City Council President McNamara reflects on politics, father’s legacyWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A black binder, a couple of inches thick, is a mainstay on Councilman Joe McNamara’s desk at home.
But this is no ordinary binder. Graying campaign literature, yellowed newspaper clippings and typewritten campaign advice are bound together between its worn flaps.
The pages stack atop each other like the thinning guts of a library book that has lived through decades of use. This is a relic of 1978. A handbook Dan McNamara — Joe’s father — relied on during his campaign for county auditor. And it is the foundation upon which the recently elected president of City Council has grown.
McNamara was 6 years old when his father died. The then county auditor was driving Joe to see the movie “The Golden Seal” when another car’s tire was flung off its axle, soared through the McNamara’s windshield and killed him. That was 1983.
But Dan McNamara is still guiding his son today, whether through the pages in that binder, through campaign trail memories or simply through Joe’s visions of playing in leaf piles alongside his father.
His father was a Republican. Joe is a Democrat. But he senses a parallel set of core beliefs and love of public service that has lasted through the decades. Becoming more transparent to taxpayers was a major goal for both of them. In the 1980s for Dan, that meant getting better copy machines and having public records more easily available. Today, that means leading the effort to post City Council meetings on an Internet server, for which McNamara can take credit.
“When I read [the 1978 campaign manual] for the first time, I felt a very strong connection to my dad and what he believes,” McNamara said. “The desire to serve the public to the best of your ability is universal and is apolitical.”
That desire pulled McNamara into politics in 2006, dragged him through a devastating recession, lured him to run for an Ohio Senate position and planted him in the Council president seat twice. He has now been on Council longer than most other members.
McNamara’s career began as an attorney with a heavy emphasis on election law, having graduated from the University of Michigan and the New York University School of Law. He served as trustee of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and as a board member of the Greater Toledo Urban League before he joined City Council. He said he always had an inkling that he wanted to follow his father’s lead into politics.
Council unanimously elected McNamara president during Tuesday’s meeting. This means a pressing schedule of bridging communication between the mayor’s office and Council members, setting the agenda for meetings, maintaining office hours and representing the city if the mayor is unable.
And, of course, guiding Council members into a majority decision — a task that can feel like “herding cats,” as Councilman Rob Ludeman, (R) fondly described it. Ludeman was council president from January 2006 to August 2007. He said the unanimous vote in favor of McNamara is a testament to the Council’s trust that McNamara has and will continue to work across party lines.
McNamara has learned the meaning of bipartisanship during his six-year experience on Council, he said. The economic downturn only made that more crucial. Income tax collections were at their highest in 2007, totaling about $169 million. But just a year later — when the economy soured — collections dropped by more than 10 percent, only to continue sinking by almost another 10 percent in 2009.
A “necessary evil” step that he led was to propose that budget allocations be made more fluid in times of deep economic strife. The original formula is that one third of city income taxes goes toward police and fire, another third goes toward the general fund and the last third goes toward capital improvements such as maintaining roads. In the past, voters have approved moving money from the capital improvement fund to the general fund.
McNamara said he knows this is not a permanent solution because it means less infrastructure maintenance, but that he’s pushing for voters to approve the measure again in March.
Income tax collection numbers have started to pick up since 2010, and the city projects about $154 million in revenue from city income taxes for 2012. McNamara said he thinks there will soon be money to fill the gap.
But there is an inescapable challenge looming.
“The bottom line is that the gains we’ve made in income tax were taken away because of Gov. Kasich’s decision to cut local government funding,” he said.
Local government funding from the state has shrunk to $12.9 million compared to $17.9 million in 2008.
Balancing the budget is probably Toledo’s biggest hurdle, McNamara said. Doing so is forcing him to compromise — a balanced budget won’t be possible without union concessions in the near future, he said.
“That’s a hard thing to say being a pro-labor Democrat.”
Wilma Brown, the most recent Council president, said those compromises are the toughest part of the president’s role. She said she herself presided over a decision she didn’t want to make, but was necessary given the budget. Under Brown, Council voted to decrease benefits and pay to union employees in unilateral concessions for the 2010 budget. McNamara voted against that.
“No matter what you do, people are not going to understand,” Brown said. “You have to do the best job that you can but you do have to come home and go to sleep at night.”
McNamara said he wants Toledo to understand one of his most passionate goals: sustainable energy. One of his proudest accomplishments is authoring legislation to set up a solar field to partially fuel the water treatment plant. The field was completed about a year ago.
McNamara also started the Toledo Energy Policy Committee to push for renewable energy sources, which recommended that the city hire staff for Toledo Public Power — an alternative energy-focused committee of utility department employees. Toledo Public Power has one client right now but the goal is to support multiple businesses, not only advocating for clean resources but keeping energy costs low.
Holding the presidential seat will have its drawbacks because he has to let go of some of his autonomy in the interest of communicating with Council members and gaining a majority decision, McNamara said.
However, his new position gives him more leverage in policy making.
“I think honestly it’s going to be good for Mayor [Mike] Bell,” he said. “The mayor has made mistakes. What this job allows me to do is steer us away from making needless mistakes.”
McNamara disagreed with Bell’s outspoken approach to Senate Bill 5, which would have restricted union rights. McNamara said he thought Bell’s public support of the bill was not a good use of the administration’s time and resources given the dire financial problems in the budget and the heavy union influence in Toledo.
Mayor Bell said that while the two have disagreed, he thinks the new president will do well because McNamara has always tried to be balanced.
“From what I’ve seen he’s always attempted to be fair,” Bell said.
Brown and Ludeman both said they think McNamara will fill the position wisely.
Brown, who started on City Council in 1997, was re-elected twice and recently stepped down due to term limits, said she has watched McNamara grow.
“At one time, he thought he knew the way out of everything,” she said. “He’s mellowed and I think now he understands that there are things we have to do that we might not always want to do.”
McNamara had a humbling career experience in 2010, when he ran against and lost to Edna Brown in the primaries for the Ohio Senate District 11 seat. He was City Council president at the time but stepped down to campaign.
“I tried it and it didn’t work, so that’s life,” he said. “I think I learned a lot from that loss. It’s important to take time to learn and be the best you can at the job you’re doing and show the voters you are working hard for them and not just jumping from office to office.”
As McNamara prepares for his second term as president, he wills his father’s memory to guide him. Ludeman was friends with McNamara’s father and said he viewed Dan as a “tremendous” auditor.
“I think Joe exhibits a lot of the common sense that I remember in his dad,” Ludeman said.
Perhaps it all started when McNamara’s father took him on the campaign trail.
He said he remembers his father shaking hands with women — usually grandmothers or middle-aged voters — and introducing himself. Joe’s job was then to interject and tell them who his dad was and that he hoped he had their support.
“Most of the time the women would laugh, pinch my cheek and probably vote for my dad.”