10 ways Ben Konop can save Toledo if he is elected mayorWritten by Brandi Barhite | Community Ombudsman | firstname.lastname@example.org
10 points in Ben Konop’s candidacy:
1. He says he offers a new direction.
2. He argues he can help attract knowledge-based jobs.
3. He admits he is young, but stresses he is experienced.
4. He wants to establish a scholarship fund.
5. He promises better communication with city council.
6. He promises accessibility.
7. He says he will put public safety first.
8. He says he is not a “good old boy.”
9. He promises he will fight for the under-represented.
10. He says he is a “change agent.”
Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop intends to sink his mayoral opponents the same way he sank three-pointers in high school.
He said no one ever believes the 5-foot-9-inch Democrat played varsity basketball at Ottawa Hills High School or was recruited to play collegiate ball at Emory University in Atlanta, where he earned a varsity letter.
He was too short then, too young to run for mayor now. It’s all just motivation for the 33-year-old Toledo native.
“Having a young mayor would be the most powerful message to the younger generation that Toledo welcomes them,” Konop said, “that there is opportunity for them, someone who understands their situation and someone who is willing to encourage and provide resources to help them succeed.”
Konop said he has “a strong base of young people who are hungry for a new direction.” If elected, he will be the second-youngest mayor in Toledo’s history. Mayor Doug DeGood from the late 1970s would best him by just a few years.
Lisa Brock is one of his supporters on the social networking site Facebook. Konop garnered 1,500 supporters on the site in the two weeks after he announced his bid for mayor March 30.
“I have just recently moved into the city limits and have been here a mere four months,” Brock wrote via Facebook … “I can tell you since I have been here, my trash day has changed three times; I have been interviewed by 13 Action News for having my garbage out on the wrong day and I never had my leaves picked up … I am ready for a change.”
Change is what Konop is offering, but his appeal goes beyond those who are technologically savvy, he said. As commissioner, Konop started the 911 Cell Phones for Seniors program, as well as the Veterans Business Resource Center located at the job bank, The Source. He also prides himself on fighting for the working class.
“I have just tried to represent people outside of Government Center. Like I said, there is this clique — connected folks, the good old boys network, who have their voices heard very clearly and they give a lot of campaign contributions and they get seats on commissions and they get no-bid contracts. They are accounted for; I don’t represent them. I have fought against them.”
Konop said Democrat Keith Wilkowski and Independent Mike Bell — the two candidates he considers his most serious opponents — are not what Toledo needs.
Republican Jim Moody is also running. Konop said he believes, based on polling by his campaign, he is the final major candidate to enter the race; Mayor Carty Finkbeiner will not run , Konop said.
“Frankly, the older generation of politicians, who I think Mr. Wilkowski and Mr. Bell belong to, have had their shot … they have been in power one way or another for 30 years, and look where we are as a community,” he said.
“I am the only candidate who understands the urgency to either adapt or become the next Gary, Ind.”
Konop said he is running for mayor because the economic opportunity that was there for his grandparents and his parents is gone. Many people are to blame, and there’s still no sense of urgency, he said.
Government leaders were complacent, he said, because the auto industry was fairly robust for decades. They “put things on cruise control,” he said, thinking the economy would be fine and tax revenue would still come in — no one established an overarching plan for Toledo.
“I have obviously thought about it long and hard,” Konop said about running for mayor. “For me, it is in many ways a personal reason. This community has been very good to me and to my family.”
He said public safety has to be the highest priority as far as providing government services.
“I don’t think the mayor has handled negotiations with the police union very well, but I think there has to be concessions on the part of the police union as well.
Economic development is right behind public safety, if not equally important.
“You cannot have long-term public safety without jobs,” Konop said. “The numbers just don’t work out. I think of the major candidates; I have the best understanding of where our economy needs to be and how we need to transition our economy into the 21st century.”
Konop said the good-paying jobs of the future are knowledge-based. When he traveled to China, New York City and Atlanta — on his own dime — business leaders inquired about Northwest Ohio’s work force: they wanted the number of attorneys, writers, engineers and computer scientists, he said.
Konop said he is establishing an $80 million scholarship fund for high school graduates and displaced workers. The fund would provide scholarships for the training/education needed to be competitive in the global economy. The money would come from cost-saving measures on the county-level, including the privatization of emergency medical services, he said.
“It’s not enough to be a hard worker anymore,” Konop said. “If it was just about hard work, Toledo would have a very low unemployment rate.”
Konop first became interested in politics after serving as a page in Washington, D.C., before his senior year in high school.
Konop described his job as a “glorified gopher.” It was before the popularity of e-mail, so he spent his days delivering memos and delicately waking up elected officials who were taking naps in the cloakroom.
“It was a fantastic learning experience,” he said. “I got to sit on the floor of the House of Representatives every day for a summer and just watch things unfold.”
Konop said Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who appointed him a page, is a mentor. He worked for Kaptur’s office after his freshman year in college, and then spent the summer at The Blade after his sophomore year. His aunt, Sandy Isenberg, former Toledo city councilwoman and Lucas County commissioner, was involved in politics throughout his life, too.
“I don’t really talk to her about politics very often, if at all,” Konop said. “She is a good aunt in that she takes me out for birthday dinners and buys me a tie here and there and calls to check up on me now and again.”
Isenberg said she did not influence her nephew to run for county commissioner, although explained what the job entailed.
“I am extremely proud of Ben. He has done a wonderful job. He is a very bright, thoughtful, articulate, young man,” she said.
“I certainly plan on helping him any way that I can. I think he brings a new vigor to the campaign and I think he will certainly bring many new ideas … I think he is a great asset to this area and I am glad he is one of the young men who came home.”
Konop almost became one of the casualties of Northwest Ohio. When he left, he wasn’t sure he would return.
Born March 1, 1976, to Alan and Barbara Konop, the boy with one green eye and one brown eye attended Sylvania Schools until his family moved to Ottawa Hills before seventh grade.
Konop enjoyed being an only child, although had the company of three older half-siblings from his father’s first marriage. He had four half-siblings, but his oldest brother, who suffered from a mental illness, committed suicide when Konop was in grade school.
“I have spoken publicly about it because I think it is important that people know it is a serious problem in our society,” he said.
Konop graduated from Ottawa Hills High School in 1994 and left for Emory University in Atlanta, where he received a bachelor’s in history and English, also studying history and literature at Oxford University in England. He graduated with his law degree from the University of Michigan in 2000. His father is a longtime Toledo attorney who also graduated from Michigan.
“Becoming an attorney was his choice,” his father said. “I think it is very healthy that he made a choice totally independent of his parents.”
Dad said the young Konop was always interested in politics, although no one thought he would one day run for mayor.
“We were obviously very happy to have him come home,” he said. “We were always happy to see him enthused about doing positive things in Toledo and Lucas County.”
Konop once dreamed of becoming a shortstop for the Detroit Tigers or a point guard for the Wolverines. Although he played Division III basketball in college, the game was over after that.
“My dad is originally from Detroit,” Konop said. “He raised me a huge Michigan fan … I knew that the Tigers wasn’t going to work out when I first saw a curve ball thrown at me; and when I stopped growing at 5 foot 9 inches, I realized I wasn’t going to be point guard for the Michigan Wolverines,” he said, laughing.
In 2001, Konop moved to D.C. and began to practice corporate law at Fulbright & Jaworski, one of the largest law firms in the country. Konop was leaning toward a job in public service when Kaptur asked him to run against incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Oxley in Republican 4th Congressional District in Ohio.
“It was out of thin air. I hadn’t even thought about it for one second,” Konop said.
He took three days to consider the offer.
“Any political race I run after that will seem relatively easy,” Konop said. “That district has 12 counties, all Republican counties — it goes from Mansfield to almost Dayton.”
Konop lost, but was the first federal Democratic candidate since 1932 to carry Allen County.
“It was a moral victory,” he said.
Back in Toledo
After his 2004 defeat, Konop returned to Toledo as a full-time visiting law professor at UT in the 2005-06 school year.
A self-proclaimed urban pioneer, he bought a condo in the Toledo Warehouse District.
It was nice to be home, even if most of the people he grew up with had left.
“As mayor, I could communicate that to my generation. I know what it is like to live in a big city. I know there are some things you cannot replicate, but here are the advantages of living in Toledo. I am someone who can make the case because I have done it.”
His mortgage is less than his rent in D.C. and square-footage wise, his garage in Toledo is larger than his entire apartment in Washington.
“I love where I live. I love being able to walk to the baseball stadium, walk to The Blarney, walk to the Erie Street Market … it is a really cool place to live, and I couldn’t have afforded that in D.C.”
His decision to run for county commissioner was not calculated. When it became fairly clear to him that Maggie Thurber would not seek reelection, he declared his candidacy.
“Things just kind of pop up and opportunities present themselves,” he said.
He went on to beat Toledo City Councilman George Sarantou in the general election, although the campaign would come back to haunt him. Konop had made a pledge to fulfill his four-year term if elected county commissioner. He will have served three of four years if elected mayor.
“I am the best candidate to take our community in a new direction,” Konop said. “That was my calculus in evaluating my pledge. It was an equation. What is in the best interest of the community?”
Konop keeps the written pledge in his office at One Government Center. The pledge includes other promises that he said he has kept, including being open and accessible; donating his income from teaching at UT to a scholarship; and implementing evening meetings so working people can attend.
“You can look at the entire pledge and that is not a bad record,” he said.
Time is right
Konop said he wouldn’t have a good case to run for mayor if Toledo was performing better. In addition to a high unemployment rate, foreclosures are through the roof and Toledo residents have some of highest personal debts in the country, he said
To help alleviate the city’s budget deficit, Konop has proposed a short-term merger of five city and county departments like building inspection, economic development and IT, which would save an estimated $5 million to $7 million, he said.
Konop doesn’t want to be a career politician. He wants to be mayor now because this is when his city needs him. In the future, he would consider a job as an inner-city teacher or a high school or college basketball coach.
“I could not imagine myself being in politics for 30 years,” he said. “I think it is very hard to maintain a sense of integrity, a sense of understanding of what people want.”
Konop said if elected mayor he would take steps to improve the relationship between city council and the mayor. He said lack of communication between council members and the mayor is a serious problem, and a reason for the haphazard approach to police layoffs and negotiations.
As mayor he would appear in front of council each week for one hour and invite the public and labor unions to ask questions.
“That is a very tangible first step in fostering better communication,” he said.
As commissioner, Konop said he is proud of being a change agent. He demanded accountability from the Lucas County Improvement Corporation, which angered a lot of the good old boys, he said.
“I think my fight to bring more accountability and results to the board have paid off.”
He’s disappointed several proposals to create jobs in the county have been outvoted 2 to 1.
“I wish I could have done a better job of convincing my colleagues to go along with it,” Konop said. “I will take some responsibility for that.”
He also accepts responsibility for driving without car insurance because of what he calls a “clerical error.” It’s a mistake that didn’t lead to his license suspension, but plenty of headlines. The attention — the good and the bad — is something Konop knows is part of the job.
Konop also took some heat when he replaced his black female assistant, Gabrielle Seay, with a white male, former Blade reporter Joe Vardon.
“My former employee is still an employee,” Konop said of her reassignment. He said he doesn’t think it is proper to vent personnel issues in public.
“She did a great job, nothing based on her performance. It was a mutually agreed-upon move,” he said.
But for all the negative attention, he also receives encouragement.
“I get a lot of young people who come up to thank me for what I am doing and give me their support,” Konop said.
“I have made mistakes. I don’t have all the answers. I probably don’t even have most of the answers. What I do represent and what my record speaks to is that I am a serious challenger to the status quo, and the status quo is not working for Toledo, Ohio.”
If Konop doesn’t win the mayoral race, he would have to decide immediately about kicking off a 2010 re-election campaign for Lucas County commissioner.
But he’s not worried.
“I think it is a campaign that I will win,” he said. “I am very optimistic … the overall sentiment is that people are really ready for a serious, new direction and fresh start for Toledo.”
ON THE COVER: Ben’s 10 — The animated series “Ben 10,” in which Ben fights evil forces through bold and imaginative plans of action, inspired this week’s homage cover, illustrated by Toledo Free Press Graphic Designer Kelly Heuss.