Bell wants four more years as Toledo’s mayorWritten by Bailey G. Dick | | email@example.com
Dominating a corner of the 22nd floor of One Government Center is Mayor Mike Bell’s office.
There’s an aura of importance to the room. The bright blue carpet covering the floor has yellow yarn in it that re-creates the city’s seal. One wall houses a half-dozen ceremonial gold-plated shovels that have only been in the ground once. There are souvenirs from the mayor’s international travels, and photographs with assorted dignitaries.
In the far corner of the office, sitting in a green leather high-backed chair, is the man who is mayor of the city that can be seen sprawling into the distance through the massive windows behind him. Bell said he often sits in his chair, his feet propped up, and looks out at the city he runs. And there’s a lot to see from 22 stories up.
In the city below, one out of every nine people is jobless. People worry about the gangs that duel with each other on city streets. Vacant houses are set ablaze with some regularity.
But for Bell, that’s only one way to view Toledo. He says many Toledoans have the wrong perspective.
When asked about Toledo as he sees it, Bell pointed to the young people who are breathing life into the Downtown area, to a decrease in crime, and to the city being named the nation’s No. 1 Minor League Market.
“Toledo’s a great city. It’s got a lot of great assets. But the people here don’t seem to understand how great this city is,” Bell said. “The more you get people talking, people start to believe things can be done.”
Bell said he’s proud of the city he has run for the past four years. And he wants four more years to change voters’ perspective on Toledo.
Born in Baton Rouge, La., Mike Bell lived with his grandmother until the age of 5. He moved to Toledo shortly before kindergarten and attended Spring School in the city’s North End. Bell graduated from Woodward High School and attended the University of Toledo on a football scholarship, where he studied education.
After graduating, he worked as a brakeman for the Norfolk and Western Railway until his parents persuaded him to become a firefighter.
“The only reason I decided to be a firefighter was because my parents kept telling me that it was what I needed to do,” Bell said. “So to get them to quit nagging me I took the test, and it was probably the greatest thing I ever did. It changed my life and put me in a different direction.”
Upon completion of firefighters’ school, Bell got a tough dose of reality.
“Our graduation diploma from the fire service was a pink slip,” Bell said. “So when I tell people about being laid off, I’ve experienced it. I was laid off for about nine months.”
Bell regained his job, and became the first minority chief of a major fire department in Ohio. He led the Toledo Fire Department as chief for 17 years, and was the state fire marshal for two years.
“It was an interesting time to be the chief of a fire department,” Bell said. “We became one of the best, and we could prove it.”
The mayor said his time as fire marshal was what really let him get to know the state, and the people who live there.
“I understand now why so many political campaigns come through Ohio. Ohio is reflective of actually the whole United States. I didn’t know that until I became the fire marshal and started traveling around,” Bell said.
In 2009, Bell, running as an independent, edged out Democrat Keith Wilkowski by a narrow 2 percent to become Toledo’s mayor. He took office the following January.
While Bell had already been in leadership positions for nearly two decades when he was elected mayor, he said that there were certainly things he didn’t know about being a politician.
“The Mayor Bell of 2010 would have been more naive to the political system. I have more experience now doing this,” Bell said. “I’ve been in leadership for just about 20 years. It’s not a learning experience anymore.”
But that doesn’t mean Bell is totally satisfied with the city he runs. He said that he isn’t prepared to give up his spot as mayor until he sees more change in Toledo.
“We’re only halfway through the things that we need to do. Our budget process, although it has stabilized, it is not totally stable. We’re not back where we were at in 2007,” Bell said. “The goal is to get us back to where we need to be so that when I leave, everything is stable. I don’t want to leave until I make sure we are steady for the next 10 or 15 years. If you bring in a new mayor, it’s going to take them a year or 18 months just to figure out what they can do.”
Bell said given another term, he could make big changes.
“If we were able to do this much in four years, imagine what we can do in eight years,” he said.
In 2011, Bell and a delegation headed to China on a 10-day trip in hopes of finding an investor to develop the Marina District on the city’s East Side. In July of that year, Dashing Pacific broke ground on the site and promised to develop the area.
Two years later, dozens of acres still sit vacant on the riverfront. But Bell said even though the land has yet to be developed, he is glad the city is profiting off the site’s property taxes.
“I’m happy that somebody was able to invest their own personal money into the Marina District. They took it out of their own pocket and put it into something. They took it off our scrolls, and now they’re paying taxes on it. We took a property that up until that point, was sitting vacant for 12 years, and turned it into an asset financially,” Bell said.
He has drawn criticism about the lack of construction on the property, but he said he’s pleased with the speed of development.
“They’re moving at a pretty good pace,” Bell said. “From the perspective of what I’ve seen from Chinese businesspeople, they develop for longevity. They’re not going to put something there that will be torn down in seven or eight years. They’re talking 50, 60 years.”
Bell said he is OK with the criticism from citizens and his opponents.
“As a mayor, you just have to be able to take the heat for a while,” Bell said. “If people want to use against me something that now is revenue generating as opposed to a revenue deficit, there’s nothing I can do for you. And I’m not making any apologies for that.”
Bell said with four more years, some voters might be more satisfied with the progress in the Marina District.
“I’m aware of things that are moving that would really boost this side of town. There are plans for the Marina District, but people aren’t prepared to divulge them at this time,” Bell said. “I see it as being totally developed within the next four to six years.”
Bell has also come under fire for using exigent circumstances to cut city workers’ wages. But he said his approach helped him achieve what he calls the biggest success of his tenure as mayor.
“I have never attacked a union. I’ve just been pro-citizen. The citizens were the ones who were telling me that they didn’t want their taxes raised,” Bell said. “We didn’t lay any union people off. And although they may be pissed off about my position, it worked, and we kept people gainfully employed.”
Bell said concessions had to be made in the city, especially with city pensions and health care plans. But he believes those concessions helped improve the city’s financial stability.
“You may not have agreed with how I got there. But I fixed my problem. I fixed the deficit. I didn’t lay anybody off. And although some of the concessionary issues may have pinched a little bit, they kept their jobs,” Bell said.
“I’d rather be a mad, gainfully employed city worker than a mad, pink-slipped city worker like they have in Detroit.”
Bell said those concessions led to what he calls his biggest success: balancing the city’s budget.
“Getting through the worst deficit in the city’s history is my greatest success,” Bell said. “To take a $48 million deficit, and the people tell you they want the same services but they don’t want you to raise their taxes, and be able to demonstrate that you did it is pretty impressive.”
Bell said it is actually more than that.
“Working out of a $48 million deficit, it’s almost a miracle. The only place we can’t get people to understand that is here,” Bell said.
Bell said he is planning to run on the things he has done while serving as mayor and believes voters who see that the city has improved during his tenure will re-elect him.
“My platform is to keep moving in the positive direction that we’re already moving in,” Bell said. “There are a lot of things that are still open that can be a game-changer for the city.”
Some of those game-changers include developing Promenade Park, creating a Downtown food market and improving infrastructure for the city’s water.
Bell said that regionalization of the water system and “progressive” changes to the Toledo Public Schools system are key to further economic development in the area.
The mayor also stressed the importance of developing an industrial corridor between Toledo and Detroit.
“That was once the most industrialized area in the United States, and we’ve slipped. We have great, skilled workers in our system. We can engage that similar to Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Paul-Minneapolis,” Bell said. “There are cities that have figured out that they need to tie themselves to each other, and together they become stronger. They can absorb more economic development.”
So far, Bell has maintained a relatively low profile in the pre-primary campaigning. But while he said he isn’t worried about the upcoming election, Bell has been quietly stockpiling money. According to the Lucas County Board of Elections, Bell has $106,438 in campaign funds on hand. While he has spent very little so far, it’s likely he’s saving the big bucks for after the primary.
Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez and City Councilman Joe McNamara, the two candidates who have raised the next highest amounts, had $23,906 and $56,301 to spend as of July 31.
“The candidate I’m trying to beat is myself. I’m trying to better myself and be a better mayor than I was in the first term. I’m confident I’ll make it through the whole election, not just the primary,” Bell said. “I’m not focused on any of those other candidates.”
In addition to Lopez and McNamara, those other candidates include City Councilman D. Michael Collins, neighborhood development specialist Alan Cox, retired city worker Michael Konwinski and evangelist Opal Covey.
Bell said he is focused on one part of the other candidates’ campaign: How they plan to fund the plans they are sharing with voters.
“I’ve listened and read to some of what those other candidates are saying they’re going to do, but they never say how they’re going to do it. They never say where the money is going to come from,” Bell said. “They state what the problems are. You can blame the problems on the mayor. I understand that. I don’t hear anyone saying what they’re going to do about it.”
While Bell may be confident that he’ll be re-elected, those running against him aren’t so sure.
McNamara said the city deserves more from its mayor.
“Unemployment is at 9.2 percent. And Mayor Bell said (at an Aug. 26 forum). ‘This is the best I can do.’ I think we can do better,” McNamara said.
Lopez said that during Bell’s tenure as mayor, bureaucracy in city government has gotten worse. She also said Bell isn’t in touch with the city he runs.
“The leadership at the top has been there for the last 20-30 years and it has not been able to trim fat, make it more efficient, and most important, not make it business- or citizen-friendly. Those are the three things that I think responsive government needs to do,” Lopez said. “I think that there is almost a tale of two cities. There’s the world that Mike Bell lives in, compared to the number of cars that get broken into in the city of Toledo, the number of homes that get broken into, and the blight in our community. It’s almost as if he’s not really in touch with what’s happening in the city.”
“Whatever budget he balanced, that budget is not working for Toledo citizens and Toledo businesses,” she added.
Collins said Bell has won the trust of some individuals, but not the ones who matter.
“There’s a segment of the population that has taken Mayor Bell into their confidence; they are primarily business people, and the majority of them do not live in Toledo,” Collins said. “For the average Toledoan, Mayor Bell would not receive a passing grade.”
Defending his record
Bell defended his four years in office, and said he believes voters will not agree with his opponents’ criticism.
“I’m not going to get into people who are lying about issues. Don’t give me that stuff about how the city’s gone crime crazy. We’re getting rid of blight,” Bell said. “You get candidates who start to work outside the figures, so what are they using as your base? For me to direct the police department to do something better, I have to benchmark it on something. I can’t control your head. I can control numbers.”
Bell said the city has eliminated 1,150 blighted houses in a four-year period, and has seen a 17 percent reduction in crime. He pointed to data-driven policing as the reason for that reduction.
Again, Bell said the city’s problems lie in its attitude.
“If the media pushes the 17 percent drop in crime, and it gets out there, people start moving back in. If you push that we’ve got a huge gang problem — and we don’t have a huge gang problem, we have people who are in gangs who act stupid, — we make the problems bigger than what they are,” Bell said. “And then we don’t talk about the positive stuff. We work off of negative energy. If we start talking about our positives, maybe other people will start talking too.”
While walking along the Docks last week, Bell was stopped three times by Toledoans who wanted to talk to him. He posed for a picture with a family. The Mike Bell persona, however, has two modes: mayor and motorcycle.
Pointing to the suit and tie he was wearing, Bell said “This is my uniform of the day. It’s not who I am. This is the uniform that’s required of my office, in respect to the general population. But when I’m on my time, I don’t have to be this person. I can be me.”
Often spotted riding his painted Harley and frequenting local bars, off-duty Bell ditches the suit for his signature leather vest and cowboy hat.
“I have no issues when people walk up and want to take pictures. That happens all of the time. But it happens when I’m on my motorcycle too,” Bell said. “I don’t walk around with a huge security team. I can tell you where all of the good restaurants are and what are the bad ones.”
Bell loves to tell stories, often colorful ones. During his interview with Toledo Free Press, he spoke of the time he befriended an Amish girl during his years as a fire marshal and showed her how to eat a chicken dinner without a knife and fork and reminisced about his days as a UT cheerleader, when he and his teammates tossed Bowling Green State University mascot Freddie the Falcon into the stands “because we wanted to see if he could fly.”
For the record, all of Freddie’s feathers were plucked off.
Rumors and retirement
Amid the pre-primary chatter have been rumors that Bell would ditch his second term as mayor in order to assume a state office. Evidence pointing to this theory includes Bell’s lack of spending so far, as well as the working relationship he may have with Gov. John Kasich, especially after Bell’s support of Senate Bill 5.
But when asked, Bell shooed away any idea of a higher office.
“I could seek a state office right now. Why would I have to wait four years?” Bell said. “Some people are trying to bring some stuff to the mix. They’re trying to find whatever angle they can to defeat the current mayor. All they’re bringing is rhetoric.”
Bell said he has plans for his next four years, whether or not he wins his seat back.
“What does it mean if I win? It means I get to continue to try to make this city better. What does it mean if I don’t win the election? It means that I have a lot more time to hang out on my Harley and do the things I like to do,” Bell said. “There is no negative scenario in this election for me. But I want to continue to be the mayor because we have things that are not done yet.”
And when things are done, and Bell retires from public office, he says he’ll be on the job hunt.
“I’ll probably find a job. The resume of a person who’s balanced a $48 million deficit, ran a city … I don’t think I’ll have a hard time finding a job. And I’ll make a lot more,” Bell said.
But before he can look for a higher-paying job, he’s confronted with a massive task in the next few weeks before the primary: changing the perspective of Toledoans who are dissatisfied with the city.
“Toledo can be the greatest place in the world if you see it that way. It can also be the worst place in the world if you see it that way. I choose to see it as one of the greatest places in the world. And that’s why I’m here,” he said.