Bell seeks to ride to the rescueWritten by Brandi Barhite | Associate Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
To his parents, it’s just Mike — Michael when he’s in trouble. But they also think “Mayor Mike Bell” has a nice ring to it. It sounds even better than fire chief or state fire marshal.
Norman and Ora Bell talk about their 54-year-old son like he’s still a boy growing up on Stickney Avenue.
The Bells are inside his home on Hopewell Place. Their son — the mayoral candidate — is away.
Days earlier, Bell shared his reason for running for mayor, and it has a familial ring to it.
“The reason I want to come back isn’t about me. It is about the city. It is about turning it around. It is about my family, my parents who live in the North End,” he said. “Everything I have learned, I have learned from the City of Toledo, so I think I have some valuable skills that I can give back that will help change the look of the city and to get people to work together toward a common cause.”
But on this particular day Bell is gone, and stories about his days working at a bakery and disliking it, spill out.
As does the time they didn’t want him to ride his Harley to a biker rally in Sturgis, S.D. and their “free spirit” ended up in California. Not to mention Bell didn’t even want to become a firefighter.
“I thought there would be a future with the City of Toledo as opposed to the job he had with the railroad,” his father said. “He was complaining about the railroad, so I said, ‘Give it some consideration,’ and he was rebellious for a while.”
In 1990, when Bell became the youngest fire chief in Toledo, as well as the first black chief, Dad couldn’t have been prouder.
Now that his son is running for mayor, the 76-year-old is his campaign treasurer.
“He has all the skills that are needed and will be able to direct the city in a very positive manner,” Norman said.
“He just didn’t walk off the street to apply for the mayor’s position,” Ora said. “He has been groomed through his previous employment and he definitely brings with him a commitment, the skills, and I also think that he will add pizzazz.”
The pizzazz she talks about isn’t something Bell will shed during the campaign, he said.
“I enjoy life. You might see me someplace listening to blues, rock, Motown or you might see me with a cowboy hat, listening to country western,” he said. “I appreciate life and I think it is from being a firefighter. It is from being a paramedic. It is from having the people you are working on looking you in the eye and by the time you leave the scene, they are dead. You realize how fragile life is.”
Bell has never been married and has no children. Some people think a married mayor with children signals stability, he said. Bell is asking voters to consider this: “I have been trusted with people’s lives for the past 30 years.”
Speculation over whether Bell would run for mayor has circulated for months. For Bell, it wasn’t something he immediately considered after retiring as fire chief and being appointed state marshal in 2007.
“Was it always the plan? No. But from a standpoint of a person who has always been involved with civic duty, this is probably the next plateau in being able to help a large portion of people,” he said.
Bell officially announced his intention to seek the mayoral job March 25. He is running as an independent, despite his roots as a Democrat. Democrat Keith Wilkowski and Republican Jim Moody are also running.
“I believe the people in this community don’t really care what you are as long as you are prepared to work for them,” Bell said.
He is giving up his state marshal position to return to the city and campaign full time. His resignation is effective April 10, although as marshal he returned to Toledo almost every weekend, he said.
“My commitment is very much similar to the pig for the farmer’s breakfast,” Bell said. “When the chicken commits its egg to the farmer’s breakfast, it is a partial commitment. When the hog commits to the farmer’s breakfast, it is a total commitment. The hog has to give its life. I am totally committed.”
Kimberly Zurz, director of the Ohio Department of Commerce, thanked Bell for his work.
“The Division of State Fire Marshal has benefited greatly from his dedication and leadership,” she said in a statement. “We appreciate the work Marshal Bell has done to improve relationships with the fire service throughout the state and wish him well on his future endeavors.”
Bell acknowledged if he loses his bid for mayor, he’s out a job. He’ll take the risk for Toledo.
“We are at a crossroads,” he said. “We have the ability right at this time to decide which way we are going to go. When people ask me why I would want to be mayor, I say, ‘What better time to want to be mayor when things seem their darkest?’ ”
Bell is focusing on issues he believes are crucial to the future of Toledo. Balancing the city budget; saving and creating jobs; preserving home values and stabilizing neighborhoods; and protecting people’s safety.
“I have an idea, a concept, but I am one citizen in this city out of over 300,000,” Bell said. “And there are people who have lived in this city longer who have various expertise that I believe will be extremely helpful toward formulating that direction.”
Bell said he would like Toledo to be similar to Indianapolis. Twenty years ago, the Indiana capital was not a point of destination, but at some point, that city, county and region decided to change how it did business. Toledo needs to do the same, he said.
Determining what the city wants starts with sitting down with a group of people who care about the destiny of the city, county and region and coming up with a strategic plan that will work — not a bunch of words — but something that can actually be achieved and benchmarking those goals.
“I am able to make people feel very comfortable to be around me,” Bell said. “I take my ego out of everything that I do, so if we decide to work together, it is about the issues, it is not about the person sitting in the mayor’s seat.”
Brian Epstein, former chairman of EPIC, Engaging People Inspiring Change, said Toledo needs someone like Bell.
“Mike is finally that leadership,” Epstein said. “It is not about him; it is about the region and pulling the right people together to accomplish the goals.”
Bell was born in Alexandria, La., and lived with his dad’s mom for the first five years of his life, while the rest of his family settled in Toledo.
It was a time when blacks had better job opportunities in the North, which his parents were seeking, he said.
“Coming up here was a bit of a switch. I can remember back to when I was 3 and 4 years old and living with my grandma in Baton Rouge, back in the time when you couldn’t ride in the front of the bus.”
Bell also remembers his grandma’s Cajun cooking. Meals that cost $20 to $30 in a restaurant, he was eating every night at his grandma’s house. She would take a pail and select fresh — and sometimes live — seafood from the vendors on the street. It wasn’t unusual for Bell to see Grandma tackling a lobster in the kitchen.
Bell said his grandma ran a nursery, which helped him develop socially. He liked having all the toys to himself when the children left for the day, he recalled, laughing.
“You had to be behaved and treat kids well. Those things stick with you all of your life.”
More life lessons would follow.
Bell grew up on Stickney Avenue, where his parents still live today. Both of his parents are college educated, which they encouraged with all four of their boys.
Bell, the eldest, attended Woodward High School, graduating with fellow mayoral opponent Wilkowski in 1973. During Government Day, Bell said he was mayor.
“My dad and mom have never doubted our capacity to reach for the stars and be anyone we wanted to be,” Bell said. “If we were going to work at McDonald’s — and I did work at McDonald’s — figure out how to run the place; if you are going to be a truck driver, figure out how to run the company someday; if you are going to be a firefighter, figure out how to be a fire chief someday.”
Father knows best
The college football team captain, and one of the first male cheerleaders for UT, graduated in 1978 with a degree in education. His focus was on park administration and natural resources.
“I am thinking I am getting out of here, heading to California, Nevada — somewhere on that side,” Bell said. “Not because it was factually better, but of how it was marketed — part of the problem for Toledo.”
But before he could move, his dad encouraged firefighting.
“He knew I liked action, that I wouldn’t be totally comfortable sitting a desk.”
Bell quickly realized firefighting was for him. Dad was right.
“I didn’t think I would be out there putting a tube down someone’s throat, or going and diving in water for bodies.”
His 16 years in the fire chief position weren’t without controversy, including a gender-bias suit that will likely go to trial during the mayoral campaign. Three women allege that officials did nothing when co-workers used sexually demeaning language and committed verbal abuse.
“I believe I treated all employees as fairly as possible as an administrator,” Bell said. “But all city employees are entitled to due process, and I certainly support their right to move forward on that basis.”
Fire Capt. Jim Martin, Local 92 president, said as director of one of the largest city departments for 16 years, Bell is certainly qualified to be mayor.
“I don’t see any reason not to endorse him,” Martin said. “I think he would be a great ambassador for the City of Toledo.”
Bell said his experience with the fire department will play into being mayor, in particular his delegation skills and ability to create a team to address issues facing this community.
“The thing that makes this job a little bit easier is that when you are making a decision at that particular second, no one’s life is on the line,” he said.
The hardest times are when young children die, a subject Bell addresses carefully because of surviving family members.
“The grief at the scene … the grieving that the firefighters are doing for the family. It does stick with you for the rest of your life.”
These experiences will help Bell keep the daily challenges of the mayor in perspective, he said.
“King Kong.” Those two words follow Bell to this day.
In May 2006, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner referred to Bell as King Kong during a staff meeting.
Finkbeiner clarified he was referring to Bell’s strength and it was not meant as a racial slur.
Bell said little about the incidence at the time and expressed no outrage, which angered some in the black community. If he could do it over again, he wouldn’t.
“When you are in situations like that, once they become media issues, they are blown out of proportion, and people can look at it in a million different ways,” he said. “But deep down you know who you are and what you are doing is a lot bigger at times than your own individual self.
“Reliving that particular experience, to do something that would have played the race card, I think would have been totally inappropriate. Not only for myself, but for this community. Only Carty knows what he meant by it, and we will just have to leave it at that.”
Deciding to run as an independent meant leaving behind his strong allegiance to the Democrat Party.
Bell said political parties play a part of history, but people are the ones who get things done.
“I have voted on the person, based on what I thought they could do. You got to trust that when you give your vote that the person is going to come through for you,” he said.
Toledo City Councilman D. Michael Collins is the only independent on council.
“I guess my feeling is that it is probably a strategy that Mr. Bell is using and only he and his internal campaign people can probably address the rationale behind it.”
For Collins, being an independent has been a lifelong commitment, although he doesn’t find council particularly partisan.
“I have an open dialogue, and we do not discuss political persuasions,” Collins said.
Bell said as mayor he would treat council members like a board.
“Why wouldn’t you have the other 12 people who are elected helping you with decisions? It is going to impact them as politically as the mayor.”
Bell said all city leaders brings their own personality to the table. But if they don’t have the ability to reach out to people when they become mayor, it doesn’t become any easier.
Bell has worked under three mayors, Finkbeiner twice, and he has learned from each of them. He described John McHugh as politically astute; Finkbeiner as very passionate; and Jack Ford as a person who is truly caring.
“I have known no other service for last 30-plus years than public service, so to be at the end of the tunnel where you can actually make final decisions on issues that may last a lifetime, I think it would be, one, a great honor and two, it carries a great amount of responsibility,” Bell said.
“I would love to be mayor. I think I would do an excellent job. But my success isn’t tied to becoming mayor. I just want to see our city succeed, and if I am unsuccessful and I challenge enough people to get in the race where this city wins, I will still feel good.”
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