Like many cities in Northeast Ohio, Barberton—known as the magic city-- is facing issues of population loss, job loss, and financial difficulty. While it is a city rich in civic pride, those challenges are playing a role in next week’s Democratic mayoral primary.
Whoever wins will have to bring together a city divided.
From a pickup truck that serves as a parade float, Journey's hopeful anthem "Don't Stop Believin'" blares. Barberton mayor William Judge runs alongside, shaking hands with Labor Day parade watchers on Wooster Road as he campaigns for a third term. The music behind him dates back to the early '80s, a time when the late William J. Judge was mayor. The city is different for his son. “You know, we're operating like we're 60-70,000 residents. We’re 27,000," said Mayor William B. Judge. "The loss of B&W is forcing us to reorganize internally.”
B&W is Babcock and Wilcox. The company is leaving Barberton after 113 years, taking several hundred jobs, and more than a million dollars in income taxes to Akron’s east end. The loss is a blow to a city that does not want to think its best days are behind it.
“We have a lot of magic pride here. A lot. And to live in this city, I don't think people understand until they actually live here," said Carla Debevec. She’s running against Judge to lead the city where she grew up. In a stylish red dress and colorful heels, she projects an image more refined than this blue collar, working class town. That’s one thing that bothers her. “The perception from other communities of what our citizens are like. I've always been raised that I can't sit around and complain, if I want to see a change, I have to be active in initiating that change," Debevec said.
That comes in part from Debevec’s father, Randy Hart, who is the longest serving mayor in Barberton history, having held the office from 1993 to 2008.
"I'm awfully proud of her," Hart said of his daughter. "She's worked hard. She's been on council for eight years and chair of finance. And that's one of the tougher committees to be on. She's done an excellent job, and she's ready."
Ready to face challenges in a city that has plenty. The job losses are reducing the city’s revenue. Flooding has been a persistent problem, damaging a number of homes in June. The opioid crisis has been felt here too.
Sharon Shimp is watching the parade with a curly-haired toddler who’s in her custody because of a parent’s addiction. "Somebody needs to do something. It's sad. These kids that are coming from these parents is it just breaks my heart."
Three quarters of Barberton students are economically disadvantaged according to data from the state education department.
“I mean, the community is kind of, you know, separated with income," said Marcell Harris, a 16-year Barberton resident. He sits in a folding chair on West Lake Avenue catching the parade’s end. He’s watched as the city has struggled, including dealing with a budget shortfall earlier this year of 4-million dollars.
“We laid off, I believe a couple of firefighters and a couple of police officers. I know the city has problems with drugs and crime, and we put back on the firefighters kind of before the police officers. But if we could just look into you know, where we really need to spend our money and how it's going to improve our community, I think would be better,” Harris said.
Tom Brankel wants to see improvements too. He’s lived in Barberton for seven of his eight decades and says houses are overcrowded and need to be inspected.
“It's not being done and too many people are taking advantage of it and not taking care of their properties.”
What’s not getting done has brought another candidate into the primary race as well. Steve Brookens has lofty goals. "I want to go down as being the greatest mayor that the city of Barberton ever had," he said.
Brookens has no previous experience in elected office. But he says his background in business and sports—he was known as the green hornet in pro wrestling—is training enough. He’s running as a Democrat, but Brookens voted Republican in the 2016 primary. "The only reason I changed the parties was, is because I believed in what Donald Trump had to say. And I did not like the Democratic Party back then. And when I decided to run for mayor back for Barberton, Barberton has always been a democratic town."
According to the Barberton Herald, eighteen of the city’s 30 mayors have been Democrats. And it’s certain the next mayor will be too. No other candidate is on the ballot in November. So whoever wins the primary will take the reins of a city that could use a little magic.