Bell, Wilkowski in full-court press for mayor’s seatWritten by Brandi Barhite | Associate Editor | email@example.com
Wilkowski keeps steady pace in mayoral race
When Keith Wilkowski ran for mayor in 2005, his daughter Emily got married. This time around, his daughter Erica wed.
And if the campaign ends as Wilkowski hopes, the older of his two sons, Greg, will be swapping nuptials when it is time to run for re-election, he said, laughing.
“I am cautiously optimistic,” the Democrat said about Nov. 3. “We have lots of work to do. We need every single day in order to be successful.”
Wilkowski often gets up at 4 a.m. since announcing in December his intention to run for mayor. He’s collected numerous endorsements, including from the Toledo Area UAW CAP Council, the Toledo Federation of Teachers and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur.
“I cannot think of anything that we would do differently,” the Toledo attorney said. “Certainly, there is no perfect campaign, nor any perfect candidate. Overall, I think we have put together a very fundamentally sound organization that has had a professional approach to things. We also use Hart Associates … a top-flight media firm. I am sure that we have made our share of errors, things that didn’t always go as we expected. On the other hand, we finished first in the primary and I think we are on track to finish first in the general.”
With only a few days left to campaign, the 53-year-old continues to hammer out the differences between himself and opponent Mike Bell.
Bell would consider raising taxes. Bell wants a “business advocate,” not an economic development director like the city needs. And Bell is going to take a vacation immediately after the campaign.
“There is a fundamental difference between me and Mike in the issue of jobs,” Wilkowski said. “The mayor of the city has an obligation to provide leadership on that front. It is completely true that the private sector creates jobs, not the public sector, but the public sector has always played a strategic and important role in that process. I understand the tools we have in our toolbox to promote economic development and job creation.”
As Wilkowski pushes his job agenda in the waning days of the campaign, he continues to go door-to-door. He said soliciting comments and advice from Toledoans has reaffirmed his belief that jobs are top priority for Toledo.
“It has been a very gratifying experience. I have learned an awful lot about just how extensive the unemployment problem is. I have talked to lots of people who have dropped off the charts, who aren’t counted anymore,” he said.
Wilkowski hired Josh Thurston, a former north central Ohio regional field director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and the Ohio Democratic Party, to serve as campaign manager.
Thurston said Wilkowski and volunteers have visited more than 20,000 homes.
“We are seeing a lot of people … the face-to-face contact does matter and is pushing them over into our camp,” Thurston said. “Every day, Toledoans are knocking on doors and calling people – it is a consistent outreach … and people are seeing that.”
Wilkowski, who founded and led the group “Toledoans for Obama,” has been surprised at the number of people who have been laid off from good jobs, such as an engineer he met who had lost his job after 29 years.
“It certainly reinforced my belief that Toledo needs to focus intensively on economic development and job creation,” Wilkowski said.
Among the tools he would use to create jobs are the construction of infrastructure, a low and reasonable tax and regulatory environment and obtaining grants to clean up environmentally damaged properties.
Wilkowski has also called for bringing a regional U.S. patent office to Toledo. He wants to offer income tax abatements to people who create patents in targeted industries.
“You would begin to see a big surge in people who are doing patent work; people seeing Toledo as a creative center,” he said.
Another part of his plan includes understanding where the city has the opportunity for industrial development, as well as commercial development and redevelopment.
He believes the creation of infrastructure like roads, bridges, water lines and sewer lines is a powerful development tool, citing his involvement in bringing BAX Global to the Toledo Express Airport.
Wilkowski was city law director from 1990 to 1994, serving as acting city manager at the end of 1993. He was also Lucas County Commissioner from 1989 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.
“I hope that people will understand that we have to get police officers back on the street, firefighters on the job. We need money to repair our roads and all of that flows from jobs,” Wilkowski said.
Wilkowski has devoted the past year to running for office. Losing the primary in 2005 might have been for the better, he said.
“Things have a way of working out and the opportunity to run in this environment, when things are so difficult. I feel so strongly that my background is in sync with what we need now.”
In order to serve, the Wilkowski family has made sacrifices, including closing his law practice in the summer.
“I am living on my savings and my wife works part time as a registered nurse, and we are devoting all of our energies to making this a successful campaign.”
On this particular day, Wilkowski is eating grape leaves at Ferdos Restaurant, a neighborhood restaurant that he and his wife Barb walk to from their home. He was going to talk at his house, but the grandkids were visiting, including the newest addition born in July.
“Really when you are the grandpa, it is not really time-consuming,” he said with a smile.
Wilkowski said it’s been hard when he is characterized as less than personal. He comes across better in person, he said.
“I wish I could sit down and talk with everyone about how we can better Toledo and why I care so deeply about this. I think I have a sense of humor that often doesn’t come through … I am always looking for opportunities to talk to people.”
One of his more personal moments is when he talks about leading groups through the Grand Canyon.
His cousin, Vicki Evans, hiked the Grand Canyon with him in 2007 and 2008. It was during their 2008 hike that she learned he wanted to run for Toledo mayor.
“Keith is so encouraging,” Evans said. “I watched him with people who were ready to give up. He would take people’s backpacks and lighten them up and put [the stuff] into his own.”
Evans was so inspired she left Tucson, Ariz., to become his financial coordinator. The past six months has shown her that Wilkowski is ready to be mayor.
“It has shown me more of his depth of curiosity, his experience,” Evans said.
Just the beginning
Wilkowski isn’t slowing down personally or financially as Nov. 3 approaches. He has outraised and outspent Bell from campaign finance reports thus far..
“Working hard and working smart pays off,” he said. “I said at the beginning that the campaign is going to take $500,000 and hundreds of volunteers.
“We have more work to do. I don’t wish it is over,” Wilkowski said. “I really make the most of each day. Every day is a new opportunity to talk to voters, to listen to voters.”
One of his unique experiences was speaking to the Deaf Club.
“I am speaking, but people aren’t looking at me; they are looking at interpreter and then the interpreter would speak to me.”
Wilkowski said the club was concerned about jobs, too.
“I am going to sound like a broken record. When I was first venturing out going door-to-door, I would say ‘jobs’ and people would start talking. It was reinforcing.”
Marlene Harris-Taylor joined the campaign team as the communications director after getting laid off from her job. Around the time, Wilkowski was announcing he was running for mayor, the corporate communication department at her employer Owens Corning was being downsized “because of the economy like Keith is talking about right now,” she said.
She was figuring out her next move when she began to pay attention to start of Wilkowski’s campaign.
“Marlene and I hit it off really well,” Wilkowski said, but he’s not commenting on possible people who will be tapped for his administration.
“We don’t go through that,” Wilkowski said. “Nobody gets a job until I get one. It is not a good idea to think about filling posts until the election is over.”
Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said if voters compare Wilkowski and Bell, it is clear who is better qualified. Not only does Wilkowski have a detailed plan for the Toledo, he is a Democrat running as a Democrat. Bell is a registered Democrat running as an independent. He also wants to go on vacation after Election Day, Redfern said.
“A Jeep worker today is not thinking about his next vacation, he is thinking if the job he has today, will he have tomorrow. I think Keith strikes a chord with those types of people,” Redfern said.
Bell pushes hard as mayoral race winds down
Mayoral candidate Mike Bell is at The Original Pancake House. It’s his one spare moment to talk before he starts yet another marathon day.
A patron comes into his favorite breakfast place and says, “Hi mayor.” He hopes that’s a sign.
“I am feeling very good about Tuesday, but I am also a realist,” Bell said. “When there are two candidates, there is always the chance you could end up on either side.”
The campaign trail has been rigorous. It’s gotten to the point where he sometimes doesn’t know if it is Tuesday or Saturday.
“You are meeting so many people, you actually, at times, lose track of days because every day is so filled with things,” the 54-year-old said.
But the former Toledo fire chief and state marshal keeps moving.
He made a commitment in March when he announced his intention to run for office — the first elected office of his life.
“When we get to Tuesday or Wednesday morning, I will have absolutely zero regrets because I have done this 110 percent,” Bell said during an Oct. 28 interview.
“I realize that I don’t have full control of the situation from the standpoint that the citizens are the ones who vote for you, but I just want to know that I did my part.”
As Bell sticks to his course, he said opponent Keith Wilkowski has made untrue accusations.
“I have never said I was going to raise taxes and that is the part that is false,” Bell said. “What I said is that I will play inside the perimeter of the budget that is given to me. Now, in saying that, if we have to reduce services, possibly because we don’t have the funding to continue, after that is initiated, if it is uncomfortable for taxpayers, I believe they should have the option to decide.”
The twist, Bell said, is that Wilkowski raised taxes twice when the Democrat was a Lucas County Commissioner more than 20 years ago.
“So when he says that I am the person who is going to tax people, I have absolutely no history of doing that. In fact, I would argue that I have a history of playing inside my budget.”
Bell served 27 years as a Toledo firefighter, 17 years of those as fire chief before retiring and taking the job as state marshal.
One of his many responsibilities as fire chief was to stay within a $51 million budget. The job also taught him how to stay focused.
“When you allow distractions to get in your way, you can actually lose focus and lose track of where you are supposed to be,” Bell said.
Bell stands by his decision to hire a business advocate for the city, something the Wilkowski campaign has disagreed with because it wants an economic development director.
But Bell said the advocate would have a background in economic development and also know how to integrate government and private businesses. The advocate would reach out and listen to businesses, possibly thwarting problems that result in them leaving Toledo.
Bell said the controversy surrounding his own exodus — a vacation on Nov. 4 — took him by surprise. Even President Barack Obama went on vacation after getting elected.
“Why couldn’t the mayor of Toledo do the same?” he said. “On Wed., Nov. 4, I am actually, once again … a retired person who has a large amount of free time,” Bell said. “I never thought the idea of me using my own free time before taking office, which would help me think about the things I need to be able to do, would be such an issue.”
He’s also had to defend his decision to leave the Democrat Party and run as an independent. He’s not tied to anyone in particular and his allegiance is to Toledoans, no one else.
“I have zero regrets. In fact, every day I know it was the right thing to do.”
His niece Shayla Bell works on his campaign as his scheduler. The John Carroll University graduate said the preoccupation with party affiliation during this election has disturbed her.
“At the end of the day, I want to know that you are a man or woman of your word, you do what is best for the people and you conduct yourself in a very positive way,” she said. “I don’t care what you are, just get the job done. It has amazed me how much stress we put on the D, R and I.”
Bell’s strategic plan for the city was created with the help of Steve Cady, a professor at BGSU.
Bell heard about Cady’s expertise in strategic change and met with him. Bell came up with a five-point plan and with Cady’s help hosted meetings with local leaders to add to that plan. The last meeting was Oct. 29.
“It is being used all across the country by the best companies and the best cities to revitalize and reenergize their cities,” Cady said.
The plan has grown to include seven points: ensuring safety, balancing the budget, creating jobs, improving schools, stabilizing neighborhoods, encouraging health and wellness and promoting cultural diversity and attractions.
“I think all seven points are critical, but the four issues that I think are on the top of that are: ensure our safety, balance our budget, create jobs and improve our schools. Only because each one of them is connected with economic growth — if you don’t have a safe city, you are not going to have people moving in and developing it; if we don’t create jobs, we won’t have a tax base, if we don’t become partners with our schools, we don’t have drawing power to bring people into the city.”
Bell said a central theme of his plan is engaging the business community. He has heard too many times that businesses have left or almost left because the city is too difficult to work within.
“People are getting the message that I am attempting to put out and that is the only way we are going to be successful is through unity, not separation.”
Bell said receiving the support of the Leadership Fund, the political action committee of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, meant a lot.
Mark V’Soske, president of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce and treasurer of the Leadership Fund, said it has been a long time since the committee endorsed a candidate, but it felt strongly about Bell.
“Mike has the opportunity to really start fresh, as a fresh person with fresh ideas and not be encumbered with a lot of history and baggage,” V’Soske said. “What we liked about Mike is his willingness to involve a lot of people who haven’t otherwise been involved or ideas haven’t been listened to.”
Bell said he takes the endorsement seriously.
“When you are dealing with private businesses, time is money. If you delay something long enough, they will just move on and then an opportunity for your citizens to actually go work is behind you.”
Bell points to Issue 3, which will allow casino gambling in Ohio. Wilkowski recently decided to support the issue, which would bring jobs to Toledo. Bell has supported it from the beginning.
“If it had been a house fire and it took me as long to make a decision as it did for him on this casino issue … that house would have burnt down,” Bell said.
Bell is approaching the final days of campaigning like he has from the beginning: 110 percent. But he’s also keeping it in perspective.
“It is easier to make decisions in this venue than when you only have a split second to make a career-deciding decision,” Bell said of his safety service days. “The other part is that a wrong answer is not jeopardizing anyone’s life. Although there are major decisions, it is not even in the same category.”
Bell said his personality sets him apart from Wilkowski, something he has demonstrated in several debates.
“People feel very comfortable walking up to me. I think I have a large amount of experience as a leader in command of a larger operation. I have good analytical skills. Also, I can think very rapidly to come to the bottom line of what we need to do.”
Bell said when he’s criticized for “flip-flopping,” that is actually experience.
“If you have been into battle, you know that sometimes you have to switch your strategies in order to guarantee that you are still going to win,” he said. “Only a fool keeps going down a road where they know the outcome isn’t necessarily going to be good.”
Wilkowski recently questioned Bell on his decision to reverse his support of the Toledo Police Patrolman’s Association contract. Bell said when it came out in council, it was pretty a good deal, but a couple of months later, “they were saying this is a bad contract and we shouldn’t have done it.”
“If it was something bad that we shouldn’t have done, then we need we need to figure out how to do this right,” Bell said.
One of the fun parts of his campaign has been family involvement.
“Mom is enjoying being first lady. She has come up with clothes that I haven’t seen ever. She is styling. She is totally enjoying this whole process.”
But since mom only gets one vote, Bell has one last thing to say to voters:
“I have been a time-tested leader who has never let them down. The next four years are extremely critical for turning this city around. When you look into the eyes of either candidate, which one do you truly believe has the ability to lead?”