Wilkowski promises to ‘turn Toledo around’Written by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | firstname.lastname@example.org
Yes, he can.
Democratic candidate Keith Wilkowski believes he can win the race to become Toledo’s next mayor. He believes his leadership style is what Toledo needs. He believes his campaign will be the best grassroots effort the city has ever seen.
How does he know? Just like he knew that a little-known senator had the potential to become the next president of the United States. Wilkowski founded and led the group “Toledoans for Obama” when the presidential candidate, who turned “Yes, we can” into a historic victory, was 30 points down in the polls.
“It was a wonderful campaign,” said 53-year-old Wilkowski. “Just as wonderful was seeing everyone come together after that nominating fight was done and seeing the appeal that he had across the aisle. I think he is trying to continue to do that and reach out to people. That is a leadership style that is close to my heart.
“We need to be working together, but we need to be working on the right kinds of things,” he said. “To express good feelings is one thing, but you’ve got to have the substance to back it up. That is where I offer myself as someone who has dealt with economic development and how that is done and how that is done successfully because we need it now more than ever. We have lost so many people in the city; we have lost so many businesses. We’ve got to do things differently in order to turn that around, and I think we can.”
When Wilkowski ran for mayor in 2005, he started his campaign a mere 89 days before the primary election. He finished third by a few percentage points, calling it a “great effort, but we probably started a little too late.” He believes if he had started a little earlier, he would have made it to the general election.
“I have lived here all of my life and I think the city needs help. I think there are lots of people who are willing to pitch in and give that help if you have the right leadership to bring people together. I think that I have had that kind of experience in my life that would allow me to do that,” he said.
“From 2005, the desire to provide leadership for Toledo has never left me. I talked with a lot of people, most importantly with my wife and members of my family. I was pleased with the amount of support that was offered to me.”
This time around, Wilkowski is using the proven success of the Obama campaign as his road map. He hired Josh Thurston, a former north central Ohio regional field director for both Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the Ohio Democratic Party, to serve as campaign manager.
“One week after the November election, we had our first get-together,” Wilkowski said. “One hundred and fifty people showed up on a rainy night to talk about changing Toledo … I am really proud of our ability to engage people and get people working.”
Wilkowski has raised more than $120,000 for his campaign so far.
“Like President Obama, Keith Wilkowski understands that elections are won one face-to-face conversation at a time,” Thurston said in a statement. “We’ve already signed up hundreds of volunteers and we’re mobilizing neighborhood teams in every corner of the city. Central to our ground game is Keith himself, who will be knocking on thousands of doors in the coming months.”
Wilkowski admits his mistakes, too. When campaign materials were published in Cleveland, he didn’t shy away from explaining. The company has a Perrysburg office and that is where he thought they would be published.
“I own that. That should not have happened. I am an advocate of buying local, and we didn’t do the job on that one, and I will make sure that that does not happen in the future.”
Wilkowski has not been coy about the fact that he wants to provide leadership for Toledo, in particular during these difficult economic times. This is as bad as it has been in his lifetime, but he rejects the mindset that it will get worse.
“Toledo is not immune from national forces, but neither is it so completely at the mercy of national forces that we can’t create our own destiny. We can create our own destiny. It begins with understanding economic development and understanding change there.
“We are the masters of our fate,” he said.
Agent of change
Wilkowski said he is not a career politician. He is a hometown boy who wants to turn Toledo around, as his campaign has stated time and time again. He claims to have no opinion on who will be his toughest opponents in the mayoral race. So far, only Republican Jim Moody has announced he is running for mayor.
“I know that what distinguishes me from the names that have been offered: my background and my focus on economic development and job creation. I have actually done it,” Wilkowski said. “I have gone out and forged those agreements that have led to jobs that have led to greater economic development.”
Wilkowski works as an attorney for Vassar, Dills, Dawson & Bonfiglo, and served as city law director from 1990 to 1994, serving as acting city manager at the end of 1993. He was also Lucas County Commissioner from 1988 to 1990, leaving office to take the position of city law director. He served as the chairman of the Lucas County Democratic Party from 1994 to 1997.
Wilkowski brings with him extensive experience in local government law, land use and litigation. He has served as the chief legal officer for the City of Rossford and the Village of Waterville. Wilkowski has also represented public school districts, counties and other units of local government. He also has represented the owners of Block Communications.
How can Wilkowski define himself as the change Toledo needs if he has served in political office before?
“I think very clearly what I offer to Toledo is the right kind of change. We have had a leadership style that has been combative and confrontational, unable to work with our neighbors. One of the very positive things that I brought to public service, in my prior positions, was forging economic development agreements with other communities.”
Wilkowski pointed to helping bring Burlington to the Toledo Airport, which included making unique concessions for the company to build here, he said. As law director, he helped settle a longstanding dispute among Toledo, Maumee and Monclova Township over land that Toledo bought in the 1980s in Monclova. The solution was a joint economic development zone agreement, which allowed all government entities to derive tax benefits from the property, which is now owned by private parties.
“You don’t need to fight; you don’t need to have big arguments about where this development is going to go. It should go to the best place for the business, and then the jurisdictions can share in those benefits,” Wilkowski said.
“The businesses should be locating where it is best and makes the most sense … and we shouldn’t be fighting over those issues, those artificial lines. We also have to understand that Toledo has lost people and has lost businesses over the course of decades. We need to have people and businesses wanting to do business here in Toledo. Moving jobs from Toledo to Perrysburg Township is not economic development; it is not growth.”
Wilkowski said the greatest majority of jobs are going to come from new businesses. The second will come from the expansion of existing businesses. It is unwise pinning all hope on attracting some big company from another part of the country to come here and bring 5,000 jobs.
“It is pretty obvious that I am a Wilkowski supporter,” said Toledo councilman Joe McNamara. “What I like about his leadership style is that he is creative and inclusive. He encourages people to generate ideas and he is good at resolving conflict.”
McNamara also points to Wilkowski’s background as a former law director and experience in urban policy. He was drafting joint economic development zone agreements before that option even existed, the councilman said. Calling the mayoral candidate an “insatiable reader of urban policies,” McNamara said Wilkowski’s “combination of political, legal and urban planning experience makes him what Toledo needs.”
Wilkowski is an ardent supporter of the philosophies of Jane Jacobs, who wrote, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” One of the many themes of the book is how cities are built or rebuilt. The keepers of the peace are not police officers, but people themselves. “It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves,” Jacobs wrote.
Wilkowski presented a copy of the book to Obama when the candidate visited Toledo. Wilkowski told Obama he was holding the most important book about rebuilding cities. Standing 20 feet away from him, Obama asked, “Is that Jane Jacobs?”
“We have a president who gets it. I got a kind, personal letter from him afterward, thanking me for the book,” Wilkowski said. “When I am mayor, I am going to look forward to forging a real partnership with the federal government and the Obama Administration to rebuild Toledo.”
One place to start rebuilding is Downtown. Wilkowski wants to make Downtown Toledo interesting, and not just on special occasions. He would like to see a series of street performers, using students who are musically inclined. He also wants new life for what he calls “mini downtowns” on Lagrange, Dorr, Main and Broadway Streets
“Look for a department of land use and transportation,” if elected, Wilkowski said. “Our transportation policy right now consists of the following question: How many parking spaces does that take? When we think of transportation, we think of only cars and parking spaces. We need to make public transit easy to use and welcoming.”
Toledo councilman Tom Waniewski said in tough economic times, the major issue is what the city does with its limited resources. He suspects that dilemma will dominate this year’s mayoral race. Waniewski supports maintaining the basics like police, fire and providing safe and smooth roads.
“I had lunch with Keith, and we talked about this. My opinion goes back to the basics. Quality-of-life issues are important and they are important to Keith, and this is where Keith and I disagree. Let people decide their own quality of life.”
Let it shine
Wilkowski said the future of Toledo is bright if it capitalizes on alternative-energy like solar, wind and bio-fuels.
“We have more than 6,000 solar-related jobs here in Northwest Ohio,” Wilkowski said. “This is not pie in the sky or something that may happen in the future; this is real and it is a large part of our future in a diverse economy.
“Sadly, despite all the attention the City of Toledo has received for solar – there are 25 cities in country that are designated by the U.S. Department of Energy as Solar America Cities – Toledo is not one of them.”
He said Toledo was overlooked because it is not actively engaged in promoting the solar industry.
“You can go to our zoning and planning code and you won’t find solar mentioned, and you won’t find wind mentioned as alternative- energy facilities and how to build them. What we should be doing is revising those codes so that we are giving some incentives in order to construct them, so that the process of approval is expedited. Developers care about time, how long it takes to develop things. Our codes don’t even speak to that – much less provide an expedited review process.”
Wilkowski said society undervalues people who work with their hands, and one of the advantages of the alternative-energy industry is that it encompasses occupations from researcher to engineer to the manufacturer to the installer. Also, because of the industry’s developing nature, it would not stray far from research institutions like UT. Jobs would not be shipped to China or Mexico, he said.
One incentive he would like to offer as mayor is anyone who receives a patent involving the alternative-energy industry would not have to pay income taxes. He also wants an incentive for people to have solar panels installed on their home.
Wilkowski said the Obama Administration will make funds available to help manufacturing communities like Toledo transition to centers of alternative energy. He wants to hire a person locally to coordinate applying for and receiving those funds.
“I am confident that we are going to have an ongoing commitment from this Obama Administration to those kind of programs because it is not just stimulating the economy; it is a matter of our security and stopping our dependency on foreign oil.”
In September, Wilkowski proposed putting solar panels at the former Dura landfill to generate electricity for the city and promote the solar energy industry.
In January, council voted 11-0 to authorize the Finkbeiner administration to spend $65,000 from Toledo’s 2009 capital improvement budget to design and engineer the project.
Councilman McNamara wanted council to dedicate as much as $200,000 for the solar field at the capped Dura landfill, although the measure was revised to eliminate a specific site and reduce the funding.
“People look for and political leaders lull them into thinking, if we just build this one big project over here, then boy, it will solve all of our problems,” Wilkowski said. “Well, the arena, the Mud Hens stadium and the Marina District are all good, but none of those individual projects will be our salvation. The work is much harder than that; it involves more people than that and it is far more rewarding and sustaining than that.”
North End boy
Wilkowski grew up in the North End, playing at Wilson Park and graduating from Woodward High School in 1973. The second of three children, he refers to himself as the “well-adjusted middle child.”
Back in the 1950s, ‘60s and even ’70s, the expectation was that you would go to work at Jeep because it was in the neighborhood.
“Both of my parents were public school teachers; both graduated from BGSU. My father went onto night law school at UT and began practicing law on Lagrange Street. I was blessed to come from a family that stressed education, reading and community involvement. It had been placed into me at a young age, and I had a great example in looking at my father who was involved in the public arena.”
Originally, the young Wilkowski wanted to be a veterinarian until he ran into organic chemistry. He ended up a history major and after graduating from The Ohio State University was deciding between law school and grad school, eventually attending UT College of Law.
When he graduated from Ohio State in 1977, he took a year off and began working as a busboy at the Hungry I restaurant in Toledo. That is where he met his wife, the former Barb Martel, who was a waitress with a degree in sociology and social work. “Jobs were scarce,” Wilkowski said, relating to the frustration of today’s job seeker.
“The advice I got was it is always easier to get a job if you got a job. Whatever it is, there is value in work, whether it is busing tables or waiting tables. It is not always about what it gets you later. You need to find that value now, and working at a restaurant, that was important work. You certainly learn service; you learn to be on your toes; people are demanding. I think I am someone who appreciates good service. I am in the service business as a lawyer, and as the mayor, I understand I am in the ultimate service business.”
Barb quickly realized her boyfriend’s interest in politics, mainly because of his father, the late State Representative Art Wilkowski. But flowers, not politics, won her over. Wilkowski is romantic, she said, sending her flowers all the time when they were dating and even still today.
“I just know that he really wants the opportunity to lead this city and he really believes he can make a difference, and I believe he can too. He wants this opportunity. I support him in that. We both have always supported each other’s dreams.”
Barb became a stay-at-home mom soon after giving birth to the first of their four children, later attending night school to become a registered nurse. The couple is no stranger to getting by, either. They have been married 30 years and thrifty for many of them.
“We were the last of our friends to get a microwave,” she said.
The house they raised their family in became the center of a national story on Oct. 15, 2005. The North Toledo riots took place in front of their old home at the corner of Mulberry Street and Central Avenue.
“One of the things I am very concerned about is making sure we continue to reach out to young people and give them opportunities like I had,” Wilkowski said. “Toledo is in my blood through and through.”
Starting his first mayoral campaign too late is a regret that quickly comes to mind. But with further contemplation, he realizes that really means nothing at all. His deepest regret is not talking to his father about death in the days before he died of congestive heart failure.
“He clearly wanted to, and me and my siblings didn’t want to; we kept saying it was going to be fine.”
Wilkowski will not make that mistake with his family and has already talked to his children about death. He has hiked the Grand Canyon with each of them, Erica, Emily, Greg and Joe.
“Annually, I hike the Grand Canyon. I have been doing that for eight, nine years. Most recently, last summer, I hiked from the north rim to the south rim. I led a group of friends.”
The first time he hiked the Grand Canyon, it wasn’t planned. A buddy and he were heading north to Montana but were advised by Wilkowski’s uncle to head south because of the weather.
“You probably wouldn’t think of me as an outdoor person, but I can treat my own water, I know how to survive difficult situations,” he said.
Even a mayoral race?
“Toledo’s neighborhoods are in me, all the way down to the parks and the streets with our many, many potholes,”
Wilkowski said. “I feel like I know Toledo and I know the difficulties we have and I know the potential that we have.”