult decisions, every difficult decision that goes against somebody, they don’t like you; so, the longer you stay the more people that you make mad, the fewer supporters you have.”
Off year elections are usually low turnout, very local affairs. But this November is expected to be different. That’s because a referendum on Senate Bill 5–the law that would severely restrict collective bargaining for public employees in Ohio--is expected to draw a record number of voters throughout the state.